Come with me, children, to a time and place far away. A hot war rages overseas, a corrupt race-baiter is about to occupy the White House, and long sideburns and wide lapels define the male sartorial standard.
It’s the late ’60s, and on the TV airwaves, a talk-show host named Dick Cavett is creating buzz with smartly playful interviews of everyone from John and Yoko to Groucho Marx.
No guest becomes more of a fixture than Muhammad Ali, who makes 14 appearances on Cavett’s various shows over the next decade, including what was supposed to be Episode 1. (More on that later.)
There’s Ali and arch-nemesis Joe Frazier trash-talking each other while lamenting how they’d never get to fight because of Ali’s suspension from boxing.
There’s Ali and Frazier having a faux tug-of-war over Cavett, prompting the host to say, “I saw that on the monitor, and it looks like a giant Oreo cookie.”
There’s Ali talking about his involvement with the Nation of Islam and why he became a conscientious objector and refused to fight in Vietnam.
And there’s Ali with a baby on his lap, his mouth wired shut thanks to a broken jaw delivered by Ken Norton during a 1973 nontitle fight.
“This is my son,” Ali mutters, barely audible.
“I thought you were doing a ventriloquist’s act,” Cavett says, prompting Ali to giggle-grimace through the pain.
“He was very sullen on that show,” Cavett tells Insider Louisville during a phone interview. “He sat there looking sad and said: ‘I didn’t get invited on any other television show. I’m just an old broke-down fighter … you were the onliest one who called me. You’re my main man.”
Cavett didn’t realize the significance of that phrase until the next day, when people stopped him on the street to let him know that being called Ali’s “main man” is a big deal.
Actually, Ali’s demeanor on that episode was a put-on, says Robert Bader, director of the new film documentary “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes” that screens at the Muhammad Ali Center on Thursday, Nov. 1.
“Ali lost three times during the major part of his career,” Bader says, “and immediately after all three of those losses, he came on one show — ‘The Dick Cavett Show.’ That says a lot about how he feels about Dick Cavett. He jokes about it on the show, saying you’re the only show that invites me on after I get whipped, but the truth is, every show would’ve liked to have him on after he’d lost a fight.”
Cavett had come under Ali’s spell years earlier while working on a short-lived Jerry Lewis show, so when he got his own program in 1968, the Greatest was at the top of his Episode 1 guest list, along with writer Gore Vidal and actress Angela Lansbury.
During the taping, Vidal and Ali got into a back-and-forth over Vietnam and other controversies of the day. The audience loved it, and Cavett walked off the set feeling buoyant.
“I went backstage to get the inevitable compliment for our first show,” Cavett recalls, “and the line I remember most is, ‘Nobody gives a shit what Gore Vidal and Muhammad Ali think about Vietnam.’ ”
In fact, nervous network executives decided to tape another show and air it first, without explanation. The Ali-Vidal show became Show No. 2. “The first show got nice reviews, but after they aired the original episode, the critics said, ‘The show really came to life today.’ I never got an apology.”
Unfortunately, NBC erased that first show early on, so only still photographs remain. Otherwise, Bader was happy to learn that most of the footage — more than 10 hours — is intact.
“When you watch the shows collectively,” Bader says, “you see a friendship develop over the course of them, which I think is really sweet. It comes across in the film. Over the course of a decade, you see a change in how he treats Dick.
“Early on, there’s not much of friendship, but there’s mutual respect — Ali appreciates being able to talk about his beliefs, because other shows might not have let him do that,” continues Bader. “For example, David Susskind called him an unpatriotic draft dodger, and Ali never went on that show again. Cavett may not have agreed with him, but he respected him, and in the course of the shows, it goes from an analysis of Ali’s beliefs to a friendship where they’re joking and getting into things like Ali staying at Cavett’s house. They have a lot of laughs about that on the show.”
We ask Cavett where Ali ranks on his long list of interviewees.
“Among the very best,” he says. “He got better at it from the first time he was on. His timing was perfect. When someone else is talking and you think of something funny to say, you need the skill of not only thinking of something funny but saying it at just the right time. He was flawless — as good as a veteran comedian like George Burns. He was a naturally funny and smart guy.”
Bader has managed Cavett’s archives for more than 15 years and produced “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam” and “Dick Cavett’s Watergate” for PBS. The 95-minute Ali and Cavett film debuted at South by Southwest in March and has slowly made the rounds at film festivals. It will be broadcast on HBO in 2019.
Bader is sad that Ali didn’t live to see the film.
Caveat feels the same. “What a guy,” he says. “I certainly miss him.”
A screening of “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes” will be followed by a discussion with filmmaker Bader and an appearance by Cavett from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1. Admission is $15. The Muhammad Ali Center is located at 144 N. Sixth St.