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Dick Cavett memoir looks back on more than TV show

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Actress Elizabeth Taylor Warner, left, chats with television personality Dick Cavett, center, and fashion designer Halston, Wednesday evening at New York's Plaza Hotel, February 8, 1979. The actress was on hand to be presented with the second annual A. Philip Randolph Humanitarian Award, from Harlem-Dowling children's service agency. The agency is an adoption and Foster care organization. (AP Photo)
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ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former heavyweight champions Muhammed Ali, left, and Joe Frazier, right, are shown sweeping television host Dick Cavett off his feet during taping of the ABC-TV program, ?The Dick Cavett Show,? Jan. 18, 1974 in New York. The boxers were publicizing their scheduled on January 28 bout at New York?s Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo)

The cast of real-life characters in Dick Cavett’s latest book, “Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Hijinks,” includes some of the most celebrated names of the 20th century.

We meet Elizabeth Taylor and Groucho Marx, Johnny Carson and Rudolf Nureyev, John Lennon and Muhammad Ali, Gore Vidal and Steve Jobs.

Cavett encountered all of them. Many were guests on “The Dick Cavett Show,” which between 1968 and 1996 offered a forum for actors, comedians, musicians, writers and public figures seeking erudite conversation and debate.

But that groundbreaking program isn’t the focus of “Brief Encounters.”

The collection of essays draws on experiences dating to Cavett’s childhood in Lincoln, Neb., where the budding writer-performer-raconteur, after getting into all manner of mischief with his friends — “near-crimes,” he calls their shenanigans, while discussing the book — would settle down to watch his future boss, Jack Paar, on “The Tonight Show.” (Cavett wrote material for Paar and Johnny Carson before getting his program.)

“I go back to a time when there was one talk show in America,” marvels Cavett, who at 77 is still, in person, as dapper and sharp-witted as he was urging a petulant Norman Mailer — on a still avidly Googled 1971 broadcast — to “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.”

You wouldn’t likely hear such a comeback from Jimmy Fallon, who wrote the foreword to “Brief Encounters,” but Cavett is gracious in assessing the current crop of comedians and talk-show hosts.

Cavett is fond of Fallon and expresses particular enthusiasm about another late-night fave. “I think that one of the great things to happen in this country is that Stephen Colbert will do a show where we will see all of Stephen Colbert, and not just that character he has so ingeniously managed to stretch out for years.”

“Brief Encounters” includes numerous observations about contemporary culture and politics — neither Democrats nor Republicans are spared, though the latter group fares considerably worse — as well as moving recollections of and tributes to stars no longer with us, from Stan Laurel to James Gandolfini.

Asked how disciplined he is about his craft, Cavett quips, “You can say that I keep meaning to write every day.” He has dabbled in social media: “Somebody set me up for tweeting, and I tweeted once, and I haven’t gone back. But I think I might. There are times when news events come up where you’d like to say, ‘This NFL player should be under the jail, not in it.’ ”

In fact, the media veteran has little patience for those who would shun the advances of the Information Age.

“I dislike people who can’t swim, who can’t drive a car, who don’t have a television set and who don’t go online,” he says. “A great world is available to you there. It’s moronic not to be a part of it.”

Elysa Gardner is a staff writer for USA Today.

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