Robert Bader talks Groucho and Cavett

Earlier this month, Robert Bader sat down with Solzy at the Movies to discuss his newest documentary, Groucho & Cavett. 

The new documentary focuses on Groucho Marx and his appearances and relationship with Dick Cavett. It will be airing as a part of the American Masters program nationwide on December 27 at 8 PM ET. Check your local PBS affiliate for details. The film will also be available to watch through the American Masters website and the PBS Video App and is available on DVD with an additional thirty minutes of bonus content. 

It’s so nice to see you for the first time since 2018. 

Robert Bader: Yes, I gather that a person like you who goes to a lot of film festivals was severely impacted by Covid and you probably did a lot of movie watching on your computer, which is not the best way to watch a movie, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. 

I actually did most of my movie watching on TV. 

Robert Bader:  I was actually very lucky because my film that you saw at South by Southwest in 2018 went to HBO in 2020. They had a big premiere party for it at their Hudson Yards theater in New York, literally three weeks before the lockdown began. It was incredible. A lot of people at that event got Covid and we didn’t know it was Covid at the time. We just thought we got a bad flu. I came home from my premiere, and I was in bed for about nine days. Much later I realized I probably had Covid. I was an early adopter. 

Yeah, I know. I was at Sundance earlier that year and got sick as a dog. 

Robert Bader: The timing for me was lucky. My film premiered on February 11. They had a party a week before with a screening for media. Had they scheduled it a week later, it would have been canceled. I got that in under the wire. I do remember you seeing the Ali & Cavett film—you were at South by Southwest in Austin and that’s when we first met. 

Yeah, I did the press junket. 

Robert Bader: Right, because I remember Dick and I spoke to you in a hotel room in Austin.  

That was one of my first interviews on the ground at SXSW. 

Robert Bader: We were happy to do it. Your early support helped us a lot. We ended up getting an HBO deal for the film at SXSW and the positive media reaction really helped it along. HBO became more interested when they saw we had a line of people waiting to talk to us about the movie so that helped us. 

What was the genesis behind Groucho & Cavett? 

Robert Bader: This is a great question because it has a surprising answer. This movie starts when I was about nine years old. I was a Marx Brothers fanatic as a little kid, to the point where—you might know geeky people in your business that were like this—we’d get the TV Guide several days before the week starts. It used to come on Tuesday and the listings started the following Saturday. I’d go through it with a red pen circling anything to do with the Marx Brothers. When I was around nine or ten years old, I saw Groucho was going to be on this thing called the Dick Cavett Show. I’d never heard of Dick Cavett. I asked my parents who he was, and my father said something like, “Nobody watches him. Everybody watches Carson.” My parents were Johnny Carson watchers. 

I remember getting out of bed way past my bedtime, with a cassette recorder and sneaking out into the living room recording Groucho on the Dick Cavett Show more than once. That’s where it starts for me. All these years later, to get to make the film, work with the master tapes, and work with Dick is a dream come true. Dick asked me why we didn’t do Groucho first, why’d we do Ali first? I don’t really have a good answer except for getting a worldwide distribution deal for Ali & Cavett. That film paved the way for this film. I suppose leading with Muhammad Ali was a good move because it got us a lot more traction with trying to sell the Groucho film. Ali & Cavett has done very well. 

Having written a book on the Marx Brothers, did you learn anything new in the process of making the film? 

Robert Bader: What I love about talking to Dick Cavett on a regular basis is that he has things that he thinks he’s told me that he hasn’t. That was the great thing about jotting down notes to interview him for the film. I was unaware of the fact that Groucho saw Dick on the Merv Griffin Show as a young stand-up and wrote him a letter giving him tips on his act. That just blew my mind because I’ve spoken to him about Groucho so many times. I said, “Wait a minute, he wrote you a letter telling you what was good in your act and what you should work on?!? You’re getting comedy coaching from Groucho Marx when you’re a young stand-up.” That was news to me and will be news to a lot of people. Now it’s in the film. 

I’m glad we documented that. It’s a wonderful tale because Groucho wasn’t known as a guy who mentored a lot of people. He was more known as a comic who occasionally felt threatened by other comics. Groucho didn’t like to do things like sit at the Algonquin Round Table and hear other people try to be funny while he was eating lunch. He hated that. For him to latch on to a young comic and help him, it almost seems out of character. The interesting thing to really contemplate is Groucho didn’t have great relationships with his own children—yet with Cavett, it was almost like a father and son relationship. Dick’s very touching when he talks about it; he gets a little emotional about it. It’s a rare aspect of Groucho’s life. Having studied the Marx Brothers—as you mentioned, I’ve written more than one book about them—you learn stuff from a guy that was this close to him. 

Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett in Groucho and Cavett.
Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett on the Dick Cavett Show, June 1969. Photo by Ron Baldwin.

What was the most challenging aspect of making the documentary? 

Robert Bader: The toughest part of making this film was the amount material we have of Groucho on the Dick Cavett Show. How do you pick what’s going to go in the film and what’s not? My first rough cut, when I laid out all the clips I wanted to use, was about two hours and 40 minutes long. That’s a tough film to sell. It’s not going to work as a miniseries. I had to take out some very funny stuff. But occasionally, it would just be a simple decision. Something that takes too long to develop is probably not going to find a place in the film that’s comfortable. 

Editing the material down to a reasonable length and getting Dick’s thoughts in there was really a good challenge. I’m glad they let me put about a half an hour of extra material on the DVD. What you see on American Masters will be the full-length film. There’s some nice bonus content available on the DVD and on PBS’s digital platform. You can see some of the deleted scenes and a couple of wonderful clips from the Dick Cavett Show with other people talking about Groucho that I almost had in the film. 

It was hard to make decisions on some of that stuff. I think it turned out well. It’s pretty tight and moves along at a brisk pace. I also wanted to include Groucho’s wonderful songs from the Dick Cavett Show. His singing is something that captivated me as a kid. Seeing this old guy come out, singing these crazy songs was so enjoyable for me as a kid and I wanted to keep that in. I’m pleased to say the songs are all in there. 

As I was watching, I half-expected maybe we’ll just see snippets of the songs and then it’s like, holy crap, that’s a full performance! 

Robert Bader: There’s a great little editing trick that a lot of people use, and I contemplated it. I’m telling you this sort of inside baseball thing. A lot of times, people cut out the third verse and they can really do a deft job of editing it. So, you miss the third verse and get the end of the song much faster. I’ve seen it done with great songs that people really know well and it just slides right by because most people don’t remember the third verse anyway. It’s very easy to do but I wanted these full songs in there. 

One of the coolest things that I tried to do didn’t work. Groucho did “Show Me a Rose” on three different Cavett shows. I tried to cut together a montage of them. He’s in several different keys in the three performances. It would have looked nice, but it was just an audible disaster. He’s singing it all over the place. But I’m glad you enjoyed the songs. To me that’s the essence of old man Groucho on television in the sixties and seventies. 

In watching the songs, I love how he’s eyeballing the bandleader while singing. 

Robert Bader: I happened to meet Bobby Rosengarden, who was the musical director of all of Dick’s shows. When I first started working on the Dick Cavett Show DVDs, almost 20 years ago, I contacted Bobby. He was not well enough to participate, and he ended up passing away a few years later. But I met his son who’s also a musician and composer. I’m thrilled to say Neil Rosengarden composed the original score for Groucho & Cavett, which is a nice little touch because I wished his father could have been around to do it. Neil’s an amazing talented guy himself so it’s nice to have him involved. It’s especially nice for Dick to know that Bobby Rosengarden’s son is part of the film. And it’s a great score. He did a really nice job for us so that’s very special for me and Dick. 

When Groucho interacts with Bobby Rosengarden on the show, it’s a riot. He just loves doing that stuff. There’s a portion of the film where Dick talks about how Groucho would come on and disrupt the show. He was known for doing that. You can probably go on YouTube and find him destroying What’s My Line? in a famous clip. He just loved coming on and throwing the rulebook out the window. The Dick Cavett Show was sort of his home base for doing whatever the hell he wanted to do. Dick was never going to tell Groucho not to do something. It was fun to put those clips together and it was great to get Dick to talk about it. That was one of the most enjoyable things for me—getting Dick’s perspective on basically being on a tightrope without a net when Groucho comes on. I love that. 

How much footage did you look through when it came to editing the film? 

Robert Bader: Groucho did seven appearances on Dick’s show. We have five of them in their complete original form. Dick’s morning show was routinely erased by ABC. They would recycle the two-inch videotapes every few weeks, so we only have some kinescope clips of Groucho’s first appearance on the show, which was saved because they did a primetime special using clips from the morning show. The other morning show, we have only because one of the guests had a ½ inch open reel Sony video recorder in 1968. Frank Buxton—who you might know as the director of television shows like the Odd Couple, Mork and Mindy, and a lot of other sitcoms—was a comic and knew Dick from the stand-up circuit. Frank was on the show the same day as Groucho, so he recorded it and that’s how we have it. A lot of extensive work on that footage was done. That was a ninety-minute show. We have an hour of it. Frank cut the commercials out. It wasn’t on live, obviously. It aired a week later, so he was home to record it. 

If you’re a Glen Campbell fan, this will break your heart. Campbell was on that show. Whenever he was about to do a song, Frank stopped the tape to make sure he had enough tape for all the Groucho segments. When someone was making a Glen Campbell documentary a few years ago, they inquired about archive footage of him on the Cavett show. I hated to break it to them that we don’t have the songs. We just have him talking and sitting there on the panel with Groucho. 

We also have several people on in the Cavett archive talking about Groucho and there’s some valuable material there. After Groucho died in 1977, Woody Allen was on one of the very first PBS shows that Cavett did. That interview provided some valuable material for the film. There are other clips like that in the film. E.Y. Harburg talking about writing “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” dovetails beautifully with Groucho’s performance of the song. I did go through lots of other stuff. There were other great things where people would tell a good Groucho story on the show. Sidney Sheldon—a TV producer, novelist, and good friend of Groucho’s—came on and told a ridiculous story about Groucho that nobody knows. I had it in the film for a while, but I had to take it out because it was just too long and didn’t really advance the story. I’m happy to say that you can see it on the DVD, and it will crack you up.  

My next question was going to be was there anything you wanted to keep in but couldn’t find the right spot? 

Robert Bader: Well, yes. The Sidney Sheldon story about Groucho is the best example. But I don’t want to ruin it. People can see it on the PBS Digital platform and the DVD, which is coming out in January. There’s always great material that doesn’t fit in. My first rough cut of Ali & Cavett was over three hours long. When I edit, I just lay everything out in my editing timeline that I want in the film and then I have to say, “Oh, my G-d, that’s way too long.” I know it’s going to be way too long, but I want to look at it all in context and see what works and what doesn’t work. And then, you save things and take a fifty-second thing that you really like, and you try to make it thirty-five seconds. It gets down to that kind of minutia. 

I’m not sure how other people edit their documentaries but what I do is I throw in everything but the kitchen sink and then whittle it down until it’s an acceptable length for the marketplace. I’m not going to ever make a ten-hour film. I’m not one of those guys. Making a concise ninety-minute or two-hour film is my goal. When I took subjects like Muhammad Ali on the Dick Cavett Show and Groucho Marx on the Dick Cavett Show, I had way more material to work with than you would expect. It was challenging to get these films to acceptable lengths, but they work. The Ali film is a little over ninety minutes and the Groucho film is a little under. Theyre both fine at those length and flow nicely. The relationships between those icons and Cavett is what I didn’t want to lose. I wanted that thread of them really adoring each other to run through both films. It took me about a year and a half to get Groucho & Cavett just right. I’m so thrilled that the film’s finally going to be on because I worked on it for a long time and I’m glad everybody’s getting to finally see it. 

What were the challenges of making this film during a pandemic? 

Robert Bader: The easy thing about working through the pandemic for me was that I do everything myself on these films. Some people would say I’m a control freak, but truth is I have no budget. I wrote, produced, directed and edited because I couldn’t afford to get anybody else to do those things. Editing the film occurred almost entirely at my desk in my home. When it went into post-production, I worked with another editor who helped me finish it off and that ended up being post-pandemic, really. We were still wearing masks in the edit room, but people were coming and going as opposed to the facility being mostly closed. Much of the work occurred in the vacuum of my home. Towards the end of the pandemic, when people started to be more available to be at work, I finished it off. It didn’t delay anything. It just gave me more time to focus on it because I didn’t have as many other things to do. I was working on a book and working on a film, so I had no complaints about being trapped in my house. 

How collaborative were the folks at American Masters? 

Robert Bader: I got good notes from Michael Kantor, the head of American Masters. When he saw my first cut of the film, he loved it. It’s interesting. I wasn’t really thinking it was going to be for American Masters. I didn’t know who it was going to be for. I just wanted to make it. Michael’s an old friend of mine, and I said, “Can you introduce me to some people at the other various PBS platforms?” He said, “Well, why not us? Why wouldn’t you let us have it?” My thought was, it’s about two people and American Masters is usually about one person. He said, “We want this, this is really wonderful.” That was a great thing to hear, because I didn’t have to run around trying to sell the film. 

I went to Michael as a friend for some advice and he wanted the film. Michael is a smart savvy guy. He knows what’s what. He gave me a couple of suggestions on things that I should probably move around or edit. He liked the film as it was, but those few little notes he gave me were very valuable. In that sense, it was mildly collaborative, but American Masters came in at the end and it was mostly intact at that point. 

What were some of those notes? 

Robert Bader: Now you’re asking for secrets! Okay, one of the deleted scenes—that’ll be on the DVD—concerns Dick introducing Groucho at Carnegie Hall. That was going to be near the very beginning of the film, and it didn’t really work anywhere else. Michael thought it was a little confusing to a casual viewer who might not know all that history, because it does sort of bounce back and forth in the beginning of the film from 1972 to 1961 to 1965. It was too much time travel in the first few minutes of the film. I tried unsuccessfully to move the Carnegie Hall segment to later in the film. It wasn’t that important so now it’s a deleted scene. That how deleted scenes happen. A couple of other people look at it. They say something like, “Why do you have that?” At first, when I took it out, I was a little upset about it and then I watched the film a couple of months later, when it hadn’t been there for a while, while I was editing. It plays better without it, so Michael was right. It’s now a deleted scene on the DVD. It just didn’t fit into the film well. 

Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes
Dick Cavett and Muhammad Ali in 1974. Photo credit: Daphne Productions

Are there any other Cavett guests that you’re working on for future films? 

Robert Bader: I’m not sure that there are any other guests who were on enough times that would be interesting enough to do a film. There are a lot of ideas about films that could be made from the Dick Cavett Show and I’m not certain what might work next. We did two television specials for PBS in 2014 and 2015. We did one about the Watergate scandal and one about the Vietnam War. I wish I had made those into ninety-minute feature films, but they are very effective as sixty-minute television shows. We got them on for the anniversaries. There was a time crunch on that. We wanted Dick Cavett’s Watergate to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon and we wanted Dick Cavett’s Vietnam to air on the fortieth anniversary in the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War. Those were time sensitive productions that had to be on the air by certain dates. The idea of making them feature films and running around the festival circuit and figuring out when we could sell them—we didn’t really want to take chances and not get them done in time for those anniversaries so those are TV specials. 

The experience on those shows led me to start my own film company and do the Ali film independently. I had a very specific vision and didn’t really have time constraints, although, ironically, there was a timing consideration that I didn’t think of initially. We reached out to the Ali family and Mrs. Ali agreed that if Ali was well enough, they would allow us to come and shoot something with Dick and Ali. He couldn’t speak at the time so we would just put them on a sofa in front of a television set watching an old Dick Cavett Show with Ali. But as we prepared to do that, Ali became very ill and eventually died. Once that happened, I realized there was going to be an avalanche of Muhammad Ali films being made. I was close to finished with Ali & Cavett when he died. I wanted to get it out quickly. You know the rest of it—it went to South by Southwest and HBO picked up the film. 

I was already thinking at that time about how to get the Groucho film done because that’s the one that was most important to me. I love Muhammad Ali, but people who know me are surprised that I didn’t do the Groucho film first. Ali & Cavett was not an easy sell in advance. Before I did the festival circuit, I went to a bunch of people who I thought would be appropriate distributors for the film and I got a lot of content criticism. I won’t mention specifically who said these things, but I will tell you that I had one potential market for the film dry up when I refused to take out the material about the Nation of Islam. I had another potential sale of the film go away when I wouldn’t take out the segment about Ali’s brain injuries. I remember they told me it reflects poorly on boxing to say that. Well, why wouldn’t you want to reflect poorly on boxing? It’s very corrupt and people get killed. Obviously, HBO had no problems with any of the content. Nothing in the original cut of the film was altered. You can still see Ali & Cavett on HBO and HBO Max exactly as you saw it at the South by Southwest festival. 

HBO picking up Ali & Cavett helped me make Groucho & Cavett. The Ali sale basically financed the Groucho film, so I was able to do that one independently as well. The initial sales effort on the Groucho film got some interesting comments—”Why are you trying to sell a film about two old white guys in a marketplace that doesn’t want to see two old white guys?” I didn’t think that was going to be a problem and luckily for me, it wasn’t. There’s a lot of resistance out there to content that some people assume isn’t going to be marketable, but then you learn it isn’t necessarily the case. I thought both Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett were marketable subjects. I think Groucho & Cavett is a delightful film, but I’m clearly biased. I love both of those guys and I made the film. So don’t take my word for it. 

I enjoyed it. 

Robert Bader: Well, you’re the person we’re looking for. If a critic sees the film and says it’s a nice film and you should see it, that’s how people discover films. If it just turns up in the TV listings, they may take a chance. You have regular readers or listeners, and they trust you so that’s why we talk to you. I want your audience to go watch my movie. 

I received an email recently about upcoming releases on the PBS app on Amazon and one of them was Groucho & Cavett. I looked it up and saw you made it and I’m like, I’ve got to figure out who I need to contact about a screener. 

Robert Bader: They put it on the cover of their program guide. That’s kind of cool. We’re happy to have that. Again, it’s really gratifying to me that people in the media, like yourself, have reached out and want to talk about the film. If they don’t come looking for you, you’ve got a problem. That’s what I’ve learned. I’m not really experienced with this. It’s not my primary vocation, making these films. I’m so happy people are reaching out and want to talk about it. They want to know about it, how it got made, and all that stuff. I don’t see that about every film that comes on. When people come to me for that, I’m right there to give it to them and tell people more about the film, make them want to see it—that’s what this business is. So of course, I’m glad you like it. It means a lot that you like it because you see a lot of films. I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if you thought the film was a stinker. 

It’s Groucho Marx—I’m gonna like it! 

Robert Bader: I’ve got a little confidence because of who my subjects are here. You’re talking about Dick Cavett and Groucho Marx. I’m not picking boring people. Muhammad Ali and Groucho Marx—yeah, I think I’ll do okay. It’s mine to mess up. It’s like you’ve got the bases loaded, nobody out. You’ve got a good opportunity to score some runs. I think Groucho is still incredibly important. People still recognize how great he was, and I just want to remind them about that. 

I’ve said this to a couple other people who talked to me about the film, but I’ll try to articulate it better for you because I’ve had some practice now. The Dick Cavett Show, in a sense for Groucho, was sort of a third act. His movie career was act one. His television show in the fifties, You Bet Your Life is act two. This could have been the end of the line for Groucho, and yet he gets this forum to go on television and still be Groucho Marx, still be sharp, razor-sharp wit, really funny, irreverent, all the great things we know Groucho does. Here he is, one more time on his way out of the public consciousness—at least before he dies anyhow—when he’s doing some of these shows maybe six years before he dies, seven years before he dies, and he’s still in pretty good shape. He started to have real problems after the Cavett shows ended for him. It’s the last glimpse of him as the Groucho we remember. Cavett likes to say he captured the last Groucho’s greatness or the last of Groucho’s prime. It’s true. We’ve got this little time capsule of the late years of Groucho with those Cavett shows. He did other television, but he might have been a little more restrained. He might not have been as disruptive on some other shows because he knew he had Cavett under his wing and Cavett was never going to limit him. I think in that sense, it’s valuable in the context of Groucho’s career—a lovely third act. I’m proud I got to be the guy to put that together in a film. Groucho deserves it. 

It’s just a shame that Groucho’s death got overshadowed by Elvis three days later. 

Robert Bader: I always tell people 1977 was a tough year if you went by one name because we lost Elvis, Groucho, Chaplin and Bing all in that one year. I address it in the film when Woody Allen and Cavett talk about Groucho getting a small obituary in Time magazine. Woody says, “Well, what does it mean to get a big obituary anyway?” I always think about this. The great blues musician Muddy Waters died the same day as George Balanchine, the great dancer. Balanchine was page one of the New York Times and Muddy was like Section C, page three, or something. He was great at his own art. Why is that not worthy of page one because George Balanchine died? You can’t really make sense out of it. Was Groucho Marx relegated to a lesser obituary? I don’t think so. I think maybe just Time magazine screwed it up, because Groucho was front page news everywhere. 

Elvis’s death was shocking because he was considerably younger. I think Groucho was properly honored when he died. He did get his due. Elvis got a lot more news coverage because he was Elvis. It was tragically unexpected. Groucho had been dying in a hospital for a couple of months and it was touch and go there for a while. I remember it well because I was a sixteen-year-old Marx Brothers fanatic when he was going through that last stage of his life. Every day I would pick up a newspaper. I would be looking for any news of Groucho’s health. Pre-internet, you didn’t have the ability to immediately see what was going on and I was just waiting for him to go. People weren’t waiting for Elvis to go and then one day, he was just gone. I think it was the shock value of Elvis’s death that was overwhelming. Everybody knew Groucho was about to die. They just didn’t know what day. 

Thank you so much and it was so nice to see you again. 

Robert Bader: Absolutely. Again, I really have never forgotten your early support because that was valuable. 

Groucho and Cavett airs December 27 at 8 PM ET on PBS.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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