Viewers of ’60s-era television were often gifted with an appearance by Groucho Marx on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
Marx, who died in 1977 at the age of 87, made many appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and his relationship with Cavett blossomed beyond the host/guest dynamic into a close friendship — recounted in the “American Masters” PBS special, “Groucho & Cavett,” streaming for free (pbs.org/AmericanMasters) and on the PBS Video App through Jan. 25.
“Groucho & Cavett” features a wealth of clips from Groucho’s many magical visits to “The Dick Cavett Show” (he often sang, too) and recollections from Cavett, who talks about his friendship with the legendary comedian, who he met for the first time at the 1961 funeral of George S. Kaufman. Cavett, then writing for Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” eventually launched his standup comedy career and then “The Dick Cavett Show,” which premiered on ABC in 1968 and aired, through 1996, in many incarnations across the dial.
“I worshipped him as far back as I can remember,” Cavett, 86, told The Post. “Of course my first Groucho [experience] was not in the movies [with the Marx Brothers], it was the game show [‘You Bet Your Life’], which he called the ‘quiz show,’ which he did for years for a lot of money.
“We saw the world the same,” Cavett said. “A couple of times people have said, ‘There’s something of Groucho in Cavett.’ I don’t think that’s necessarily true, just that I was heavily influenced by him and learned how to deliver lines from him. Don’t ever let anyone spell Groucho’s pronunciation of ‘certainly’ as ‘soitanly.’ That’s absolutely wrong. It’s ‘sytainly, like, ‘Well, you sytainly could’ve fooled me.’ It was part of his New York accent.”
Cavett said that, after they first met, Groucho mentored him, “not in terms of profound statements about the theories of comedy” but in other ways, including sending him flattering letters (some shown in “Groucho & Cavett”). “One letter, after he’d gotten to know me a little and had been on the show a couple of times — and liked me, apparently — said ‘I saw you on “The Merv Griffin Show” and got that old feeling … you’ve struck the mother lode,’ meaning my material. I was a Midwesterner, practically a hayseed, suddenly thrust into the glamorous and elite world of New York.”
Cavett said he also spent time at Groucho’s house in Beverly Hills — where, even in private, entertained his guests (Groucho was a huge Gilbert & Sullivan fan and knew all their operettas).
“I visited him at home several times when [Groucho’s late-in-life companion] Erin Fleming organized what later became a ritual of having people over for dinner,” Cavett said. “And then Groucho would perform, and a couple of people from the business who knew him would do old songs like ‘Peasy Weasy’ and other traditional old things.
“He loved to be on for an hour after dinner and put on a show.”
It was his love of entertaining people that made Groucho’s appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show” so special, he said.
“He had that colossal talent of great humor and making people laugh and it was enjoyable to watch him ply his trade. People would say, ‘Can you have Groucho on [the show] more?’ It wasn’t like just having another comedian on. He was, in that tired phrase, a bit of a God to me and I always knew that he was one of the immortals. I don’t know how you can ever point out the greatest comedian … but if you’re forced to pick, Groucho would be it.”
Cavett said he can remember the last time he saw Groucho.
“I left him at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. I had been up there visiting with him, and as I left, I was sad to notice that age was really beginning to show [on him],” he said “And as the door closed and we said goodbye I thought, ‘I just had my last moment with Groucho’ — and I’m afraid it was true.
“If I ever have the blues, all I have to do is get out the letter from Groucho’s daughter [Miriam], which ends with ‘My father thought the world of you.’”
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