Authors David Fantle and Tom Johnson Talk with Dick Cavett
It all started in 1974 when That’s Entertainment! lit a fire in the breasts of Minnesota teenagers David Fantle and Tom Johnson.”We didn’t just want to see clips, we wanted to see the entire films.” Back then, getting a hold of original movies was problematic, so the boys formed film clubs, the first, Films on Wheels (“because most of our audience was on wheels”), catering to nursing homes, the second, in college, benefiting Ronald McDonald House. In this way, they saw 16 millimeter versions of “practically every musical ever made.”
The next enthusiastic step was to actually meet/interview stars from The Golden Age of Hollywood. A stamped self-addressed envelope with requests and two years of negotiations with secretaries at last got Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to agree. “…they probably talked to each other and said we’ll never get rid of them otherwise.” Imagine trying to do this kind of thing today.
Pooling funds, the 18 year-olds flew to Los Angeles and met the two icons, writing up the encounters for a student newspaper. The hotel cost $27 a night and had to be close enough so the boys could walk as neither drove. Astaire proved to be “the golden ticket,” opening doors through the succeeding 40 years. Everyone wanted to know what he was like. (Fantle and Johnson maintained day jobs throughout. One now lives in Wisconsin, the other in California.)
Most of the 75 subjects in Hollywood Heyday have passed. As a candid glimpse of cinema’s famous in front of and behind the screen, the chronicle is sometimes illuminating, often entertaining, and fun. Pick it up and put it down with a smile.
Fantle and Johnson, having for years watched his incomparable interviews with celebrities, thought of Dick Cavett as a legend and inspiration. “In the Midwest, he’s a god.” They sent him a manuscript in hopes of comment, and instead, received an unsolicited blurb. His appearance at the 92Y today is greeted with enthusiasm by our audience. (Somebody ask this man to do a series, please!) “You know the feeling,” he quips almost running to his seat, “that I’m not going to get to the chair before the applause ends.” There’s that quick, wry tone to which we so enjoyed tuning in.
Fantle tells us he and his collaborator cross-referenced interviews occurring both in the book and on Cavett’s show so all could share recollections. Conversation is fluid and lively.
Cavett thought it was a miracle to get Fred Astaire, only to discover he wanted to be invited. “I’m sure he had a comfort level with you coming from Nebraska,” Fantle remarks. In fact, the dancer’s staff curiously stipulated he preferred not to be asked about his origins. All three men found him unaffected, but Cavett saw a flash of usually hidden temper when a Katharine Hepburn quote about Ginger Rogers giving Astaire class was mentioned. “Katharine Hepburn is full of shit,” Astaire apparently responded.
During his on-air interview with Hepburn, Cavett told her they’d been in a play together in Stratford. The then young man had a single line. Hepburn asked him what it was and Cavett repeated it. “Is that the way you said it?!” came the eyebrow raising response.
“There are certain people in the business who are known to be a pain in the neck. They seem to adore me,” Cavett says with a Charlie Brown expression, referring to Lucille Ball. The actress/mogul (she sold Desilu for $18 million in 1968) surprisingly sent him before the interview a one and a half hour tape of things she might talk about. “There were only a few people who could make her laugh – Vivian Vance (Ethel on her show), Dean Martin, and Harpo Marx,” says Cavett.
“It was no nonsense with Lucy,” Fantle recalls. “We asked whether she ad libbed and were told, absolutely not! There was a script…A question about pratfalls received a glare. `If I’d known you were going to intrude on my private life…!’ she snapped.” Johnson describes the star sitting in her living room in a scarf and dark glasses.
When an appearance by Bob Hope was advertised in a Nebraska newspaper, Cavett assumed it was a movie. Still, he and his friend, Lyle, bought tickets. After several vaudeville-like acts they were ready to leave thinking, “How could Hope share the same air with these people?!” The performer then glided on and did over an hour. Dick and Lyle ran around to the stage door. “Fine show, Bob,” Cavett yelled as the icon exited. “Thanks, son,” he said. Cavett was nine years old. Banned from Johnny Carson for just plugging something, Cavett felt it was a challenge to get to a real personality. He was unsurprisingly successful.
Fantle and Johnson found Hope disarmingly open. “He was a well known conservative, but Reagan had just been shot and he complained about there not being stricter gun laws.” The next person in discussion, Charlton Heston, also evidenced contradictions. Cavett points out he was a prominent advocate for civil rights before becoming the sweetheart of the NRA. Fantle thinks the association tainted the actor’s film reputation.
Everyone concerned enormously enjoyed George Burns. Cavett calls him “hilarious” and immensely helpful to other comedians… “and there were those fabulous songs.” He sings the last verse of one wherein a woman declares he can take back everything except the baby, “because it’s the only thing I didn’t get from you.”
Burns was a staunch member of The Hillcrest Country Club roundtable. Cavett recollects seeing Cary Grant, George Jessell, and Edward G. Robinson among diners one day. The octogenarian chain-smoked cheap cigars. When Hillcrest banned smoking, Burns was an issue, so the board revised their rule to state no one under 95 could smoke. Burns was the single last surviving member of the group. “He made performance art of growing old,” Fantle comments.
Milton Berle, who, like Burns, rose from vaudeville, was known as “Mr. Television.” The actor/comedian was also one of the first to dress in drag. Fantle tells us that in fact, Berle’s girlfriend at the time lived at The Barbizon Plaza, an all women’s hotel. In order to go upstairs with her he assumed the disguise. Afterwards, he’s walk ten blocks home to The Essex House. “How he explained this to his mother…?!” Mom Sadie was often planted in the audience of competing comedians in order to take notes. “He was apparently known as the thief of bad gags.
Cavett remembers a Friar’s Club roast “…when the subject of Berle’s legendary organ – not a musical one as far as I know – came up. Jessel asked George Burns whether he wanted to add something about Milton’s schlong. I know that nothing about it is exaggerated,” he retorted. “I know because I’m standing on it.”
Other observations: Robert Wagner was described as a real gentleman whom the authors felt was too often spoken of only in regard to the death of wife Natalie Wood. Three time Academy Award winning director Frank Capra, “The Mark Twain of filmmakers,” who rescued Columbia Studios from bankruptcy in the 1930s, was “kind of kidnapped” by the boys out of a Minnesota film festival and they ended up, at the director’s request, spending the day together along Mark Twain’s river. Anyone who wanted to meet Angie Dickinson “could just show up with a Starbuck’s double cappuccino.”
Questions from the audience disclosed Cavett’s favorite comedians to be Groucho and Peter Cook, and that only Astaire, Brando, and Orson Welles came close to making him starstruck. We close with his priceless anecdote about sharing an elevator with Jack Benny.
The boys were deferential but direct and, as a whole, well received. Also mentioned in the book are Steve Allen, Jacqueline Bisset, Sammy Cahn, Leslie Caron, Peter Falk, George Hamilton, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Jerry Lewis, Janet Leigh.
Opening Photo by Steve Friedman – Tom Johnson, Dick Cavett, David Fantle
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