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New HBO documentary ‘Ali & Cavett’ details an unlikely TV friendship

A talk show host pays tribute to a 50-year friendship with The Champ

If you’ve seen many documentaries about Muhammad Ali, you’ll inevitably notice something: Almost all of them use footage from Ali’s 14 appearances on The Dick Cavett Show.

Ali, famous for his showmanship inside and outside the boxing ring, was a terrific late-night TV guest. He was a warm and quick-witted storyteller who was aware of his own cool charisma. Ali understood and used the platform to advance causes such as the campaign for civil rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Many times that advocacy took place on The Dick Cavett Show.

A new documentary, Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, which airs Wednesday on HBO, tells Ali’s story through his friendship with Cavett. It’s directed by Robert S. Bader, who has frequently collaborated with Cavett, and was written by both men.

Ali and Cavett came from different backgrounds and traveled different paths, but they became friends. Ali, born Cassius Clay, was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and began traveling the world as a teen when he competed in the Olympics. His prowess as a boxer was his passport. The Nebraska-born Cavett graduated from Yale and became known as the thinking person’s late-night host. His 90-minute format allowed for all sorts of unexpected and historic interactions, and he remains one of the best interviewers in late-night history. His guests were an eclectic collection of cultural luminaries, including Truman Capote, Janis Joplin, Pearl Bailey and Groucho Marx.

Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes details the decades-long friendship between Muhammad Ali (right) and Dick Cavett (left), as seen through Ali’s many appearances on Cavett’s show.

Courtesy of HBO/Daphne Productions

But no one, by Cavett’s own account, was as special as Ali, though he says Marx possibly comes second. The relationship that evolved between Cavett and Ali provided intimate glimpses into Ali’s personality. For all that’s been said of The Champ’s boastfulness and his vocal insistence on self-love, The Tale of the Tapes reveals another side, which is how he coped with being beaten. Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine a sports figure volunteering for post-defeat interviews beyond those contractually required by whichever league employs them. Ali on the other hand, would gamely go on Cavett’s show and acknowledge his deficiencies and praise the skill of the man who beat him.

I spoke with Cavett, 83, by phone about his friendship with Ali, and what makes this documentary different.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

When did your relationship with Muhammad Ali become more than the typical dynamic between host and guest?

It was hard not to like him the first year I met him. His great charm, humor, and everything he had. But I noticed as he came on two, three, and four times that we — I don’t know what the word for it is — but each time I saw him he seemed to get on a little better and I realized that we were becoming friends. A lot of my guests were pleasant and fun, but he was extraordinarily so. And we became buddies, which is hard to say when you’re not the three-time heavyweight champion of the world and he is.

You can’t exactly say we had similar backgrounds. We really developed a really fine friendship and I was lucky. I was glad to have it. I looked forward to having him on and he was always impressive, either with how funny he could be or how playful or how serious, that terrible word, when the occasion demanded it. And I just thought, ‘This guy is really something.’ I hadn’t expected, for whatever reason, to be impressed by how intelligent he was, but there was certainly that and also his marvelous showbiz instincts: when to talk, what to say, how to get it in and out of a subject, how to know when to ad-lib.

There’s a wonderful moment when he tells you that you’re his “main man” and I love that you revealed that you didn’t even realize what a great compliment that was. What was it like to earn the trust of someone who had so many reasons to be skeptical, especially toward white people?

Muhammad Ali (left) takes Dick Cavett (right) on a tour of his cabin in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania.

Courtesy of HBO/Daphne Productions

I don’t know how I did it. Somebody said something about Marlon Brando once: ‘It’s like they put an angel in him.’ As with Brando, there was something that truly radiated from him that you felt when you were next to him. And I know that sounds corny and I’ve never believed it when they said if he got near you, you felt someone had turned a heat lamp on. But it was Ali. I don’t know what the word is for it. It’s charisma. There is a Spanish word called ‘duende.’ The thing that’s the difference between talent and genius.

This documentary covers Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam by saying he was being used as a puppet or a mouthpiece for a cult. When did you notice that and when did you notice that he had become his own man again?

Well, I’m not sure I could put dates on it, but it was certainly there, even as my talk show happened to begin and coincide with an assassination season in our history. With Ali, he became that sort of funny loudmouth guy and transitioned into being a real serious problem for himself, for his fans, for everyone.

And the [Louis] Farrakhan problems in his life were masterfully handled by him. That was just also a physically dangerous time. Many people hated him. The draft thing of course, aroused the boobs from their lair and they were about to attack him at times and I worried about him. I don’t know if he gets the credit or his protectors do at that point, but he was at a very tough time where he was roundly denounced and called a traitor. The only thing he didn’t do was have heel spurs. But he wended his way, or winded — whichever it is — through real difficult problems in his life and with his celebrity and with his enemies. And I think, however, how long it was, he had really won over just about everybody because of the charm and the humor and the attraction of attractiveness of him and his personality were irresistible. I don’t know anyone who continued to hate him.

Tell me about meeting him again before he passed away.

Oh, well, I didn’t see him for a long time. And then when I finally saw him after a long time of deterioration — naturally of course, I had seen the torch-bearing moment, the Olympic thing, which made people cry — and yet they were so delighted to see him in the picture again. And then the last time I saw him, he was pretty much solidified into almost being like a statue. It was some big social and literary banquet-type thing in New York City. And I got there and they said, ‘Ali is here already. He’s not out with the guests. He’s in a room over there, if you want to go say hello, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t speak and doesn’t know you.’ And then I went in and there was a chair with him in it, like a throne, and another chair beside it. And I sat down beside him and he just kept looking straight ahead. I got as close to his ear as was practical and said, ‘It’s Dick Cavett, Champ, it’s me, it’s Dick.’ And there was a little — you have to believe me — there was some stirring. There is about the most I could say, it seemed like he knew for a moment and I never saw him again.

That must have been heartbreaking.

Oh, it was awful. But I don’t think to avoid that awful part of his life, in his latter years, he would have traded for an easier life where nobody knew him. He had a grand, glorious time for so long. And he would sit down and people would ring around the table in a restaurant, five deep and just rudely stare at him. And back when he could still realize that was happening, he enjoyed it and he loved running into kids who he’d pretend to fight with and make boxing moves and kids just adored him.

Did he ever do magic tricks with you?

Yes! I think I interested him in that, somewhat. I can remember showing him couple of tricks and next thing I knew, wherever he went and whoever would look at him in an elevator, walking down the street, at a dinner, he would pull out his red silk handkerchief about one foot by one foot, wad it up, push it into his other hand with his finger until it was not showing and then open the other hand and it was gone. The only issue magicians had with that was, he then immediately showed how he did it!

You had quite a few guests on your show. Is there any other guest with whom you cultivated a friendship like the one you had with Ali?

In a whole different way, Groucho Marx became one of the great things in my life. Luckily for a goodly number of years, considering how old he was. There’s not many people you can say this about: He was there for 90 minutes and everything he said was funny. That set some kind of record. He proposed marriage to Truman Capote on my show.

By the way, I do believe you can mark my words: There will be a Groucho documentary. I got a ton of good Groucho to make another special with. But no, I don’t know anybody else who had quite the effect on me. It was almost physical and emotional and strong and palpable and I enjoyed it every time. If you were on the street with Ali or walking down toward the car or something, it was wonderful to watch the reaction of people who would lose their step walking, miss a stride in seeing who it was, they couldn’t believe it. And you would look back and they would still be standing there with eyes on you.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.