Do yourself a favor and put the Dick Cavett DVD collection in your Netflix queue. I only wish that more of his old talk shows from the '70s were available; as of now, they have been whittled down to "Hollywood Greats" and "Rock 'n' Roll Legends," with people like John Huston, Katharine Hepburn, David Bowie, Sly Stone, and Frank Capra. If someone is famous enough, he or she talks to Dick for an entire hour with no other guests (the show was 90 minutes long). Most of the time he had at least three guests, so when you see Janis Joplin get interviewed, she is followed by an aged Gloria Swanson and giddy ingenue Margot Kidder, and then everyone talks together. I love this show because it is like sitting in an amazing bar, surrounded by disparate people who are thrown together for one night and somehow come up with things in common to talk about. The Dick Cavett Show, I realized, is like Mr. Bing's in North Beach.
Bing's is a small dive on the corner of Columbus and Pacific. It has a triangular bar that takes up about 80 percent of the space, and a decor that can only be described as no-frills. It reminds me of a diner, probably because it has large picture windows and lunch-counter-type stools. There is some kitsch here and there, like thrift-store art and a kooky condom vending machine, but for the most part it is barren. Even the booze is kept in a simple freezer case and on some tables behind the bartender. Yet the place holds a certain mystique, and draws me back again and again. Which brings me to my next point: Marlon Brando.
Cavett was famous for getting people on his show who wouldn't normally go on TV, let alone be interviewed. Elusive stars like Hepburn were drawn to his intelligence and low-key wit; he was Charlie Rose with better lighting and a sense of humor. He also managed to bag Brando, a guy who spent most of his later years ruling the roost in Tahiti, eschewing Hollywood and the press almost entirely. What few roles he took were in themselves that of twisted patriarchs — like those in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, for example. Brando agreed to go on the show, but only if he could also bring on about five Native Americans and talk about Indian rights, of course. (When you are Brando, you can do stuff like that.) So on the show he went, and it is about the most uncomfortable and provocative 60 minutes you will ever watch. He gives one-word answers to most questions, and deconstructs Cavett and his questions like an English grad student would. He hates being asked about acting or his career, but is loquacious when it comes to the subject of Native Americans, which is noble enough but pretty dull to hear about. All the while, however, he is sitting there, possibly the most handsome movie star who ever lived; flashing his amazing grin every 10 minutes or so, just to keep you hanging on. I found myself getting somewhat angry at him. If he hates attention so much, why in the world would someone who looks like him go into acting? He was destined to be famous. Also, like Greta Garbo, Brando seemed to turn his back on everything fame-related, which only added to people's fascination with him. By acting like he wanted to be ignored, he only drew more attention on himself. I feel the same way about Mr. Bing's. It has charisma; its "Don't look at me!" vibe fairly screams out for attention.
I was there during happy hour last week, and the assembled guests were sufficiently lubricated enough to facilitate some interesting conversations with one another. There were men of Chinese descent who had walked over from Chinatown; tourists of Spanish descent, who probably stumbled in after a long day in North Beach; and a few scattered blue-collar white guys watching sports. Every so often, young city residents would dip in and out for a quick beer, but as at most bars, I appreciated the fellas who came to stay a while and had the bar tab to prove it.
The Spaniards were speaking with the trademark Barcelona lisp. Some of the assembled regulars were eyeing them quizzically, since most "Mexicans" they know don't talk like that. I had dragged along a girlfriend, and we were of course discussing The Bachelorette, which sadly drew to a close last week and will now leave a gaping hole in our Monday nights. "I thought she was an idiot, but choosing Roberto was one smart move," I had to admit.
"Chris would have been a great choice in the long run," said my friend, who noted that he seemed more trustworthy. "Roberto is just too handsome. All handsome men cheat."
"Heyyy now," said a guy who could have been an extra in Goodfellas. He wasn't exactly what I would call handsome, but he took good-natured offense just the same. I was just about to debate the issue of male infidelity with him when he added, "Chris could cheat just as easily."
So there it was, the subject that might unite an entire bar, everyone's guilty pleasure — reality TV. If only the Spaniards spoke English! A few other people piped in. Some women knew even more about the show than I did, and that is really saying something. Soon everyone was chattering about different things, the ice sufficiently broken by Ali the Bachelorette.
Imagine, if you will, the television camera panning back over the assembled throng, then pulling out of the front window and across the street. An amber glow is coming from Bing's as the sun is just about to set. We are nighthawks at the diner, and the bartender is Dick Cavett, patiently moving from person to person with the occasional aside and more drinks to keep the conversation moving. This is the little bar with the big personality. Try as it might to blend in and disappear among much grander places in North Beach, it cannot. Mr. Bing's is Marlon Brando. And, yes, gentle reader, it might actually be a contender.
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