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Volume 27 No. 13
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New HBO Doc Shines Light On Dick Cavett-Muhammad Ali Relationship

Photo: HBO

HBO's latest documentary, "Ali & Cavett: The Tale Of The Tapes," on the long-standing friendship between Dick Cavett and Muhammad Ali, premieres tonight at 9:00pm ET. Director Robert Bader set out to give viewers insight into the unique relationship between the talk show host and boxing legend that developed over the years. Often unscripted and at times emotional, Cavett and Ali's interviews became noteworthy for subjects covered outside the sports realm throughout the '60s and '70s. Archival footage of Ali's appearances on Cavett's show helps illuminate not only the chemistry the two had together, but also the media influence that Ali leveraged to advocate for social change.

MIX & MATCH: Bader came up with the idea for the film after reading Cavett's two-part series for the N.Y. Times on Ali in '12. Bader: "It made me go look at (archival footage) and say, 'There's a story here.'" What stood out to the filmmaker was the back-and-forth: "There's a very different way Ali appeared on (Cavett's) shows than any other show. ... He was shown great respect by Cavett in those early appearances, and that really made it develop. Certain shows that would have Ali on wouldn't treat him very well. He wouldn't go back. ... He kept coming back on the Cavett show because he had a really good, free and open forum there." In Cavett, Ali found a nationally prominent host that was intrigued by his societal ideas, but also unintimidated by his confident persona. Bader: "Dick didn't insult him. He challenged him. They discussed things. There was a give-and-take between them. That was a very unique place for Ali to go during that period." Cavett also recognized the boxer's star quality early in his career. Cavett: "He was great fun. He was smart. He told stories well. He had every show business instinct of a performer."

NOT ALL ROSES: Ali appeared on Cavett's program 14 times from '68-79, a period that spanned Ali's rapid rise, military exile, eventual comeback and rivalry with Joe Frazier. Cavett: "This sounds kind of sappy, but after a while, I realized we had become not just guest and host, but friends." But Cavett, 83, warns the film is "not just a valentine" to Ali's legacy. The doc also goes into detail about the boxer's controversial conversion to Islam, which concerned Cavett both then and now. Cavett also voices his frustration at the sport of boxing and the inevitable injuries that defined Ali's later years. "If he had quit boxing when he should have, he could have had a wonderful rest of his life as a personality and entertainer. It's just a crime that nobody could convince him to stop."

MODERN TIMES: Both Cavett and Bader were unsure if such a close relationship between a TV personality and high-profile athlete could exist today. Cavett: "I don't know. God knows plenty has changed since then." Bader: "It seems unlikely just because of what a talk show has become. You get your eight minutes, you plug your movie, you leave and the next guest comes on. ... Back in those days, when you were done with your segment, you would still sit there and the next guest would come on and you'd be involved in their interview. You really developed more of a rapport with the host."

PARTING THOUGHTS: Bader hopes the film illustrates how Ali's legacy was enhanced outside the ring. "Look at how divided the country was when Ali refused induction into the Army (in '67). Then think about what he became to the entire country in the years after that. ... It's hard to reconcile how divided the country was. But the whole world watched him light the Olympic torch (at the '96 Atlanta Games) and loved him. For him to make that transition the way he did with such grace is a really impressive thing. It takes him beyond being a boxer. He's a symbol." For Cavett, the film was not only a chance to relive an important friendship, but also to help younger sports fans understand the weight Ali had to carry throughout his career. Cavett: "They'll see the evidence of his dazzling personality again."