Erudite and witty, Dick Cavett elevated the late-night talk show genre, going head-to-head with Johnny Carson for five years in the early 1970s.
Cavett, 77, will be honored Saturday night with "A Salute to Dick Cavett" at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. The event kicks off a three-month exhibit featuring a video retrospective of Cavett's talk show career.
Tickets for Saturday's event are $125, and are available at museum.tv.
Nebraska-raised and Yale-educated, Cavett got his start on TV as a joke writer for talk show host Jack Paar. In 1969, after surviving a short-lived stint in daytime, Cavett was named to replace Joey Bishop as host of ABC's lagging late-night talk show.
He moved production from Hollywood to New York and changed the tenor of the conversation, with in-depth interviews of everyone from Woody Allen to former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who famously walked off the set in the middle of a discussion about segregation.
The Tribune talked with Cavett about his TV legacy, and the increasingly crowded field of talk shows. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: Like David Letterman, you had a brief, unsuccessful run in daytime before landing a late-night talk show. What went wrong in your debut?
A: They canceled it. It was never promoted. They sent out a cheap little plastic mug with my name on it, stuck on with adhesive tape. It's now a rare collector's item, among collectors of schlock.
Q: Your show was perceived as more intellectual than most TV talk show offerings. Were you pressured to aim lower to boost ratings?
A: I was told to dumb it down, and I would say, "What was intellectual about having Buddy Hackett on last night?"
Once somebody said at the network, he has too many authors on and sometimes puts them on first, which was unheard of in the talk business. And I was able to point out that the highest-rated show of the week before starred only Dee Brown, who wrote "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and the show made the book a best-seller. So that silenced them for a while.
But you could hardly name anyone that I didn't have on in the entertainment, sports and politics world.
Q: What do you think of the current crop of TV talk show hosts?
A: I'm crazy about both (Stephen) Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, and I, too, get my news from Jon Stewart. I'm not addicted to watching talk shows by any means, but I do like to keep up with the three or four boys at night, whenever I can catch one.
Q: What do you think of television more broadly?
A: The majority of television, by definition, is always crap. And like milk and cream, that which is up at the top is wonderful. I despise people who don't own a TV set. If we hadn't had television the week we got it in Nebraska, I would not have seen the only thing that could match Watergate, which was the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Q: Beyond talk shows, what else do you watch these days?
A: I've always liked "60 Minutes." And I like to catch (MSNBC's) Rachel Maddow often, because she presents a story so well — she's a model for that kind of thing. But the only channel I could not live without, if I was sent to a desert island and could only get one channel, would, of course, include the words, "Hi, I'm Robert Obsorne." I don't see how anyone lives without Turner Classic Movies.
Q: What are your favorite childhood memories of Chicago?
A: We must have gone to Chicago 10 times. I was enthralled by it. I would stand on a street in the Loop that resembles the theater district of New York now, but I had never seen New York and thought it can't be any better than Chicago.
We went to the Railroad Fair, which is another one of my great memories of Chicago, in 1948.
But when I stepped into my first magic shop, I had gone to heaven. It was Joe Berg's (formerly at 30 W. Washington St.), right around the corner from Ireland's on Dearborn. That's Chicago for me.