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Cavett hosts John, Yoko on DVD collection

Talk-show host could be both serious and light
/ Source: The Associated Press

“I dream of us being an old couple on the south coast of Ireland,” says John Lennon, seated onstage next to wife Yoko Ono. Then, in a “When I’m Sixty-four” burst of playfulness, he adopts a crinkly voice and pretends to reminisce about this night in 1971: “I remember when we were on ‘Dick Cavett’!”

Things would go differently, of course. On Dec. 8, 1980, Lennon was shot down by a madman outside his Manhattan apartment.

But now, with the 25th anniversary of his death, Lennon’s guest appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show” are worth remembering, on his behalf.

The new DVD “The John & Yoko Collection” includes the program that aired Sept. 11, 1971, which finds Lennon (a month shy of his 31st birthday) looking forward to life beyond the Beatles with his artist-bride.

It’s a revealing visit with Lennon and the woman he clearly loved (although, tweaking a popular new catch phrase, he jokes that “love is having to say you’re sorry every five minutes”).

Cavett as go-to guyIn those days, guests as well as the audience knew Cavett was the go-to guy for clever TV conversation. He was a puckish yet low-key former joke writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, a former standup comic with blond good looks and a Yale degree. He brought on guests of all kinds with worthwhile things to say.

At 31, he began his hosting career with a daily morning show on ABC in March 1968. His first guest was the famed scientist-philosopher-designer Buckminster Fuller. Maybe overreaching for daytime TV, he was off the air by January.

ABC brought him back the summer of 1969 with a thrice-weekly prime-time hour. Then in December, he won ABC’s 90-minute late-night berth, going up against NBC’s Carson and Merv Griffin on CBS.

“Without sacrifice of fun or laughter,” The New York Times piped hopefully, a late-night alternative like Cavett could “relieve the parade of glamour figures by intermingling more articulate minds who can talk on both serious and light subjects with some style and substance.”

Cavett could do that. But despite a loyal following, he again failed to rally enough viewers to suit ABC. His late-night reign as a Monday-through-Friday fixture lasted just three years.

Even so, he made the most of the cultural and political ferment that coincided with his run. His ABC programs are a trove of interviews and performances embodying that era. (Next up: “Comic Legends,” scheduled for February release by Shout! Factory.)

Released earlier this fall, “The Ray Charles Collection” gathers three “Cavett” shows with the legendary singer-pianist, including one with Charles as his sole guest.

Also available is the “Rock Icons” package, including George Harrison, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, and Sly and the Family Stone — plus a truly remarkable hour from August 1969 featuring Jefferson Airplane and other performers just arrived back from Woodstock.

Mourning the ex-BeatleDecades later, these shows crackle with immediacy and the unexpected — even for Cavett, who turns 69 on Saturday, as they summon him back into his past.

“I watched one of the Lennon programs yesterday,” Cavett muses with an air of startled rediscovery, “and he looks so alive! I had this sort of a mini-sliver of a thought, ‘Let’s see, now where does he live these days?’ All that charm, and verbal dexterity, a real sense of joy and foolishness and fun.

“And then it suddenly hit me.”

On a return visit that aired in May 1972 (also in the DVD set), John and Yoko discuss their legal battles with the U.S. government, which for years was bent on throwing him out of the country (a fight he would ultimately win).

They also explain the intent behind Lennon’s bold new song, “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” then perform it — although afterward, at his network’s insistence, Cavett had to tack on a viewer alert. (“I notice watching now how my mouth was saying it, but my manner was indicating ‘I don’t believe a word of this.”’)

After ABC, Cavett came back with a 30-minute nightly talk show that aired on PBS for five years. Since then, he has done more TV, made appearances in films, been heard in commercial voiceovers, been seen on Broadway as the narrator of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

But he still signals a mix of wistfulness and gratitude for those shows long ago.

He recalls how “you could have Groucho one night, and Nureyev the next, and, maybe the next, Salvador Dali.” He chuckles thinking of Dali, the wild surrealist artist, who “came on carrying an anteater and dumped it on Lillian Gish, right in her lap, with Satchel Paige watching.”

Even the studio on 58th Street where it all happened is gone, Cavett notes.

“I hate old folks who sit around saying, ‘Oh, those golden days ...’ But I have the feeling that maybe, just possibly, I have been in a golden age.”