To understand the new play "Hellman v. McCarthy," you have to go back to 1979, when literary critic Mary McCarthy appeared on a popular TV talk show and inadvertently insulted author Lillian Hellman. What ensued was a legal battle and a nasty feud between the two successful women.
And it all started on "The Dick Cavett Show."
"Let's just say they were two great ladies of literature... rather brilliant in both cases, and hated each other's guts," says Cavett. "I think they had shared certain men... they were jealous of each other's praises."
Venerable talk show Cavett was asked to play himself in a new play that chronicles the beef between the two women. At first, Cavett had his doubts about turning the story into a stage show. "It sounded silly to me and I couldn't imagine how you'd get a play out of it," he says. But the bizarre details of the story weren't lost on Cavett. "Brian Mori, who wrote the play, was probably not the only person who saw there was a drama there. But he's the one who succeeded."
Cavett, the man who sat down with Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Orson Welles among many other greats, says he's a fan of at least a couple of contemporary talk shows.
"It does seem to me that most talk segments are seven minutes long and brilliantly handled if done by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, who can get wit and information out at the same time," Cavett says. "I wouldn't know how to do that."
Listen to the extra audio below to hear Dick Cavett talk about another great literary feud that played out on his show, with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and literary critic Janet Flanner of The New Yorker.
"Hellman v. McCarthy" runs Feb. 6-28 at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills and March 1 at the Saban Theater.