Muhammad Ali was a force of nature, both bombastic and pensive. Arguably the most well-known and impactful athlete in history, Ali did more than command attention both inside and outside of the U.S. He served as a prism for the turbulent times of the 1960s and early 1970s; how one viewed Ali often mirrored one’s view of the social upheaval that coincided with Ali’s time on top of the boxing world.
But even Ali’s memorable quips needed a straight man, and longtime talk show host Dick Cavett gladly served such a role. As presented in the world premiere of the documentary “Ali and Cavett: A Tale of the Tapes” at the South by Southwest Film Festival Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse - South Lamar, Cavett developed more than a courteous professional relationship with Ali. The champ made 14 appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” which ran in some form on network television from 1969-1982. In that span, the two became friends. Ali famously called Cavett “my main man” after appearing on the show following a loss to Joe Frazier, and Cavett referred to Ali as “at times, really my best friend.”
Remarkably, the 81-year-old Cavett joined filmmaker Robert S. Bader and venerable film critic Leonard Maltin for a post-film question-and-answer session. Still spry and sassy, Cavett remains fond of Ali almost two years after the champ’s death.
“He was like the eighth wonder of the world,” Cavett said, referring to Ali. “He was intelligent, funny, witty, had great timing; he had all the things that really would have made him a great comic.
“Really, I think if we were two children on the playground, we would have played with each other.”
Cavett’s subdued personality and subtle sense of humor meshed well with Ali in front of the cameras as well as, apparently, behind the scenes. But it wasn’t in Cavett’s nature to fawn over his friend; he challenged Ali on his conversion to the Nation of Islam’s questionable view of Islam, and he gave fair treatment as well as plenty of air time to Frazier, who Ali famously demeans as a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom” in buildup to their fights.
The film itself treads over ground well-covered in other Ali documentaries and biographical narratives. Perhaps too much time is spent on rehashing Ali’s conversion from a young fighter known as Cassius Clay to a follower of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. Maybe Bader doesn’t need to rehash the rivalry with Frazier or the steady decline of Ali as a fighter during the late 1970s.
But the footage of Ali and Cavett interacting both on and off the set capture a moment of American history, and such memories make any such film worthwhile.