The Greatest Meets the Brainiest in SXSW Doc Ali & Cavett
Outside the ring and on the couch with Muhammad Ali and Dick Cavett
"It was instantaneous," said Dick Cavett, recalling the first time Muhammad Ali was a guest on his talk show. "It's rare you meet someone and realize you're going to like them for the rest of your life."
Cavett's voice is faint on the conference call, as if he is checking in from a faded, bygone era. Also on the line – louder, more distinct – is Robert Bader, whose job is to archive 2,500 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show. Bader is more than an archivist; he's a magician, a synthesizer who sticks a greedy hand inside the past and extracts historical themes. His suggestions have led to PBS documentaries "Dick Cavett's Watergate" and "Dick Cavett's Vietnam," both directed by John Scheinfeld.
Now comes Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, directed by Bader, who frames Ali's multiple Cavett appearances in a larger social context. There's Cassius Clay, the Olympics boxing champ; Clay, the 22-year-old who upset Sonny Liston for his first of three heavyweight titles; the newly renamed Muhammad Ali, a proud Nation of Islam member who later quietly disavowed the organization; Ali, whose refusal to serve in the Vietnam War led to his conviction for draft evasion and the stripping of his title; the comeback Ali four years later when his conviction was overturned. Through it all, Ali oozed charisma.
"He just had a dazzling star-quality personality that lit up the room whenever he came in," Cavett said.
For Bader, the proof is on tape. Cavett was deemed the brainier Johnny Carson who didn't shy away from controversy. Twelve of Ali's 14 appearances survive today, along with an episode of a short-lived Jerry Lewis talk show for which Cavett wrote.
"Ali was just different with Cavett," Bader said. "He genuinely liked the guy. He was animated, kidding around. Cavett was open to having him do what he wanted to do."
That included talking frankly about issues of race. "I only became aware later that people were clinging to the show," Cavett said. "At every college, students were watching it. Black folks would come up to me and say, 'You're the best.'"
The documentary purposely doesn't linger on Ali's health issues that left the great talker silent and largely immobile in later years. "I didn't want to pretend to be a neurosurgeon," Bader says. For many younger viewers the image that reigns is of the older Ali moving slowly, haltingly forward to light the 1996 Olympic torch, Bader admits. But the documentary serves to flesh out the man once called the Greatest. Bader lets footage from the Cavett show dominate his tale, like the legendary 1974 joint appearance of Ali and Joe Frazier in advance of their second bout. The two shower the screen with sparks – Do they hate each other? Aren't they laughing? – and the pair together hoist diminutive Cavett into the air. At the time, the host said about the unplanned stunt that "I saw that up on the screen, and it looked like a giant Oreo cookie." Now looking back, Cavett said, "I was flattered. I never dreamed I'd be lifted by either of them. But I could see a genuine anger in Frazier at some of the things Ali said."
As a young boxing fan, Bader rooted for both Ali and Frazier. "It was part of growing up for me," he said. "But I stopped watching. Today you can't find anyone who knows who the current boxing champ is. Ali went above and beyond."
Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes
DOCUMENTARY SPOTLIGHTSunday, March 11, 8:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Monday, March 12, 10:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Thursday, March 15, 11am, Zach Theatre