CAVETT/BURTON


I have looked wistfully at my earlier days recalling the hours I spent watching prime time and late night talk shows, enthralled by many hours of hilarity or serious, reflective conversation. Nothing like it exists on commercial television today, and public television shows like Charlie Rose seem, more often than not, to be much more about Charlie Rose's views than anything interesting he might elicit from his guests. I fondly recall the free-for-alls on The Dick Cavett Show between the likes of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Jim Brown, and Lester Maddox. There were his classic interviews with Katherine Hepburn or Laurence Olivier or Groucho Marx. Woody Allen was always a delight. Alfred Hitchcock told a macabre story on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show. Orson Welles did magic for Merv Griffin just hours before Welles dropped dead. Jack Paar and Johnny Carson could also boast many legendary candid, unscripted, conversations. As the corporate suits gained greater control, these shows were all dropped or homogenized. They are of a time gone by. If I had to select one of these interviews to reflect conversational television, it would be an unexpected chat between Dick Cavett and Richard Burton in 1980. The legendary Welsh actor had been to hell and back in the decade prior, addressing his alcohol problem and marrying anew in the mid 1970s. He made his long-awaited return to the stage as Dysart in Equus in 1976. I took my mother to see the show, having made it a point to fly home from Ohio just to see Burton. It was worth it. Cavett visited Burton backstage at The New York State Theatre after a performance of Camelot in 1980 and was told that Burton had been considering Cavett's request to appear on the program. With typical puckish wit, Cavett said, "I hope I don't frighten you Mr. Burton," and without a beat, Burton responded, "No, Mr. Cavett, you do not. I do that to myself." The rejoinder presaged a remarkable dialogue. Burton wanted the interview to be without an audience present, but Cavett convinced him that since an audience had arrived that they could just give it a shot and if it wasn't working for Burton they would shut down the telecast, claiming technical difficulties, and send the audience home. Cavett's strategy worked. The audience was so bedazzled by Burton's charm and charisma--and that voice--that they inspired him, as often happens to stage performers. The half hour flew past so quickly that Burton acceded to Cavett's wish to keep shooting for a second show. The second became a third, and then a fourth. Two hours of glorious conversation about life in the Welsh coal mines, the consumption of alcohol, legendary stage productions, Elizabeth Taylor, and red socks. If you start, you will not stop.