INTERVIEW: Dick Cavett and Robert Bader PART TWO (SXSW 2018)

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Here’s part two of my conversation with Dick Cavett and Robert Bader in support of their film ALI AND CAVETT: THE TALE OF THE TAPES. This is my favorite section of the interview, as we discuss Lester Maddox, Ali, the NFL, network politics at ABC at the time, and so on. I won’t say anymore other than this was a fantastic conversation, and I’m still in awe of getting to talk with these two fascinating gentlemen about this. Please enjoy.

 

I wanted to ask both of you about the Lester Maddox clip that’s presented in the film.

CAVETT: Yeah! I’m so glad that got in. I don’t know whose idea that was.

BADER: We had to have that in!

And I always heard him being on your show, either from the Randy Newman song “Rednecks” or reading about it.

BADER: From the archive point of view, I get asked about that [the Maddox clip] a lot. There are two incidents where people stormed off The Dick Cavett Show in a huff, Lester Maddox and on another show, unrelated, was Lily Tomlin. She got upset with male chauvinist comment by Chad Everett from Medical Center.

CAVETT: Chad Everett was a poet (laughs).

BADER: The thing is nobody ever stops and says “Oh yeah, they were discussing whether or not Ali should be given a boxing license to come back and fight”, and of course anybody could’ve given him a license. He wasn’t forbidden by law from fighting. There was sort of this agreement amongst all the state athletic commissioners that if he’s not going into the Army, then we’re not going to let him get into a boxing ring, and the state of Georgia was the first to come through with a license for him, and of course Governor Maddox of Georgia was not very happy about that. But I think one of the interesting things pointed out by that appearance is, well apart from you look at Jim Brown who could snap him like a twig (laughs), and he’s incredibly articulate and patient with him, there’s this thought that Maddox was embarrassed that [the fight] happened in Georgia. And he just wanted to go on television and make sure the world knew he was not for it. And I think that’s what makes it interesting. Plus, there’s this really odd irony for me, Maddox was very into the separation of the races, which is precisely what Ali was talking about as a member of the Nation of Islam, so they were together on that one small issue, but for very strange and different reasons. I think that Maddox and Jim Brown is one of the most interesting clips in the entirety of The Dick Cavett Show.

CAVETT: It’s a treat because Lester, sitting next to [Jim Brown], his first fopaux was to say “I thought you was a singer!”, and Mr. Brown straightened him on that. But the visual, as they say, is this black mountain of handsome and articulate man, looking down on Lester’s little pea head was just too much to take (laughs).

I was gonna ask if you could expand a little more on that interview, and if you remember what was going through your head as both Jim Brown and Lester Maddox are not necessarily going at it, but what was going through your head as an interviewer and what do you think was the thought process in the country of Ali at that time?

CAVETT: Well, we learned that he denied the fact that the press treated him horribly by printing a picture of him supposedly waving an axe handle at black customers trying to come into his retrid restaurant, and he was right. They didn’t. It was a picture of him waving a pick-handle, which looks exactly like an axe handle (laughs).

BADER: You know, it’s pointed out in the film and it’s true, what Maddox was saying was pretty much what half of how America felt. They weren’t all in the same mindset as Lester Maddox, but a huge portion of the population did not feel that Ali should be able to fight.

CAVETT: Or live in certain sections. I don’t remember what was in my head or what might happened or I’m trying to think of what might happen ahead, but the I did make an “apparent” mistake, by allowing Lester to say following a commercial break even before I spoke, “You said all the people of Georgia are bigots, you owe me an apology!” I said “No, I didn’t”, and he kept hammering at that and looking at his watch and giving me one minute to apologize to the people of Georgia. I don’t know right now, having just seen the film, precisely what I say then. The effect was “I didn’t say that, I said ‘of the bigots that voted for you.’” So I said something to the effect of “if I called anyone a bigot who isn’t a bigot, then I apologize” (laughs).

It’s a great retort.

CAVETT: And Lester saw right through that and hauled ass immediately (laugh).

He didn’t look very happy!

CAVETT: Into the arms of his 6 foot 4 inch trooper who came up from Georgia with him (laughs).

So what happened after that clip? Did the show keep going because Jim Brown was still on the set?

CAVETT: He left, I don’t remember much. I think, wasn’t there another guest?

BADER: I can address that. Maddox was very aware of how valuable network television time was, and he didn’t become outraged until 88 minutes into the 90 minute show, so he left with all of two minutes (laughs) of air time, during which he [Cavett], Jim Brown, and Truman Capote could just discuss the schmuck that just walked off.

CAVETT: I think I called that a scant 88 minutes into a night (laughs).

BADER: And incidentally, Maddox would come on the show again, they talked about him walking off later on. It was theater for Lester Maddox, he was drawing attention to his stand on Ali pretty much. And it made the papers, he got what he wanted, he got a lot of press out of it-

CAVETT: Oh God it was in all the papers! (laughs)

BADER: Maddox made clear to the world that he was opposed to Ali fighting in Atlanta, that’s what he goal was.

CAVETT: I think he told me that he had 6,000 telegrams praising him, which of course is probably not entirely true.

BADER: Right, but there were 30,000 castigating him! (laughs)

CAVETT: It was fun having Lester on.

BADER: He was kind of the last of a breed, the last of the segregationist politicians, they didn’t have much of a future!

There were still some here in Texas at the time, but you’re right in that they were a dying breed.

BADER: And he wasn’t even properly elected. He went through a some kind of court thing-

Like a special election?

BADER: Yeah! I have this little piece of newsreel footage of him being appointed Governor.

CAVETT: I know one thing that happened there. I made kind of a goofy remark about well, somebody else don’t back down, because I had said I’m sorry that the Governor had to leave, maybe we could sometime talk about the glory of the south or some dumb thing (laughs). And Truman, not the President, Truman to my left, said that he had been down there and he had eaten the chicken in Lester’s restaurant, and said (Cavett begins to do an incredible impression of Truman Capote) “I ate in his restaurant and I had the chicken and it wasn’t finger licken’ good!” (laughs).

BADER: (to Cavett) You could be Truman Capote if you wanted to, that was very good!

It was!

CAVETT: Kind of scary.

You give Phil Hoffman a run for his money.

CAVETT: It’s like what my mother use to say, “Your face will stick that way.” If my voice sticks that way, I’m in trouble. (laughs)

I remember in the film, Rev. Sharpton calls you “the whitest of white guys in America”, and he talks about how what made you so important is that you had this appeal for all Americans, but athletes like a Jim Brown or a Muhammad Ali their platform to say what they wanted to say about race in America or whatever they felt was important.

CAVETT: I did not give Sharpton that line (laughs).

BADER: You know you should make business cards with that on there.

Oh yeah! Dick Cavett-the Whitest of White Guys! (laughs)

CAVETT: If you want white, go to me. (laughs).

Well I was gonna ask a little bit about that, and also when you had Lester Maddox on your show or when Ali was on the show in ‘68 talking about avoiding the draft, were there any problems with the Network or the executives at ABC at the time have any problems?

CAVETT: Well, the network did a really strange thing. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this. They told me things that were not true. And one of them was, according to the FCC, if you have a guest opposing Robert Gotlieb for President, I know Robert Gotlieb by the way (laughs), then you have to have someone on with the same amount of time.

What was it, equal time?


CAVETT: Equal time, and bless his heart, Nicolas Johnson, the head of the FCC at the time, wrote me a letter saying that’s bullshit. The correct interpretation of that was you have to give voice on your broadcast entity to the other side if it’s political, only political is when that applies to you. And it doesn’t have to be on your show, you don’t have to invite these jerks on to oppose of them and sit in the chair and have the same amount of time. It can be in the weather report or somewhere (laughs).

BADER: But there’s a wonderful thing that came out of ABC’s misinterpretation of the Fairness Doctrine, because during the Watergate scandal, whenever someone would come on and trash Nixon or the administration, the White House would send out someone like Herb Cline [Nixon’s Communications Director] or one of these people from the administration to give the counterpoint, and it made for some fantastic television and some great material for our Watergate show (laughs).

CAVETT: It’s good that it happened, yeah. Who was the young man, rather likable, the guy that the White House put on the show in his nifty white naval uniform?

BADER: John O’Neill?

CAVETT: John O’Neill!

BADER: Yeah, he went up against Kerry on your show?m

CAVETT: John Kerry, yes. And then I remember about, I had forgotten this, about a couple of years ago, somebody had said that John O’Neill sends his regards, and I said “Why? What’s happening with him these days?” and they told me. And they said, “You gotta hand it to him, he gave his wife a kidney.”, and I had the poor taste to say “His own?” (laughs). And I’m still sorry about that to this day.

BADER: We’ve taken a really strange turn! (laughs).

CAVETT: Anyway I hope they’re both well (laughs).

Ali’s story feels very relevant today, given how the President of the United States is calling players like Colin Kaepernick “sons of bitches” for not standing during the National Anthem, and I don’t think the President would feel any differently about Ali if he was around then.

BADER: Well, I don’t think President Johnson was all that happy with Ali.

CAVETT: That could be true.

BADER: But Johnson didn’t have Twitter (laughs).

That’s true. I’d be scared to see Lyndon Johnson’s twitter feed.

BADER: If I could say something about that, I’ll interrupt Cavett here, which I do frequently (laughs). What I think is really interesting about that is as a trailblazing black athlete taking a stand, nobody had done that. Joe Louis went into the Army in World War II. Ali could’ve taken an easy path and fought in exhibition bouts in Army camps all over the place.

CAVETT: Which is pretty much what Joe Louis did.

BADER: It’s exactly what Joe Louis did. Joe Louis did not go to France and shoot anybody. Maybe people were so anti-Ali because of the Nation of Islam, they might’ve sent them to the jungles of Vietnam, we don’t know that but maybe he did fear that. But the idea of an athlete taking that stand and making that sacrifice because Ali pretty much derailed his career by taking this stand. It made it a little easier for a guy like Colin Kaepernick 50 years later, or more, to do what he did. And to have a tremendous amount of public support. Ali’s public support was pretty much from far left people and the black community. There weren’t a helluva lot of mainstream people saying “Ali’s taking a brave stand and he has a right to do this as a conscientious objector.

CAVETT: So true.

BADER: There’s no way Colin Kaepernick gets what he got today in 1967. The world has changed and I think Ali helped change it.

CAVETT: Tis true tis pity. And pity tis is true. Polonius.

Yes sir. I could’ve have said better myself.

BADER: I couldn’t give you that (laughs).

CAVETT: I got it from Ali.

In the documentary, they talk about how the first Ali-Frazier fight is almost like a political matchup and that certain sections of the country are staunchly supportive of either Frazier or Ali. Conservative America supported Frazier because of Ali’s stances and his comments on Frazier. What was the mindset like in America at that time, and do you think there could be anything resembling that today?

CAVETT: I’m not sure, Robert could probably give you a better idea of the authenticity of how they really felt about each other at that time. I was not a boxing fan, but I was an Ali fan, much the same as nobody could tell you who the heavyweight champion of the world is today (laughs). You know?

No idea, mainly since middleweight is a little more popular than heavyweight.

CAVETT: That’s true.

BADER: But don’t you think Ali drew people to heavyweight boxing when others didn’t?

CAVETT: Oh God yes.

BADER: I mean he really elevated what boxing was, and I think when he was done, people shied away from it again.

CAVETT: It faded out.

Oh yeah, until Tyson was the next big one.

BADER: Larry Holmes doesn’t really get a lot of credit as a big champion, but he was, there just wasn’t a whole lot of other great boxing going on at the time. Ali fought at a time when the heavyweight division had some of the greatest fighters of all time all fighting at once. Frazier, Norton, Shavers, this was unusual. 12 years of championship for Joe Louis he didn’t fight a lot of amazing fighters. Some of them were great but mostly he was champ for 12 years by just knocking whoever they stuck in front of him.

CAVETT: Some were tomato cans.

BADER: Tomato cans, I love that expression! (laughs). But you know with Frazier, I think he’s one of the most fascinating characters in the film and I almost wish I had more time to deal with the Frazier story. He played the game as well as Ali in terms of getting interest in a fight, but I think Ali took it a little too far into the notion of calling Frazier a “Uncle Tom”, “the great white hope” and all this stuff, and Frazier was really hurt and pissed off about that. And you can tell that it gets to a point where Frazier isn’t pretending to be angry and he’s pretty angry, and unfortunately the sad end of Joe Frazier’s saga is later in life, he was pretty bitter about Ali and he was saying things like “he can’t talk, that’s good” (in reference to Ali’s parkinson’s) and he was very vocal when Ali went to go light the Olympic torch (for the ‘96 games in Atlanta) saying he “hoped it burnt him”. Frazier died a pretty angry guy, which is unfortunate-

CAVETT: Too bad.

BADER: And he never forgave Ali for the crossing the line with the Uncle Tom stuff.

Mr. Cavett, you talk about how with Ali you start to see-

CAVETT: You can call me Mr. Dick.

Mr. Dick, okay! Yes sir (laughs). You talk about the after-effects of when Ali retires and the parkinson’s that he gets because so, and other forms of dementia and so on. With all this controversy surrounding the NFL, NHL and other sports concerning CTE/brain injuries and how do you feel about boxing and all these sports with this knowledge?

CAVETT: I think it should be abolished. From what it did to my friend, even if there had never been an Ali, the idea of pounding another person’s head to concussion and dooming them to a life of having to be fed and having a napkin tied around their neck, it’s just horrible. I hope I didn’t cut you off?

No you didn’t, I think you answered everything about that. But with all the stuff going on with the NFL do you think it’ll get abolished and should be abolished someday?

CAVETT: Same thing. Football should also be abolished, it kills people. It’s as simple as that, or as complex as that. Of course people say “Well, they don’t have to go into it”, well a lot of the poor guys who suffered had to go into it, they had no choice, it was their life and that’s what they wanted. I was gonna ask Robert, is there one idiot who was the head of Ali having his title taken away for four years?

BADER: No, I think it was just almost like a really quiet conspiracy of all the state athletic commissioners to just take away his license, and said “No, you can’t fight”. If I could go back to the question you just asked Dick, there’s a very touching moment in one of the later interviews from 1978, and it’s significant to me that Ali always came on The Dick Cavett Show after his rare losses. He came on after losing the first Frazier fight, after Norton broke his jaw, when Leon Spinkes took his title. After Spinkes took his title in ‘78, Cavett asks him, “Are you here to tell us tonight that you’re never gonna fight again?”, and of course Ali turns it into the requisite joke. But not just Cavett, Angela Dundee says he doesn’t want to fight because he’s got nothing left to prove. There were so many people telling Ali-

CAVETT: Ferdie Pacheco was one.

BADER: Yeah, his doctor was telling him “Please don’t do this anymore, you don’t need this”. And the people who were making a lot of money off of Ali continuing to fight of course would never suggest he retire, and Michael Marley (sports writer featured in the film) says “I never saw anyone with his hand in Ali’s pocket pushing towards retirement”, and I don’t know if Ali needed the money, it’s hard to understand but he knows he’s suffering. He knows he’s getting hit, and I spoke to some boxing experts said that Ali before the exile period, nobody ever hit him. He was just hitting people at will and when he came back he was slower and a different fighter and he had to learn how to take a punch, which he didn’t do for the first part of his career, he was 29-0 when they took his title away. Nobody ever hit him! Then he comes back and he’s older and slower and he’s suddenly getting hit!

CAVETT: He didn’t know what it felt like to be a fighter. (Laughs)

BADER: And even in the [Joe] Quarry fights, Quarry hit him a bunch, there were some fights where he took a beating and he probably should’ve lost, he probably should’ve lost the decision to Ernie Shavers and Jimmy Young. These were really tough fights even when he won, and Ali was proud of the fact that he lost to Frazier but Frazier looked like he had gotten beaten worse. So it became very, very brutal after the four years off for him and I know a lot of people who were close to him that begged him to stop.

CAVETT: What a world. Something he said reminded me, going backwards a bit when we were talking about Lester Maddox and the temper of the country and so on. I got an envelope, my secretary was kind of keeping away from me to see it but I said to her that I had to see it. And it was a bit of what’s known as euphemistically as hate mail. Waco, Texas, one of the capitol’s of hate mail, reads “Dear. Mr. Cavett, you little sawed-off faggot communist shrimp”, and there was a return address, and I wrote back “I’m not sawed-off”, and I’m sure they didn’t get it as you did (laughs). But after the fact that Ali stayed in my house, it got into the papers.

And that letter was in anger of that?

CAVETT: This was in anger of something else, probably Jane Fonda or something like that. The phone rings, I pick it up, the other line says “Dick Cavett” “Yes?” “I hear you’re letting niggers sleep in your bed”, and as I was devising my answer, he couldn’t help but break up laughing, because it was Ali of course (laughs).

I think that’s a perfect way to end this (laughs). 

CAVETT: Good one to get off on!

I think so! Thank you so much gentlemen.

BADER: Thank you Jake, this was fun.

CAVETT: You’re good at this, Jake.

 

I’ll be putting the quote of Dick Cavett telling me “You’re good at this” on my gravestone. I want to thank Annie Jeeves and everyone at Cinematic Red for setting this up, and of course to Mr. Cavett and Mr. Bader for sitting down with me.

 

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