‘American Masters: Groucho & Cavett‘ Explores Special Relationship Between Comedy Greats

Dick Cavett can still picture the exact moment and location in New York City when he first met the man who would become one of his most cherished pals. It was 1961 and Cavett, then a 25-year-old writer for Jack Parr on The Tonight Show, met the legendary Groucho Marx after they both attended the funeral for playwright George S. Kaufman.

“He was walking east up 81st Street toward Fifth Avenue flanked by Art Carney on one side and Abe Burrows on the other,” recalls Cavett to Deadline. “And then when they left him, I moved to the corner of Fifth and 81st. And in one of my great inspired uses of the English language, I said the terribly witty ‘I’m a big fan of yours, Groucho.’ And he said, ‘well, if it’s gets any hotter, I could use a big fan.’”

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After exchanging a few pleasantries, Marx, then 70, invited Cavett to lunch at The Plaza Hotel. “There I was, a dream I never even dared to have, sitting in a booth in the Oak Room with Groucho Marks.”

That was a start of a relationship that would span the final years of Marx’s life, and ultimately inspire the making of American Masters: Groucho & Cavett, debuting today on PBS. Marx — the writer/comedian best known for making 13 iconic films with his brothers between 1929 and 1950 — became both a mentor and confidante to Cavett, a former comedy writer and stand-up who started hosting his eponymous late-night show for ABC in 1968.

The special features footage from the myriad times Marx visited The Dick Cavett Show, which ran until 1974. Cavett would go on host an interview series for PBS from 1977 to 1982, and later for programs on CBS, USA and CNBC.

“The only person who was on more often than Groucho was someone named Muhammad Ali,” recalled Cavett of Marx’s talk show visits. “I don’t think he ever came on to plug anything. It was just a typical talk show appearance in which we talked about whatever we wanted to talk about.”

But their friendship extended far beyond the late night couch. The two would often get together for trips to the theater when Marx would fly from California to NYC to visit Cavett. “When I knew him, he always lived in Beverly Hills. The only thing he didn’t like about it was how Richard Nixon moved in about six houses away.”

Cavett can’t say exactly why he thinks Marx liked him so much. “I know he mentioned once that I went to Yale and that might have impressed him,” says Cavett, who now lives in Connecticut. “He also liked the fact that I had so many good writers and authors on the show. The thing he most wanted to be in his life was a writer rather than a performer. He read a lot of modern novels. For a man who only made it to the eighth grade, he was wonderfully educated.”

Marx died in 1977 at the age of 86. “It was of course wonderful for me to know that Groucho liked me. In fact, if I’m ever in a bad mood, all I have to do is get out a letter from his daughter, Miriam, who wrote to me after he had died. It said, ‘P.S., my father thought the world of you.’”

American Masters: Groucho & Cavett premieres December 27 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS and the PBS video app.

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