Dick Cavett Reminisces About Friend Muhammad Ali Ahead of ‘Ali & Cavett’

Dick Cavett Muhammad Ali
Courtesy of HBO/Daphne Productions

Just when you think you’ve seen and heard everything about Muhammad Ali, entering the proverbial ring is Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes.

The documentary, premiering on HBO on Tuesday, February 11, tells the story of the iconic boxer through his more than 50-year bond with Dick Cavett. The Emmy-winning host had Ali on his late-night show 14 times, which became appointment television and spawned a friendship that stands the test of time.

“We really got along. He thought I was funny. I thought he was funny,” Cavett tells TV Insider. “He had every showbiz instinct. He knew how to handle himself. He knew the right thing to say. He knew the right thing to ad lib. He knew how to deliver a line. He was a very good actor. I guess you can laughingly say we were destined to be friends because of our similar backgrounds [Laughs].”

Director Robert S. Bader has worked with Cavett’s archives as part of their ongoing collaboration, and the Ali interviews in particular stood out to him.

Courtesy of HBO / Daphne Productions

“You could do a five-hour movie on them. It’s just incredible,” he says. “To try to tear it down into the story, I focused on Ali’s key decade, which was the decade he was on The Dick Cavett Show all those times. I also needed to go back before Dick had a show to get outside footage that could go into the story. By the time Dick’s show premiered in 1968, Ali had already refused being drafted into the army. He had already joined the Nation of Islam. You can tell most of the story from the Dick Cavett interviews.”

Whether it was talking smack about his greatest rivals or delving into race relations and injustices, Ali felt increasingly comfortable in the hands of Cavett. So much so, he agreed to share the stage with his opponent, Joe Frazier.

“It had a little tinge of danger a couple of times,” Cavett, now 83, recalls. “There is a good segment with one of my controversial ad libs. Ali says to Frazier, ‘Let’s pretend we like each other and get him,’ pointing at me, and then they lift me up. I likened it to being a giant Oreo cookie. There are people who are offended. A few of them didn’t like it, but to hell with them.”

Bader hopes the doc elicits conversation and dialogue that transcends boxing. Along with Cavett, others featured in the film are sure to create just that include Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Marley, Thomas Hauser, Larry Merchant and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz.

“I was surprised with some of the results and how [the interviews] give a particular perspective, not realizing how knowledgeable about boxing and Ali they were. For example, I contact Juan Williams because he knows about the civil rights era,” Bader shares.

“He wrote Eyes on the Prize and can address those concerns that happened in Ali’s life. I found he was a huge Ali fan and knew a lot about boxing. Another thing that was surprising to me surrounded Ali lighting the [Olympic] torch in 1996. Everyone would take a deep breath before speaking and pause and almost cry… The sight of Ali trembling [due to his Parkinson’s disease] at the Olympics in 1996. A lot of people broke down on camera and had to start again. I think every person interviewed in the film had this visceral connection to him.”

Cavett thinks back to the last time he saw Ali, about a year before his passing in 2016 after a longtime battle with Parkinson’s. It was backstage during an event in New York.

“They were going to bring him out. They had him up on a small stage and put a curtain around him and pulled back the curtain. Here he was in his tuxedo in a chair. A throne really. It just gave you goosebumps all over when the curtain opened,” he recalls.

“I had seen him minutes before that. They said, ‘Good luck, he probably won’t know who you are or what is being said.” I went and sat down beside him. It was awful. I felt like I was next to a statue of Ali. I spoke a bit. He seemed to react a little. I said my name a couple of times, and I don’t think I’m reading this in, but he reacted a bit to my name. It was sad all the way around. He lived a wonderful life, almost all of his life. But not enough…”

Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, February 11, 9/8c, HBO