Johnny Carson 1925-2005
The Associated Press--Long-time â€œTonight Showâ€ host Johnny Carson has died of complications from emphysema. He was 79. According to a nephew, he died peacefully in is sleep earlier today with family members at his side.
The boyish-looking Nebraska native with the disarming grin, who survived every attempt to topple him from his late-night talk show throne, was a star who managed never to distance himself from his audience.
His wealth, the adoration of his guests - particularly the many young comics whose careers he launched - the wry tales of multiple divorces: Carson's air of modesty made it all serve to enhance his bedtime intimacy with viewers.
"Heeeeere's Johnny!" was the booming announcement from sidekick Ed McMahon that ushered Carson out to the stage. Then the formula: the topical monologue, the guests, the broadly played skits such as "Carnac the Magnificent."
But America never tired of him; Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992. In his final show, he told his audience: "And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."
His personal life could not match the perfection of his career. Carson was married four times, divorced three. In 1991, one of his three sons, 39-year-old Ricky, was killed in a car accident.
Nearly all of Carson's professional life was spent in television, from his postwar start at Nebraska stations in the late 1940s to his three decades with NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
Carson choose to let "Tonight" stand as his career zenith and his finale, withdrawing into a quiet retirement that suited his private nature and refusing involvement in other show business projects.
In 1993, he explained his absence from the limelight.
"I have an ego like anybody else," Carson told The Washington Post, "but I don't need to be stoked by going before the public all the time."
He was open to finding the right follow-up to "Tonight," he told friends. But his longtime producer, Fred de Cordova, said Carson didn't feel pressured -- he could look back on his TV success and say "I did it."
"And that makes sense. He is one of a kind, was one of a kind," de Cordova said in 1995. "I don't think there's any reason for him to try something different."
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in nearby Norfolk. He started his show business career at age 14 as the magician "The Great Carsoni."
After World War II service in the Navy, he took a series of jobs in local radio and TV in Nebraska before starting at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950.
There he started a sketch comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," which ran from 1951-53 and attracted attention from Hollywood. A staff writing job for "The Red Skelton Show" followed.
The program provided Carson with a lucky break: when Skelton was injured backstage, Carson took the comedian's place in front of the cameras.
The appearance probably was Carson's first monologue in front of a national audience, according to "The Complete Directory to Primetime TV Stars."
Producers tried to find the right program for the up-and-coming comic, trying him out as host of the quiz show "Earn Your Vacation" (1954) and in the variety show "The Johnny Carson Show" (1955-56).
From 1957-62 he hosted the daytime game show "Who Do You Trust?" and, in 1958, was joined for the first time by McMahon, his durable "Tonight" buddy.
A few acting roles came Carson's way, including one on "Playhouse 90" in 1957, and he did a pilot in 1960 for a prime-time series, "Johnny Come Lately," that never made it onto a network schedule.
In 1958, Carson sat in for "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar. When Paar left the show four years later, Carson was NBC's choice as his replacement and took over on Oct. 2, 1962.
Audiences quickly grew fond of Carson's boyish grin and easy wit. He even made headlines with such clever ploys as the 1969 on-show marriage of singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, which won the show its biggest-ever ratings.
The wedding and other noteworthy moments from the show were collected into a yearly "Tonight" anniversary special.
In 1972, "Tonight" moved from New York to Burbank. Growing respect for Carson's consistency and staying power, along with four consecutive Emmy Awards, came his way in the late 1970s.
His quickness and his ability to handle an audience were impressive. When his jokes missed their target, the smooth Carson won over a groaning studio audience with a clever look or sly, self-deprecating remark.
Politics provided monologue fodder for him as skewered lawmakers of every stripe, mirroring the mood of voters. His Watergate jabs at President Nixon were seen as cementing Nixon's fall from office in 1976.
He dispatched would-be late-night competitors with equal aplomb. Competing networks tried a variety of formats and hosts but never managed to best "Tonight" and Carson.
There was the occasional battle with NBC: in 1967, for instance, Carson walked out for several weeks until the network managed to lure him back with a contract that reportedly gave him $1 million-plus yearly.
In 1980, after more walkout threats, the show was scaled back from 90 minutes to an hour. Carson also eased his schedule by cutting back on his work days; a number of substitute hosts filled in, including Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Jerry Lewis and Jay Leno, Carson's eventual successor.
In the '80s, Carson was reportedly the highest-paid performer in television history with a $5 million "Tonight" show salary alone.
His Carson Productions created and sold pilots to NBC, including "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes." Carson himself made occasional cameo appearances on other TV series.
He also performed in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and repeatedly hosted the Academy Awards from 1979 on.
Carson's graceful exit from "Tonight" did not avoid a messy, bitter battle to fill his job.
Leno and fellow comedian David Letterman's tug-of-war over the job inspired a satirical 1996 HBO movie, "The Late Shift," based on the Bill Carter book of the same name.
Leno took over as "Tonight" host on March 25, 1992, becoming the fourth man to hold the job after founding host Steve Allen, Paar and Carson (Letterman moved to a competitive late-night job at CBS).
Carson stayed out of the fray and, after leaving "Tonight," took on the role of Malibu-based retiree with apparent ease. An avid tennis fan, Carson was still playing a vigorous game in his 70s. He was seen in the stands at professional matches including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
He and his wife, Alexis, traveled and dined out frequently. The pair met on the Malibu beach in the early 1980s; he was 61 when they married in June 1987, she was in her 30s.
Carson's first wife was his childhood sweetheart, Jody, the mother of his three sons. They married in 1949 and split in 1963.
He married Joanne Copeland Carson in 1963; divorce came in 1972. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland Carson, took place in 1972. They separated in 1982 and reached a divorce settlement in 1985.
On the occasion of Carson's 70th birthday in 1995, former "Tonight" bandleader Doc Severinsen, who toured with musicians from the show, said he was constantly reminded of Carson's enduring popularity.
"Every place we go people ask 'How is he? Where is he? What is he doing? Tell him how much we miss him.' It doesn't surprise me," Severinsen said.
The brisk sale of videocassettes of the best of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," released in the early '90s, offered further proof of his appeal.
In 1993, he was celebrated by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement.
An Appreciation of Johnny Carson
On the good nights, he was the second best thing you could do in bed -- but on his best nights, he was the best
By Jack Boulware Salon.com (February 20, 2001)
Readers opening the pages of the New Yorker last Oct. 30 found an unexpected tidbit in the midst of the usual Talk of the Town items -- a small humor piece entitled "Proverbs According to Dennis Miller ." Among the short parodies of Miller's reference-heavy style: "A bird in the hand ... is dead or alive, depending on one's will," and "What goes up ... will stay up if it has an escape velocity of 11.3 kilometres per second." The byline was Johnny Carson.
Journalists and television execs pricked up their ears. This was peculiar. Carson had waved goodbye to America in 1992 after hosting "The Tonight Show" for 30 years, and then abruptly vanished from the public eye. For eight years, no jokes, no interviews, no follow-up projects. Television's most recognizable figure, gone.
But here was Johnny, right there on the page, spoofing the pseudo-intellectual Miller's new gig as NFL announcer. According to the New York Times, Carson submitted the piece to the editors on the suggestion of humorist Steve Martin, and they printed it. And then, as if to dispel the sophomore slump, he published another two months later, a recently discovered collection of children's letters to Santa, as if written by Bill Buckley, Chuck Heston and Don Rickles.
Seeing him again was sort of like peeking through the curtains and seeing the divorced dad pull up in the driveway after an extended absence. Carson was a fixture to two generations of boob-tube Americans. Vietnam-era adults saw him as the nightly tonic to a pain-in-the-ass workday. Children sitting up past their bedtime marveled at a cocktailed Golden Age of celebrities, comedians and racy jokes. Each evening I used to hear the show's opening theme "Daaa dat dat da daa!" emanate from my parents' bedroom, accompanied by Ed McMahon's stentorian announcements, and it was like a signal. They were going to watch Johnny until they fell asleep, and I could do whatever I wanted. Until I could drive a car, I watched the show too.
Carson built up his on-screen family of regulars, and viewers learned to quickly identify the established comic premises. Johnny was the sideburned rascal, forever taken to the cleaners by ex-wives. Ed was the tippling Tonto sidekick who pitched for dog food. Doc Severinsen owned impossibly loud clothing and failed racehorses. Tommy Newsom: beige and boring. The shtick never varied; characters like Carnac the Magnificent and the oily Art Fern's Tea Time Theater continued year after year. This was old-school, steeped in vaudeville and radio, with the ribbon mike firmly planted atop the desk. Funny props, cute animals, a few caca jokes, ogle the cleavage, keep things moving. If it ain't broke, it stays in the show.
The most impressive feature was always Carson's opening monologue, sharp and topical, evolving with the nation's moods, delivered with a casual Midwestern air, textbook TV cool, each punchline set up with a completely plausible statement, as if Johnny were standing in line in front of you at the feed store, and turned to say, "Did you see this in the news?" When the material clicked, it killed. (Many maintain that Carson's constant hammering of President Nixon contributed to his eventual resignation.) And when a line bombed, Carson made an art form out of the recovery. ("You didn't boo me when I smothered a grenade at Guadalcanal.") In a narrow-casted, three-network world where comedy meant sitcoms and variety shows, his monologue provided an ideal cultural barometer for the nation, mixing in politics, scientific discoveries, fads and trends, strange news items, his divorces and even bawdy mentions about Dolly Parton or Linda Lovelace. If you craved a peek at the big bad adult world, there was really nowhere else to turn besides the first 10 minutes of "The Tonight Show."
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, in 1925, and spent his formative years in Norfolk, Neb., performing magic and comedy under the name "The Great Carsoni." He served in the Navy during World War II, entertained college fraternity parties and worked as a radio announcer and disk jockey. While performing for audiences of farmers each day, he spent nights listening to tapes of radio heroes like Jack Benny and Bob Hope, studying their inflections and timing.
When television began to invade America's living rooms, Carson chased the new medium to Los Angeles, where he hosted a handful of low-budget comedy series, conducting phony interviews and performing skits and characters. The material was quirky and occasionally naughty, yet homespun enough to hit home with the heartland. Although he was popular, the shows weren't, and he ended up writing jokes for Red Skelton. His first big break came in 1957 as replacement host of the ABC daytime quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" When Carson inherited the show, he needed to hire an announcer. A big man from Philadelphia showed up for what would be a very bizarre job interview.
In his 1998 autobiography "For Laughing Out Loud," Ed McMahon recalls walking into Carson's office, to find Johnny standing at the window, looking out in silence. Finally he turned and asked McMahon where he went to school.
"Catholic University," McMahon answered. "In Washington, D.C. I studied speech and drama."
Carson replied that was very interesting, and thanked him for coming by. McMahon left confused, thinking perhaps he'd blown it, and didn't hear anything for three weeks, until the show's producer called and told him he will be wearing suits on the show to emphasize his size. He realized he got the job. He also saw a glimpse into the private shyness of a man who would be his employer and friend for the next 35 years.
(Biographical material from eonline.com)
Birthdate: October 23, 1925
Birthplace: Corning, IA
Occupations: Actor, Comedian, TV/radio host
Claim to Fame: Host of The Tonight Show (1961-1992)
Wife: Joan Carson Buckley (nee Wolcott), aka Jody Carson; married 1949; divorced 1963 (Carson obtained a Mexican divorce); born in 1926; married art director Don Buckley in 1970-73; lost 1990 suit to increase her 1970 alimony award; met at the University of Nebraska where she was an art major; worked as Carson's assistant in the magic act that he performed in American Legion halls across the country
Wife: Joanne Carson (nee Copeland); married August 1963; divorced 1972; born c. 1932; earned Ph.D in nutrition after divorce; reportedly received a lump sum of $160,000, an art collection and $75,000 per week as divorce settlement
Wife: Joanna Carson (nee Holland); born in 1941; married 1972; divorced 1983; received $20 million in cash and property in divorce settlement from Carson
Wife: Alexis Carson (nee Mass), aka Alex Carson, former secretary; married June 20, 1987; born in 1950; reportedly met Carson while strolling by his Malibu beach house
Grandfather: Christopher Carson
Father: Homer Carson, aka Kit Carson, Power company manager; deceased
Mother: Ruth Carson (nee Hook), Housewife; died 1985
Sibling: Has one older sibling
Brother: Dick Carson, Director; director of Wheel of Fortune; younger than Carson
Son: Christopher Carson, Golf pro; born in 1950; mother Jody Wolcott
Son: Richard Wolcott Carson, aka Rick Carson; born June 1952; died in car accident June 21, 1991; mother Jody Wolcott
Son: Cory Carson, Guitarist; born in 1953; mother Jody Wolcott
American Guild of Variety Artists Entertainer of the Year Award.
1975/76: Emmy for Special Classification of Outstanding Program and Individual Achievement for The Tonight Show.
1976/77: Emmy for Special Classification of Outstanding Program Achievement for The Tonight Show.
1977/78: Emmy for Special Classification of Outstanding Program Achievement for The Tonight Show.
Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement-Special Class for The Tonight Show. Shared award.
1979/80: Emmy for Third Annual Atas Governor's Award.
1992: American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1992: Presidential Medal of Freedom.
1993: Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award.