Dick Cavett interviewed an extraordinary roster of famous people in a talk-show career that began in 1968 and spanned most of the remainder of the 20th century.
But he does not hesitate to name the most memorable, personally and professionally: Muhammad Ali.
“He had this absolutely dazzling personality in person,” Cavett said. “You felt something coming off of him . . . He also happened to be, among all those people, the most famous of them — all of them . . . Aaaanybody else.”
Cavett recalled his 14 interviews of Ali before a screening in Manhattan on Tuesday of “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” a documentary that premieres on HBO on Feb. 11.
The film covers familiar Ali history, but the wrinkle is that it is woven around his chats with Cavett, who during his years at ABC from 1968 to 1974 was known for a more eclectic collection of guests than his more mainstream NBC counterpart, Johnny Carson.
The Cavett show often brought out a more serious side of Ali, who put aside his familiar promotional clowning in discussing issues such as race relations and the war in Vietnam.
Over time, the two grew close off the air. Ali once slept over Cavett’s house.
"After a while I realized, this feels like one of my best friends,” Cavett said. “We sort of got together and enjoyed seeing each other a lot."
Ali died at 74 in 2016, but Cavett, 83, still often uses present tense when talking about him.
“It’s hard to let him go,” he said.
Cavett grew up in Nebraska but for a half-century he primarily was a Long Islander, living in Montauk in a historic home known as Tick Hall. The original burned to the ground in 1997, but he rebuilt it from the ground up.
Two years ago, he moved to Connecticut. “I miss it at times,” he said of the old place on the East End.
It was there that Ali once stayed over, after having shot a documentary nearby. Ali had been giving filmmakers a hard time because he was in a dark mood, so Cavett was called in to lighten things up.
“I had an interesting effect on Ali,” he said. “He would be sad some days . . . Here was this great, heroic figure looking out to sea. I said, ‘Are you trespassing?’ He said, ‘Cavett!’”
Cavett acknowledged the two made for an odd couple, given their different backgrounds, but their chemistry paid off on the air.
Of course, Ali was a figure far bigger than a guy opposite him on a talk-show chair in Manhattan.
“It’s almost hard to explain, as you walked with him anywhere in the world, the reaction of people,” Cavett said. “I’ve walked with a lot of well-known people. [With Ali], they stop and their heart skips a beat.
“He has an effect I’ve never seen anybody else have. I’ve seen many stars recognized, but with Ali they lost it.”
Cavett said watching his old interviews is a “strange” experience for him.
“First of all, it doesn’t seem like you, necessarily,” he said. “Then there’s the fact of how much time has passed and people in it are dead, including Ali. It’s very strange.
“It’s like having two or three lives at once. It’s not always pleasant to see how you were then. It’s certainly not always pleasant to see some of your guests again.”
He said he was surprised how much he has forgotten from those shows. But he often is reminded by people he encounters who appreciate them as historical documents.
“I like it,” he said, “when people thank me for letting them see someone who was a hero of theirs.”