Ali & Cavett: Ali’s Main Man?

DATELINE: 60s & 70s

 Ali & Frazier fight Cavett!

If you believe the promo hype for this documentary, Ali & Cavett: Tale of the Tapes, there was some kind of secret friendship between Muhammad Ali and talk show personality Dick Cavett. There was more of a relationship with Howard Cosell (mentioned only in passing and one quick interview clip) and Malcolm X, intense and genuine, but fleeting.

Cavett survives all of them—and he is omnipresent here to discuss his friendship. It is based on the fact that Ali made more appearances on Cavett’s show than any other well-know blab/emtertainment series. That means Merv, Johnny, Jay, and David Frost.

Cavett was the most easy-going and most likely to let guests go off on their personal quirks. If there was a friendship, it was Ali’s sense that he could use Cavett. And, indeed, they have an easy-going time. Rev. Al Sharpton agrees.

There are really no indications that there was anything off camera, as there was with Cosell.  In fact, there are plenty of times that Cavett seems to be biting his tongue in disapproval of Ali’s political pronouncements.

Once in a while Dick shuts up Ali and tells him it’s his turn to talk—but there is seldom any serious rebuke. Too much starpower is in the balance: after all, Ali comes back repeatedly because he is never rebuked.

These TV relationships were golden in those days: whether it was William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal going at it, or David Frost taking on Nixon. It was an age of talking heads, not shouting Fox News fake debate team.

However, as the documentary proceeds, we see that Ali is genuinely fond of Dick Cavett, invites him to his private training camp, and in one great moment of live TV, Ali and Frazier on stage together turn on Cavett humorously when he calls them “palookas” and they lift him off his feet. He is truly shocked. It’s great stuff.

Ali reformed himself into a beloved figure rather quickly after the politics wore off: even Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House for some banter. When he tells Cavett that he’s the only one to invite him on his show after a defeat, he calls the diminutive talk host “my main main,” which does surprise Cavett.

The footage is as entertaining and smart as it was originally. Ali is handsome, garrulous, and charming, while Cavett is pesky, sarcastic, and fawning.

As you proceed on watching this little gem, it becomes better and better.