Dick Cavett

While surfing You Tube for a clip from Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter, I stumbled across an online interview on the Dick Cavett show with Robert Mitchum in 1971.

Having thoroughly enjoyed this I then tuned into Cavett’s equally brilliant interviews with Richard Burton (1980) and Marlon Brando (1973).

All three shows are absorbing in a way that current talk shows rarely are these days. I can’t imagine David Letterman or Craig Ferguson drawing so much from such prestigious guests since both are so focused on getting laughs. They wouldn’t have the patience, tact or intellect to appreciate that serious conversations can be just as riveting as those which consist primarily of prompts for gags or anecdotes.

Of the three, Richard Burton is the easiest interviewee as he’s in the mood to talk freely about his working class childhood in Wales, how he got interested in acting and his battles with alcoholism. Cavett wisely treads carefully around his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and respects Burton’s request not to talk about this subject in depth. Burton doesn’t look in the greatest of health but his beautiful speaking voice and natural ability as a raconteur means that everything he says is fascinating.

Robert Mitchum is much more cagey and with a lesser host you get the feeling he would have either clammed up or walked off. He’s not comfortable talking about himself and has a disarming bluntness which proves that he doesn’t care whether he comes across as likeable or not. Mitchum is dismissive of the craft of acting, referring to it as pulling faces and pretending to be someone you’re not. He frankly admits that most of the films he made were lousy and makes no excuses for this given that he was under contract and getting a regular salary When asked what the secret of his long-term marriage to Dorothy Spence, he replied laconically “Deviousness I guess”.

Marlon Brando is really only interested in talking about the plight of the Native Indians in America and rebuts any attempts to talk about his movies or his personal life. Most interviewers would have been fazed by this but Cavett keeps his cool and gently guides Brando onto the topics he wants to talk about. In the final part of the interview representatives of the Cheyenne, Pauite and Lummi tribes appear on the show to present their cases in person.

What makes these interviews so great is that there is never a sense that they are hurried or rehearsed. All three actors give honest answers to the questions without feeling the need to play to the gallery. They are given space to expand on their comments so the viewer gets a genuine insight into their complex personalities and some understanding of the strength of character that took them to the top of their profession.

Brando pays the ultimate compliment to Cavett for his ability to maintain a level of entertainment while never dumbing things down. I can’t think of a modern TV interviewer that would merit such a tribute.

Highly recommended viewing: