Intermittently since 1968, Cavett has been host of his own talk show, in various formats and on various television and radio networks:
Cavett has been nominated for at least ten Emmy Awards and has won three. In 1970, he co-hosted the Emmy Awards Show (from Carnegie Hall in New York) with Bill Cosby (from Century Plaza in Los Angeles). His most popular talk show was his ABC program, which ran from 1969 to 1974. From 1962 to 1992, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was arguably the most popular of late night variety and talk shows. Unlike many contemporary shows, Cavett managed to remain on the air for five years. Although his shows did not attract a wide audience, remaining in third place in the ratings behind Carson and Merv Griffin, he earned a reputation as "the thinking man's talk show host" and received favorable reviews from critics. As a talk show host, Cavett has been noted for his ability to listen to his guests and engage them in intellectual conversation. Clive James described Cavett "as a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range" and "the most distinguished talk-show host in America." He is also known for his ability to remain calm and mediate between contentious guests, and for his deep, resonant voice, unusual for a man of his stature (5'7").
One particularly controversial show from June 1971 featured a debate between future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry and fellow veteran John O'Neill over the Vietnam War. O'Neill had been approached by the Nixon administration to work through the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace to counter Kerry's influence on the public. The debate went poorly for the pro-war side, so angering President Nixon that he is heard discussing the incident on the Watergate tapes, saying, "Well, is there any way we can screw him [Cavett]? That's what I mean. There must be ways." To which H. R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, answered, "We've been trying to."
Cavett himself, asked during a Question and Answer segment with his audience in the late '60s why he wore long sideburns, replied, "It's a form of mild protest. Sort of like boiling my draft card."
Cavett also hosted many popular musicians, both in interview and performance, such as Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Several of his Emmy Award nominations and one Emmy Award were for Outstanding Musical or Variety Series, and in 2005 Shout Factory released a selection of performances and interviews on a three DVD set, The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons, showcasing interviews of and performances by musicians who appeared on the Dick Cavett show from 1969 to 1974.
Clips from his TV shows have been used in films, for example Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), and Frequency (2000). He also holds the distinction of being the only famous person to actually interact with the title character of Forrest Gump without the aid of archive footage or computer trickery. Cavett donned a wig and makeup was applied to make him appear as his 1971 self, and he was filmed with Tom Hanks on a recreated set (though archive footage of John Lennon from Cavett's show was digitally added).
Cavett was surprised at footage from his TV show appearing in Apollo 13. He said at the time of the film's release, "I'm happily enjoying a movie, and suddenly I'm in it."