Dick Cavett was never a fan of boxing. In fact, he thinks it should be abolished.
But in all his years as an interviewer and talk-show host, one of his favorite guests was Muhammad Ali. That no one could persuade the three-time heavyweight champion to give up the brutal sport that he loved and made him a rich man but would eventually kill him is something Cavett deeply regrets.
The story of their long friendship is told in the HBO documentary “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” premiering Tuesday. Using archival footage of Ali’s many appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show” along with interviews with Cavett and others who knew him, the 95-minute film chronicles Ali’s most memorable fights both in and out of the ring. It also examines how the self-proclaimed “Greatest” used his influence and charisma to bring difficult conversations about race, religion and political differences into the light of day.
Cavett, who first met Ali when he was a staff writer on the late 1960s “The Jerry Lewis Show,” remembers being impressed by the champ’s way with the camera.
“Ali came on as a guest,” Cavett, now 83, recalls, “and staged a fake fight out on the street with somebody for our entertainment. And it started to look real, an argument, and then he stepped out of camera range — he knew just when he was out of camera range — and (he would have a) big grin and laugh. And he was so media-savvy in just about every way you can think of. He knew what to say and what not to say.”
But in some cases, Ali’s playfulness nearly caused trouble. One such instance in the film involved Ali and former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, who both came on Cavett’s show, and Ali kiddingly taunted his frequent adversary with a racial epithet.
“He said, ‘That’s what I mean about that, boy’ ” Cavett recalls. “And Frazier said, ‘What did you say?’ And he really started for him, it looked like. It looked like a little tip of the balance and there would have been bloodshed. And Ali typically and rightly said, ‘I said, “Roy, Roy.” ‘ Well, this of course got a huge laugh and I could never tell to this day if Frazier was amused at all by this.”
But Cavett’s favorite moment came in 1973, when Ali appeared with a broken jaw after losing to Ken Norton.
“He said, ‘Here I am, just an old, broke-down fighter, Dick. You’re the only show that called, nobody else wanted me on and you’re my main man.’ Well, that got to me because I knew what main man meant in his world as the greatest of compliments. And to be able to be Ali’s main man was an honor I don’t want to pass on to somebody else.”