Dick Cavett is best known for the witty, penetrating interviews he conducted for three decades on The Dick Cavett Show — but to Beetlejuice fans, he’ll always be Delia Deetz’s agent. Though the television personality was in just a single scene of Tim Burton’s 1988 supernatural comedy, it turned out to be the most memorable one in the film: the dinner party at which Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and her guests are possessed by ghosts and perform a song-and-dance routine to Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” In honor of Beetlejuice‘s 30th anniversary on March 30, Cavett spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about shooting the “Day-O” scene, his surprising special-effects contribution, and the one thing he wishes he’d done differently.
Cavett told Yahoo that he was surprised when Tim Burton offered him a role in Beetlejuice, seeing as he wasn’t an actor (though he did have experience as both a magician and stand-up comic). In fact, when Cavett has guest-starred on movie and television shows — including The Simpsons, Cheers, and Forrest Gump — he’s usually playing himself. But Burton was a fan and asked Cavett to play Bernard, the weary art agent to O’Hara’s terrible sculptor Delia.
Watch the ‘Day-O’ scene from Beetlejuice:
“It was delightful and every day was interesting,” Cavett said of his three-day shoot. He also revealed that he believes he “made a contribution to the film” in terms of a difficult special effect. At the end of “Day-O,” the grotesque shrimp on the guests’ plates become the fingers of hands, which reach out and grab their faces. Burton, said Cavett, was having difficulty making the shot work, because the special effects team hidden under the table couldn’t see the actors and kept missing their faces. Cavett recalled making the suggestion: “Why don’t you shoot it in reverse?”
Burton liked the idea (“I was hailed as a genius, though I’m sure several others would have thought of it,” Cavett said), so the director set up the shot with the arms grabbing the actors, then had them retreat back into the table. Cavett was never 100 percent sure that the reverse shot made it into the final film, so fans watching the scene will have to decide for themselves.
There’s only one thing Cavett regrets about his Beetlejuice scene. Since he’s a magician, he wished that he’d gotten a chance to do some sleight of hand with his table napkin to make it seem haunted. But he was quite happy with his hilarious exit line (the one that begins “Delia, you are a flake”), which he can still recite it from memory.
Watch Dick Cavett’s sick burn for Catherine O’Hara in Beetlejuice:
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