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.”