When Dick Cavett talks about Muhammad Ali, he does so with reverence. “A great man. Bigger-than-life doesn’t cover it,” Cavett says while Sitting in a hotel suite with filmmaker Robert S. Bader. The two of them are in Austin, Texas for the SXSW premiere of their new documentary, Ali & Cavett: The Tale Of The Tapes, a film that pieces together archival footage of Cavett’s numerous conversations with Ali, who died in 2016 at the age of 74. Reaching back to 1968, when Cavett hosted This Morning on ABC, Bader pieces together these interviews, and in doing so tells the story of the somewhat unlikely friendship Cavett and Ali shared through the years.
Granted, anyone who’s watched Cavett interview someone can see that he’s always had a knack for developing an instant rapport with many of his guests. “I had some way of making them comfortable,” he says. “I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I knew what it felt like to sit in the guest chair, because I had been on [Merv] Griffin and [Johnny] Carson. Not ever on Jack [Paar], of course, because I was a writer then, but I’d been on plenty of shows as a guest. That gives you a feeling of what to do and not to do as a host.”
Bader, who manages the archives of The Dick Cavett Show, got the idea to make Tale Of The Tapes after reading two of Cavett’s columns in the New York Times back in 2012 where he wrote about his friendship with Ali. Turning to the archives and combing through the footage, Bader realized that it was a story worth telling. “Looking at them collectively, you can tell Ali’s story through them. It was a very unique way of doing it, because their friendship develops over the course of doing all these shows. That’s what really pushed me to do it.”
“The genius thing that Mr. Bader has done — we’re very formal with each other — is tell the built-in [story],” explains Cavett. “Nobody else ever perceived his life from [where] he began, what he was publicly known for, [and] what he was hated for by a section of the population,” referring to Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s. Prior to that, he went by his given name, Cassius Clay, before changing it to Muhammad Ali, and publicly aligning himself with Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammad.
“It made people uneasy,” says Cavett. “It was all sorts of things that are not ready to guarantee your popularity. [He] managed to, I suppose the word is extricate himself, from that world gradually into the Muhammad Ali that we all celebrate and knew, and became simply the most famous man in the world.”
“I don’t think anyone else even came close to being the most famous man in the world,” he adds.
“Ali as the most famous man in the world really endures,” says Bader. “He became this beloved figure, which I think is a very improbable way for him to have ended up, having gone on network television in the late ’60s and early ’70s talking about segregation of the races and doing speeches where he tells black people not to intermarry and have white-black children. It’s kind of shocking to think about today.”
“‘Tis true. I don’t know how hard it was for him,” adds Cavett.
Bader posits his theory that Ali never fully bought into the Nation of Islam’s philosophy, before acknowledging that Cavett may have seen it differently, given how much time the two spent with one another over the years.
“I worried a little about him,” Cavett admits, and when major Civil Rights proponents like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr were assassinated, he feared that the same would end up happening to Ali. “I thought, ‘He’s gonna get whacked.’ Whatever allowed him to escape it was just a brilliant, inborn, God-given instinct for doing whatever he wanted it to lead him to, I think,” Cavett explains. “We’ll never know if he actually believed this or that, or if he saw it as a stepping stone. Maybe he only wanted to be famous in the black community at first, but then realized that’s got drawbacks. I don’t know, I don’t know. I wonder, ‘What if I’d known him back in when he was deep into [Islam]?’ I guess we’ll ever know.”
“Whenever I think about him, I think of things I wish I’d talked to him about, and will obviously not get the chance,” Cavett says. “I think I kept being surprised at how intelligent he was. Perhaps that’s a vaguely racist condescension on my part not only about race, but about how a big fighter [could] be so smart. And you’re surprised to find that many of them are.”
“There was nobody who didn’t know Ali,” says Cavett. “It’s almost mysterious, it’s so unlikely anybody could get that big. And you know, he talked about that a little bit in some various other interviews, but I think when he started to become almost a mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam, he basically was inviting a large segment of the population to despise him. And I think he went in knowing that that could happen, but I also think he believed he was doing the right thing for his people.”
“The thing about Ali’s fame is that it wasn’t just about boxing,” explains Bader. “And the sad part of it is, when he started to fight for too long and was getting impaired, his friends were begging him to get out of the ring. Cavett, on the show, tells him, ‘You’re here tonight to tell us you’re not going to fight anymore.’ Ali could have been a celebrity doing anything he wanted to be. He didn’t have to be a boxer.”
“He could have done a sitcom,” notes Cavett.
“He could have been anything,” adds Bader. “He was so well known and well loved at that point that you know, you could make a case [that] he shouldn’t have done those last few fights. Maybe he shouldn’t have done the last 15 fights.”
“He might still be around,” Cavett says, before recalling the show they’d done after a match with Ken Norton in 1973, which gave Ali a broken jaw.
“Sitting there with a wired jaw, the audience could see how down he was. He didn’t walk like Ali, he didn’t sit like Ali, and he didn’t look like Ali. And I remember the words, ‘Dick, you’re the onliest one want me on his show. I’m an old broke-down fighter. I’ve got wires in my jaw, and you’re the only one that would have me on. You’re my main man.’ You know what that meant, to be called Ali’s main man? I didn’t know the full potency of the phrase. And even people would yell at me, ‘Ali’s main man!'”
When reflecting on what it was that made the Ali/Cavett friendship so special, Bader points to the respectful, easygoing dialogue the two always maintained, regardless of where Ali was in his career or personal life.
“Dick’s not going back and saying ‘You’re wrong!’ He’s listening to him, and he’s interacting with him about it, and maybe sharing a difference of opinion, but not shouting him down. Seeing [Ali] get this pretty fair shake out of this very established network television show [and] putting it in that frame means it was more important than even I realized.”