The most famous incarnation of The Dick Cavett Show was the ABC late night program that ran from 1969 to 1975. Cavett and his guests engaged in lengthy conversations rather than the usual talk show formula of amusing anecdote/banter followed by the guest’s sales pitch, which was the purpose for the appearance.
Since 2005, Shout! Factory has been releasing DVD collections of The Dick Cavett Show. Some focus on one guest, like the Ray Charles Collection, while others deal with a common theme, Rock Icons. Hollywood Greats is in the mold of the latter and is guaranteed to thrill fans of old Hollywood as this four-DVD set presents some of the greatest actors and directors the silver screen has ever known.
Disc 1 contains two nights of Katherine Hepburn and one of Fred Astaire. Hepburn, who was the only guest for both her episodes, was making her first appearance on television, so it was a major coup. At first, she only agreed to check out the studio. Someone wisely chose to record what was happening as she asked for a sturdier table to put her feet on and tore into the design of the set, especially the carpet. Feeling at ease, she said, “Well let’s just do it.” Not wanting to give her a chance to change her mind, Cavett jumped right in sans studio audience.
Cavett prompted her with questions and Hepburn delivered a memoir on her 66 years as she discussed her family and her career. She told stories about working with Humphrey Bogart and John Huston on The African Queen, Peter O’Toole on The Lion in Winter, and of course, Spencer Tracy. They also discussed the blacklisting during the 1950s, her thoughts on George C. Scott, and Marlon Brando refusing their Oscars. The conversation between the two got so comfortable that she responded to Cavett’s question if her teeth were in fact hers.
Fred Astaire, a Nebraskan like Cavett, was very shy, which added to his charm, and is probably why the interview broke for songs of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. They talked about how Astaire began dancing, how he created dances for a film, and the people he worked with. In what was probably a staged event, Cavett said it was a disappointment that Astaire couldn’t dance, so Astaire got up and proved him wrong. It’s a real treat to watch Astaire, at 71, cut a rug, and his joy is palpable through the screen these many years later.
Disc 2 features Bette Davis, Groucho Marx, and Kirk Douglas. Davis talked about her career, from missing out on Gone With The Wind, and about her contemporaries, such as Errol Flynn and Claude Rains. She blamed actors for the messes they got into during interviews by answering embarrassing or personal questions and then were taken aback and feigned surprise because the author used the material. Playing off her point, Cavett immediately asked when she lost her virginity, which got a big laugh. Without missing a beat, she answered the question, to everyone’s amazement.
Proving there’s no one like Groucho, he is the standout in this episode. The show opened with Debbie Reynolds, who engaged in a friendly combativeness with Cavett. Then Groucho joined the panel and it was every man for himself as his off-the-cuff zingers took no prisoners, especially with Reynolds. While he was very funny, it’s the times when he talked seriously that were the most engaging. He talked about President Harding being a crook, Chaplin being the greatest comedian, and his thoughts on marriage. Erin Fleming, Groucho’s assistant/paramour, and Dan Rowan later joined them.
Kirk Douglas was the lone guest for his episode and he immediately talked about the comfort of being in a role and how naked he feels coming out by himself, which was interesting because he came across as very intelligent. The discussion expanded from acting as they covered the independence Douglas garnered working as a producer. In a real treat to Hollywood aficionados, Douglas told how he turned down William Holden’s role in Stalag 17 and Lee Marvin’s role in Cat Ballou, both of which won Oscars.
Disc 3 begins with a great panel of film directors: Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, and Frank Capra. Cavett started with Altman. Brooks came out and was the class clown, slipping into a Bogart imitation from The Caine Mutiny and throwing out non sequiturs throughout. Bogdanovich discussed shooting The Last Picture Show in black and white. Capra talked about testing a film and throwing entire reels of negative into a furnace, so they couldn’t be reused. Corporations were buying up studios at the time, which led to a discussion about the trouble the film industry was having.
Director John Huston was the sole guest during his appearance and provided an overview of his career and his life. They talked about directing Bogart, working with Truman Capote, and his friendship with Ernest Hemmingway. Huston lived in an Irish castle, which really intrigued Cavett who had Irish ancestry.
Brando agreed to appear if he could bring people to discuss the plight of the American Indian. After hearing Hepburn and Douglas weigh in, we had to hear Brando’s thoughts on his refusal of the Academy Award. He didn’t want to talk about his movies because he felt they were inconsequential. He was more interested in drawing attention to racism in the entertainment industry. Native American tribal representatives later joined them to discuss strip mining on reservations.
Disc 4 starts with Robert Mitchum. He talked about the plusses and minuses of fame. He revealed a great deal about himself, such as his trouble in school, working on a chain gang, and his infamous marijuana bust. Mitchum drank Scotch during the interview, which led Cavett to ask him if he was an alcoholic. From anyone else it might have been rude, but Cavett created a comfortable environment and the question seemed to come more from concern than nosiness.
Orson Welles is a compelling figure. He told tales about The Lady from Shanghai and mogul Harry Cohen bugging his office, but Hollywood wasn’t big enough to contain Welles. He was orphaned at the age of 15 and yet was able to meet Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolph Hitler. Welles was a fan of Cavett and playfully turned the tables by conducting an interview of Cavett.
The last episode contains an interview with Alfred Hitchcock, who revealed a playful wit and a love of puns. They covered many of his films, and much like a kid magician, Hitchcock enjoyed giving away the film tricks used to create scenes. His famous disdain for actors was discussed, leading him to say, “Walt Disney had the right idea. If he didn’t like the actors, he tore them up.”
The bonus features include a featurette called “Seeing Star with Dick Cavett” where he is interviewed by Robert Osborne, cut footage from the Hepburn interview, and show promos.
Hollywood Greats is a fantastic collection of both television and film history. Cavett is obviously a fan of his guests, but he doesn’t wallow in the over-the-top fawning of a James Lipton. Unfortunately all the film clips look horrible due to being severely scratched. One intriguing factor is though the episodes run from 1970 to 1973, there are some ideas that resurface. Aside from the aforementioned Brando refusing his Oscar, Mitchum and Douglas told stories about being recognized as the other, and Cavett brought up the idea that acting might not be considered a man’s profession and how that affected the actors with a few guests. He was told he was wrong every time.
Lastly, if smoking and wearing dickies come back into vogue, you can blame this set.