During his first few years on the air, talk show host Dick Cavett might have imagined his worst moment as a broadcaster would remain the night when actors Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes showed up for a taping drunk and incoherent. Things got so bad that at one point Cavett walked off his own show.
That was September 18, 1970. Less than a year later, Cavett would outdo himself. Interviewing New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, Cavett and his guest stopped momentarily to regard the odd behavior of the man sitting a few feet away. Jerome Rodale, who had just spent 30 minutes talking to Cavett about the organic food lifestyle he promoted, was snoring loudly.
That was funny only during the brief time it took for Cavett to realize Rodale’s color was pallid and that his head was slumped listlessly against his shoulder. Moments after the 72-year-old had declared he “never felt better in my life,” Rodale was dead, having expired in full view of ABC's cameras.
The name Jerome Rodale doesn’t have the same resonance today that it once did. At one time, the man media dubbed “Mr. Organic” was one of the most famous health advocates in the country, urging consumers to ignore the store aisles of increasingly processed food and to eat as many natural, whole foods as possible.
After a spell writing unsuccessful plays and self-publishing books, Rodale spent several years heading up magazines that espoused good nutritional habits. Many—like Prevention—are still in circulation today; others were used as a pulpit for Rodale to broadcast some of his more eccentric views on longevity and wellness. Polio, he once wrote, could be avoided not by vaccination but by eating a balanced diet; club soda contributed to poor eyesight.
It was contrary, occasionally outlandish advice, but Americans ate it up. By 1971, Rodale was firmly in control of a publishing empire and even made the cover of The New York Times Magazine for his status as a leading organic food advocate—at the time, a novel idea. The resulting publicity caught the attention of Cavett, who was preparing to tape a program in New York on June 7 of that year and had one spot open for a guest. His producers booked Rodale with the expectation that some of his more eccentric advice would make for good television.
They weren’t wrong. After Cavett opened his show with an act involving trained monkeys and comedian Marshall Efron, Rodale strolled out to the set bearing gifts. One was a goose egg that he declared harbored numerous health benefits; another was some asparagus that he claimed had been boiled in urine. The audience, perhaps drawing a line at consuming their own waste to benefit their health, responded with concerned murmuring.
Cavett, however, was happy. Rodale was as advertised, and the two spent 30 minutes of Cavett’s 90-minute running time exploring Rodale’s plans to live to be 100.
When Hamill came out, Rodale made room and shifted to another seat. After a few minutes, he appeared to lose consciousness. Though Cavett doesn’t recall it, he’s been told some people remember him asking Rodale if they were boring him.
Once Cavett realized what was happening, he began to shout for a doctor in the audience. Two medical interns rushed the stage, attending to a now-prostrate Rodale. "Two stewardesses in the front row who’d been winking and joking with me during the commercial breaks were now crying," Cavett recalled. "I guess from their training and having seen emergencies, they knew the score."
As police and EMTs began to fill the stage, it was obvious that Rodale would not be leaving under his own power. His inert body was taken away on a stretcher, leaving Cavett and his astonished audience to process what had just happened. Rodale had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Rodale’s death didn’t go on the air that night—or any night, for that matter. Both ABC and Cavett had the good sense to never exploit the incident in any way out of respect for Rodale and his family. Cavett aired a rerun, then went on the following night to explain what happened to viewers who had read of the incident in the papers. (Hamill had been taking notes during the entire fiasco.)
Cavett did watch the tape several weeks later with some of his production staff, and it’s likely someone in the network’s pipeline made copies of the morbid footage to give to their wives or friends as a scare. Aside from those incidences, Rodale’s death has never been seen by anyone.
Despite that embargo, Cavett once estimated that he is confronted 20 or so times a year by people who want to discuss “the guy who died on your show” and how shocked they were to see it. Cavett had painted such a detailed picture of the segment on his show that it created a kind of false memory in his viewers, some of whom could not be convinced the show didn’t actually air. A 2007 New York Times editorial by Cavett recalling the episode even featured a comment by one reader who swore that “I DID see this.” If they did, you’d think they’d remember the urine-soaked asparagus, too.