For 48 years, Dick Cavett has never quite figured out how a former standup comic from the Midwest got to be such good friends with Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer who died last Friday at age 74. The former late-night host and heavyweight champion were close in age (Cavett is five years older) and had a mutual admiration for each other. They also shared the same kind of dry wit, Cavett reveals – and pulled as many pranks on each other as they shared home-cooked meals. Cavett tells Rolling Stone that he will remember his friend’s humor and his integrity and shares some of his favorite memories with Ali both on- and off-camera.
I made breakfast for The Champ when he stayed at my house one night. I cooked up a big platter of ham, eggs and toast. I was going to divide that big mass for all of us, giving him the lion’s share, of course. I left the room for a minute and came right back. It was all gone.
When he realized what he’d done he put on a hilarious, pitiful sad look and murmured, “Oh, Dick. You never gonna invite me back.”
It was so sweet, I almost cried.
I’ve interviewed Muhammad Ali at least 14 times on my show. I liked him the instant I met him in 1968 on my first show This Morning on ABC; we remained friends until our last visit. We had so much fun on and off the air and goofed around like two high school kids.
One time I wrote for Muhammad on the old Jerry Lewis show. The set was designed like a Roman forum and [Muhammad] came out and read four poems I’d written for him. He did it perfectly. His line reading, his timing, his tone and perfect diction put him in the highest rank of entertainers. The ability is mirrored in his boxing. The thing I always found great about his movement was his dexterity. He had the most fragile moves of a featherweight with the hulking strength of a heavyweight.
Ali was a born comedian. One time I saw him box at [Madison Square] Garden. He won the fight, obviously, and I went back to see him after, thinking he must nearly be dead. Instead, Muhammad is backstage showing me a card trick I taught him a while back from when I was a magician.
I’ll never know what Muhammad liked about me. He acted like a fan when I was around him. One time he was shooting a documentary by my house in Montauk, Long Island. He was upset over something, and looked like he was in grief all day. But when I showed up he just blossomed. He asked me later that day if I could give him a ride to his motel. Instead, I invited him to my house and said he and his wife Veronica should stay the night. He beamed. I left him alone in our house and my late wife called and said “Darling?” Muhammed picked up the phone and said “This isn’t darling.” She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, who is this?” Muhammad replied, “It’s a three-time heavyweight champion lying in your bed and watching your TV.”
My favorite moment on my show was having Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on at the same time before their notorious fight in 1974. They pretended they hated each other. And then suddenly the two of them stood up and put their hands under my arms. They hoisted me up to their height, my feet were dangling about two feet from the ground. I got more comments from that show than any other. Muhammad knew what he was doing, always.
As told to Sarah Grant