In the New York Times Magazine, 72-year-old fitness guru Jerome I. Rodale had declared proudly sand defiantly: "I'm going to live to be 100, unless I get run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver." The very next day, the confident health guru made an appearance on the then-popular TV talk show The Dick Cavett Show. The date was June 5, 1971 and I repeat (with apologies) "health fitness guru" Jerome Rodale was chatting amiably in front of a studio audience with the always clever host, Dick Cavett.
If a comedy writer was writing a sketch for a sitcom, and he or she wanted to write about the funniest, most ironic person who could possibly die in the middle of a talk show, what profession would they write the character in as? Hmmm ...a health expert? The gods, merciless as they apparently are, must indeed have a sense of humor. Obviously, no man's death is funny or amusing, but "Tragedy plus time equals humor." (I once politely argued with Tim Conway over whose quote that was: I said it was Steve Allen's, but Tim said it was Carole Burnett's. Whoever.)
Rodale was a slight man, he looked like Leon Trotsky with a goatee. He was extremely friendly with host Dick Cavett for a half-hour, chatting about health foods, and soon he offered Cavett some of his special asparagus, which he said was "boiled in urine." Cavett, always a ready wit, remembers asking, "Anybody's we know?" Cavett enjoyed the interview and made a mental note to invite Rodale back. The next guest came out: Pete Hamill, a columnist for The New York Post. It was during the interview with Hamill that Rodale suddenly made a snoring sound, which got a laugh from the audience. (Comics sometimes make this sound sarcastically, as if the other person talking is dull or tedious.)
But the snoring sound caused Cavett to ask Rodale, "Are we boring you, Mr. Rodale?" The line is disputed; Cavett says he "emphatically" does not recall saying it. Pete Hamill said, "This looks bad." and the audience laughed. But Cavett suddenly realized his guest was dead. Next, Cavett grabbed Rodale's wrist, thinking, "I don't know anything about what a wrist is supposed to feel like." Cavett went to the front of the stage and called out, "Is there a doctor in the ...audience?"
Two medical interns scrambled onto the stage. They put Rodale flat on the floor, loosened his shirt and pants, and began working on him. Cavett recalled two stewardesses in the front row who had been winking at him and joking during commercial breaks were now crying. A cameraman was standing up on his tiptoes, his camera pointing straight down on Rodale to catch the "action."
Pete Hamill, amid all the turmoil, was calmly and professionally taking notes on his reporter's notepad. Cavett then recalled seeing an ambulance crew arrive and feeling the bizarre feeling of denial with the audience, who had been laughing and happy just moments ago. He remembered the objects someone must have given him that he discovered in his pocket when he was in his dressing room after the show: a chapstick, a watch, and some keys. They were clearly from the dead man's pockets.
As Cavett left and walked down an alley to get in his car, a voice called out, "Hey, Dick, was that for real?" Cavett recalled a few lines from Rodale that night: "I'm in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way," and "I've decided to live to be a hundred." And, of course, the inevitable, "I've never felt better in my life." Cavett remembers going home and reading Robert Frost's poem Out, Out-. The poem ends with the words, "And they, since they/were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs."
On the next show, Cavett talked about the strange events during his opening monologue. No laughs from the audience. He dreaded coming back after commercial to do the rest of the show. But after he returned, the laughs started coming and he realized, much to his relief, that the crowd was "eager to get back to laughs."
Months later, Cavett met the great (and very astute) actress Katherine Hepburn. Always curious, she asked for all the details about "the man who died" on the show. Cavett told Hepburn everything he could remember. Then he asked her a question that had been bothering him, i.e. "Why did I take that awkward pause and say 'Is there a doctor in the ...audience?'" "Because," said Hepburn, "You knew that if you had said 'Is there a doctor in the house?' it would have gotten a laugh." He hadn't realized it at the time, but he knew she was right.
Although "the show where the guy died" was never aired, Dick Cavett said he met several hundreds of fans over the years who have claimed -with great certainly- that they had seen it on TV. He says he meets 20 or so every year who still say this, and devoutly believe it, to this day.