Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CAVETT, DICK (b. 1936)

Richard A. "Dick" Cavett, comedian, writer, actor, and, most famously, talk-show host, was born in the small Nebraska town of Gibbon on November 19, 1936. Both his parents were teachers. When Cavett was five his family moved to Grand Island; his high school years were spent in Lincoln. Cavett remembers his Nebraska upbringing fondly: a landscape of idyllic images, darkened only by his mother's death when he was ten, a tragedy from which, he admits, he has never fully recovered.

Cavett started into acting early and performed his magic act at various Lincoln venues. (He first met another rising star, Johnny Carson, at a magic show in a Lincoln church basement.) Cavett was driven by a sense of destiny, a knowledge that he would be famous, and he acted in stage productions at Yale (from which he graduated in 1958) and then, without much success, in New York City. He maneuvered his big break in 1960 when he cornered Jack Paar in a corridor off the set of NBC's The Jack Paar Tonight Show and handed him an envelope of jokes. Paar used the jokes and hired Cavett a week later.

During the next few years, Cavett wrote jokes for Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin, and Jerry Lewis and performed in stand-up comedy and on television. His first stint as a television host was on ABC's The Morning in 1968. The show lasted only a season, but Cavett was soon in the limelight as host of The Dick Cavett Show, which ran on abc from 1969 to 1974. While Cavett rejects being labeled as intellectual, the urbane tenor of the show and the high caliber of his guests (who included Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman) set it apart from other talk shows.

But the show's ratings were never high enough to suit executives, and, despite receiving three Emmy Awards, it was canceled in 1974. The Dick Cavett Show was revived on PBS from 1977 to 1982 and briefly again on ABC in 1986–87. After 1989 Cavett hosted a regular show on the cable network CNBC. Cavett also made numerous other television appearances and acted in many movies (often as himself ) during these years. As he makes clear in his autobiographical conversation with Christopher Porterfield, however, despite his successes elsewhere, he remains firmly rooted in his Great Plains background.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Cavett, Richard A., and Christopher Porterfield. Cavett. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Rooney, Terrie M., ed. Contemporary Theater, Film, and Television. Detroit: Gale, 1996: 15: 83–85.

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