The highlight of this year’s SXSW, and maybe even in my entire professional career writing about film, was getting to interview Dick Cavett and Robert Bader for their film ALI AND CAVETT: TALE OF THE TAPES, which is having it’s world premiere here at the festival this year. The documentary tells the story of Muhammad Ali’s career and his relationship with the legendary talk show host. The film is a really terrific little documentary, and if you’re at the festival I really hope you make some time to check it out. If not, I’m hoping the film is able to find a buyer fairly quickly for distribution.
I had the unbelievable privilege to sit down with both Mr. Bader and Mr. Cavett this morning to discuss Ali, Cavett’s career, Lester Maddox, and a wide-range of topics. I want to present the whole interview, but it was so lengthy that I’m splitting up the interview into two parts. The first part is in essence the first 10-15 minutes of the talk, and part two (which should be up by the end of the week) will be the final 15 minutes. I hope you enjoy part one of my interview with Dick Cavett and Robert Bader.
How are you gentlemen doing today?
BADER: First interview of the day, so it’s great.
Congrats on the film-
(Cavett is sitting right next to me and sees my notebook of scribbled notes)
CAVETT: I like your writing. I’m not reading it but I can see it.
Unfortunately I did not get my mother’s lovely handwriting, I got my father’s. So let’s get this going-
(Cavett begins to act like he’s interviewing me)
CAVETT: Okay, so Jake you were born here [in Austin], were you?
Yes sir I was, I was born and raised here.
CAVETT: And they raised you also?
They did raise me, my mother and my father did, yes sir.
CAVETT: Have you been to other towns? [laughs]
I have, um, I’ve been to Galveston, my father is from Galveston, Texas.
CAVETT: That’s a name I’ve known since I was a child.
CAVETT: I don’t know why. Did Mark Twain write about Galveston?
He might’ve, there might’ve been something.
BADER: Glen Campbell did.
Glen Campbell did, yes! There’s actually a film premiering here called GALVESTON that’s quite good.
BADER: But that’s not the film we’re here to talk about!
No! We’re here to talk about ALI AND CAVETT.
CAVETT: Well, I’m afraid that’s all the time Bader and I have.
I understand (laughs)
BADER: (to me) You said we could break your chops!
Yes sir! So who’s idea was this to make the film, did you approach Mr. Cavett to make this film or did Mr. Cavett approach you?
BADER: The way that started was he [Cavett] had written two articles about his relationship with Ali for his New York Times column in 2012, and I manage the archive for the Dick Cavett Show and it came to me that at that point, boy somebody should really ought to do something with these shows, because they’re dozens of them [interviews with Ali], and it ended up being me, which is okay, you know, I wanted to do it, and he [Cavett] was on board for the idea immediately because he loves Ali, he’s obviously proud of the shows he did with Ali and they’re just so special and different than anything else we’ve got in the archive.
You two wrote the film. What was that process like?
CAVETT: Well, Robert did everything really, except play the part of Cavett. (Laughs)
BADER: Well really when I said that he co-wrote the film, I mean that because it’s his story and those articles were so influential in shaping the film and his stories are really what gives the film its entire arc, really, his relationship with Ali. And I didn’t write that, he did. (Laughs)
So what was the process of making the film like? Obviously you’re the head of the archives for the Cavett Show, so what was that like of going back and looking into the archives and getting interviews from people like Al Sharpton and so on?
BADER: Well the first thing that became apparent was there was a piece of Ali’s story that couldn’t be told just from the Dick Cavett Show because Dick didn’t get his own show until 1968, and things like Ali beating Sonny Liston and getting his title taken away happened just before the Cavett Show. So, I needed to go outside the box and get some archival footage to tell some of that and the other thing that became apparent was when he [Ali] would go on the Dick Cavett Show during some of these things like when he’s fighting in the Supreme Court to stay out of jail because he wouldn’t go into the Army, he’d come on the show and the whole world knew what was going on in Ali’s life at that time and it was pretty much front page news everywhere except they don’t recap and say ‘so you’ve been convicted of this felony…’, so I had to kind of place it in that context and give you some of the news of the day a little bit of what people knew when those shows happened. And then of course I wanted his perspective on it all those years later, and I think the other folks that came in and talked about Ali were people who loved him, people who covered him, knew him. It sort of took on a life of its own as I was making it, it didn’t turn out to be exactly what I thought I was making when I started.
CAVETT: (Laughing) That sometimes happens, I’m told. Yeah, a lot of people who are appallingly young will not know that earlier part of Ali’s life. They won’t know the name Elijah Muhammad or Malcolm X or any of those figures. That’s who sort of was fighting over here and they wanted him to represent them and they knew that more publicity from Ali than they would the late George Jessel or something (laughs).
BADER: Oh, no Nation of Islam ever! (Laughs)
CAVETT: And I never dreamed of meeting him, I was at an odd stage in my career writing for The Jerry Lewis Show. Saturday nights, what’s he gonna do for two hours, Jerry Lewis Show, live. And Ali came on the show and when I first saw him they were out on the sidewalk filming a little bit for the show, a little sight gag or something. And there he was, it was just like seeing a god. He was joking around and he did the thing perfectly. The script, if there was one, called for him to get very angry and say “I’m leaving and I’m not gonna do the show”, but he got really angry, not really angry but really, seemingly angry (laughs). Good actor, and he scared people standing around until he turned and walked off camera and some people thought, “is he furious?”, and then you’d see him grin and enjoy the performance he had just given. And then I wrote poetry [for him]. He had these same little funny poems he use to do all the time, and somebody said he needed some new ones and this was the place. So I wrote some poems and a couple of them length and they staged it with a Roman forum setting so that he was holding forth as Cicero or someone. And, that’s when we met and just for an instant, never dreaming that someday a) he’d be on my television show, or that b) I would have a television show (laughs).
There’s a clip from the film when Ali appears on your show right after he announces he’s not going to the draft. Was that the first appearance he had on the show?
CAVETT: You’ll have to ask Robert-
BADER: No, actually the first time Ali was on the Dick Cavett Show was the very first episode of The Dick Cavett Show, the daytime Dick Cavett Show. Except ABC erased that tape, it doesn’t exist. So-
CAVETT: It aired.
BADER: It aired, of course. But there’s no known copy of that show and the first show we have is from 1970 when he’s really in the middle of the whole being stripped of his title and refusing to go into the draft. And I love the part on that show where Cavett says, “so what are the chances you’re going to jail?”, and Ali says “any day now” (laughs). That’s the show that I think really defines a lot of what would come in their relationship because Ali’s very serious on that show, his lawyers probably advised him to be very careful of what he said about the draft case. But at the same time, he’s sort of under the thumb of Ellijah Muhammad, spouting a lot of Nation of Islam rhetoric, and Dick calls him on it. It makes for some really interesting television. And I think it probably gave Ali a comfort level and some respect for Cavett because of course he kept coming on the show.
CAVETT: So he obviously didn’t hate me, is it safe to say that? (laughs) I don’t know what, there’s something mysterious about what “chemistry”, I hate that word, or whatever we had together, but it was like a deep friendship and he was always delighted to see me and I was. He stayed at my house one night out on Long Island, you know about that?
I did, you mentioned it in the movie. It’s a great story.
CAVETT: My version is that I put him to bed in the big double bed, and went to go get his wife from the motel and bring her over. And when I got back the phone had rung, and he had picked it up and said “Hello?” and a woman’s voice, my wife, had said “Darling?”, and he said “This ain’t darling, it’s only three-time heavyweight champion of the world and I’m lying in your bed and I’m watching your TV!” (laughs)
BADER: But I absolutely had to use Ali’s telling of the story. Because he uses your wife’s voice (laughs).
He does that high-pitched voice!
BADER: He’s so cute when he does your wife’s voice. That needed to be there (laughs).
Mr. Cavett, I wanted to follow-up with you on that ’68 appearance when he comes on the show after refusing to be drafted. You mention in the documentary how he was much more serious to interview that time. Was he as serious off-camera with you, and did you get an indication of that going into the interview?
CAVETT: We had more of a kidding relationship off camera, we’re just talking! And I don’t know why you really envision meeting a great boxing champion, you don’t necessarily assume he’ll be smart in certain ways. Ali was, a greatly brilliant man and his comic manners were impeccable. He knew as well as any comedian I know how to handle himself in a humorous setting and things he had thought up to say and he never stepped on anybody’s line and he never let anyone step on his (laughs). And you knew where you stood with him and, he was just a delight to have around. Whenever there was a little crowd for him waiting for an elevator, something he’d do was a magic trick for them and say how beautiful he was. People were just coo with pleasure. What a guy.
This is the end of part one of my interview with Dick Cavett and Robert Bader. Be sure to tune in for part two later on in the week.