Johnny Carson Dies at 79
"Tonight Show" TV host served America a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter, droll comedy and heartland charm for 30 years.
By Brian Lowry Special to The Los Angeles Times 1:06 PM PST, January 23, 2005
Johnny Carson, who in three decades as host of "The Tonight Show" became one of America's most influential political satirists and the entertainment industry's most powerful figures, died today. He was 79.
His nephew, Jeff Sotzing, a former producer of "The Tonight Show," said Carson died peacefully, but declined to give a location or other details.
NBC said Carson died at his Malibu home of emphysema. He had suffered a heart attack and undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.
Former NBC chairman Grant Tinker called Carson's run on "The Tonight Show" "the biggest and best television has ever been." When he announced his retirement in 1991, another comedy legend, Bob Hope, said it was "sort of a like a head falling off Mt. Rushmore."
The late-night host had become an extraordinarily private figure in recent years given the national stage he commanded for three decades. He seldom appeared in public-and, other than a few cameos on David Letterman's late-night show and a tribute to Bob Hope-completely eschewed television after leaving "The Tonight Show" on May 22, 1992, with a retrospective that drew an audience rivaling the Super Bowl.
"I bid you a very heartfelt good night," were his parting words.
Ed McMahon, the sidekick who always introduced Carson with "Heeeeere's Johnny!" today said the former talk show host was "like a brother to me."
"Our 34 years of working together, plus the 12 years since then, created a friendship which was professional, family-like and one of respect and great admiration," McMahon said in a statement. "When we ended our run on 'The Tonight Show" and my professional life continued, whenever a big career decision needed to be made, I always got the OK from 'the boss.'"
After years of silence, Carson spoke to Esquire magazine for a 2002 profile, reconfirming his belief that he had done the right thing in essentially disappearing from public view.
"I left at the right time," he said. "You've got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me. The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself."
From a cultural standpoint, Carson's nightly monologue developed a reputation as a bellwether in terms of the national mood. When Carson began making Watergate jokes, The New York Times wrote in 1975, "we knew it was permissible to ridicule the president, that Mr. Nixon was done for."
"The influence he had on the country was unique. He was the conscience of America," said Peter Lassally, Carson's producer for more than two decades, who noted that Carson was also extraordinarily even-handed, so much so that no one ever knew his personal political leanings.
Carson also had a major effect on television standards, lacing his monologue with sexual innuendo that once would have been unthinkable on television.
"Next to Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, he's had the single greatest influence on the content of television," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. "He really created the monologue and turned it into a cultural barometer of political and social events. Many people got their take on what was acceptable from the monologue."
Carson himself said in a 1986 interview, "I knew from the monologue the very night that Spiro Agnew was suddenly in deep trouble. From a one-line observation I can get a response, a reaction . . . that may be the best indicator of how [someone] is perceived in this country."
If Carson's jokes reverberated in Washington, who appeared on "The Tonight Show" was seen for many years in Hollywood as a career-making platform, especially for stand-up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld called receiving the "OK" sign from Carson after his first appearance "the Holy Grail of comedy."
Being asked to sit down after a performance was a sign of validation and prestige. As comic Garry Shandling said a few years ago, "I didn't get to sit down on the couch the first time. It is sort of a benchmark to sit on the couch. When you go to Johnny's house, you stand the first few times you are there."
Introduced by Groucho Marx on his first show, Oct. 1, 1962, Carson went on to host more than 7,500 hours of television and weathered numerous late-night challenges, including competing shows featuring Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers and Pat Sajak that all came and went during his tenure.
At the end, feeling NBC was maneuvering behind him to line up a replacement, Carson stunned the television world when he announced his plans to retire at an advertising presentation in 1991, setting off a flurry of debate and backstage jockeying to determine whether Letterman or Jay Leno should become his successor. Leno won the job, prompting Letterman to leave NBC for a competing show on CBS.
After leaving the network, Carson studiously avoided the spotlight, representing one of the industry's few stars who have been able to walk away. Friends said Carson remembered seeing one-time idols like Hope and Jack Benny near the end of their careers and wanted to avoid that scenario.
In 1979, at the age of 53, Carson said he couldn't see himself sitting at the desk in his 60s. Seven years later, he was still grappling with when to leave.
"I remember when [CBS President] Jim Aubrey canned Jack Benny, and that won't happen to me," Carson said. "I'll know when the time has come. The people tell you. . . .
"You don't just walk in and do what I do. You have to put it on the griddle, and it's from night to night. It's about momentum. That's why when I quit I won't come back to the same format. It's not like [golfer] Jack Nicklaus coming back to win the Masters."
Lassally called Carson's ability to shun celebrity at 66, when he could have easily continued to perform, and stay away despite entreaties to return "an elegant end to his career."
Friends frequently tried to coax him out of retirement. Steve Martin, a poker buddy, proposed that Carson make an appearance on the Academy Awards-which he hosted several times-and NBC Chairman Bob Wright pleaded with him to appear on the network's 75th anniversary special in May, 2002. Carson declined.
Nevertheless, he admitted in the Esquire interview that a decade after leaving "The Tonight Show" the program stayed with him, telling Esquire that he still had dreams where he was late for work and suddenly realized he was unprepared to go on.
"I wake up in a sweat," he said. "It's now been 10 years since I've been done with the job, but I will still be back there â€” it was two-thirds of my adult life, remember â€” and people will be as real and fresh and current as ever in the dream."
Later in his life, Carson did exhibit some signs of wanting to safeguard his legacy. In 2003, for example, he wrote the Wall St. Journal to correct a reference to the use of canned laughter on the program, stressing that he never did during his 30-year tenure.
"I don't mean to sound peevish," Carson said, "but I wouldn't want peoples' memories of 'The Tonight Show' to be dimmed because they believed the laughter they heard wasn't genuine."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Carson, the host, was how effortless he made "The Tonight Show" look. His monologue, never rehearsed, seemed to perfectly capture the tone necessary to let people unwind. He also seemed to possess an innate understanding of the rhythms and pacing of television.
"It should be low-key," Carson once told reporter Rick Du Brow, then at the Herald-Examiner. "It's the end of the day. People watching don't want someone who looks like they're going to have a nervous breakdown."
Carson's demonstrated his ability to craft his own material during the Writers Guild of America strike in 1988. After two months of inactivity in which he respected picket lines, Carson returned to work while his staff of eight writers remained on strike, putting together his own monologues. At one point, he referred to the writers carrying "weird picket signs," with nothing written on them.
Some attribute part of Carson's vast appeal to his Midwestern roots and sensibility. Born in Corning, Iowa, Carson was raised in Norfolk, Neb., where he began his career as a teenager, performing a magic act he called "The Great Carsoni."
Unlike the comics he admired, many of whom were brought up in poverty, Carson enjoyed relative prosperity even during the Depression as the son of a district manager for the power company. He was a middle child, with an older sister, Catherine, and younger brother, Dick, who later worked as a director on "The Tonight Show" and other TV programs.
Carson served in the Navy (a ship he was on, the Pennsylvania, was torpedoed in August 1945, slaying nearly 20 of his crew mates) and subsequently attended the University of Nebraska. Honing his act by performing during college, after graduating he landed a job at a local radio station-WOW in Omaha-where he wrote comedy and announced commercials. Not long after the first TV station in the area signed on in 1949, Carson began hosting a 15-minute TV show, "Squirrel's Nest."
The comic moved to Los Angeles, in 1950 becoming a staff announcer at the local CBS station, KNXT, which led to his own program, "Carson's Cellar." He subsequently wrote for Red Skelton's TV show.
Carson ascended to network television at the age of 29, headlining a daytime show and substituting on CBS' "The Morning Show." In 1957, he became host of what become a popular ABC daytime show, "Who Do You Trust?," which first paired him with his long-time "Tonight Show" announcer, Ed McMahon.
When Jack Paar decided to leave "The Tonight Show," NBC saw Carson as the obvious replacement. Desperate to have him, the network used guest hosts for six months until Carson-who initially turned down the job-was free of his ABC contract.
His starting salary, $100,000 a year, eventually blossomed into millions (his earnings reportedly exceeded $20 million a year by 1990). Carson owned the sketches on his show as well, which were packaged and sold separately to TV stations under the name "Carson's Comedy Classics." His company also produced David Letterman's late-night NBC show and such prime-time programs as "Amen" and the movie "The Big Chill."
Still, Carson always remained detached from business matters, leaving them primarily in the hands of his attorney, Henry Bushkin, who he called "the Bombastic Bushkin" on the show. Bushkin was also Carson's closest friend, until a falling out later in his career severed both their professional and personal ties.
Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank-which became another regular target for jokes-in 1972. He also pressed to cut the show from 90 minutes (it originally ran 1 hour and 45 minutes) to an hour in 1980 and threatened to quit to get the network to do so.
NBC resisted, resulting in a public and protracted contract negotiation. The network eventually caved in, however, giving Carson ownership of the show itself in the process. This was not surprising, since "The Tonight Show" accounted for nearly a fifth of the network's total profit.
Carson was equally successful as a headliner in Las Vegas, and he negotiated extended vacation time (as well as Mondays off) that allowed him to perform there frequently.
If Carson was a king in the entertainment world, his personal life was thornier. Carson remained an inordinately private person for such a public figure, but the facts that came out often seemed at odds with his genial on-screen image. A chain smoker, he married four times, wrestled with alcoholism and endured the death of one of his three sons, Rick, in a 1991 car accident at the age of 39.
Carson usually allowed his personal life to invade the show only in jest, but after that incident he fought back tears while eulogizing his son. After a much-publicized arrest for drunk driving in 1982, Carson had a policeman escort him onstage.
One of Carson's wives, Joanne, said the comic had focused on his career "because instinctively he knew the career would never let him down. He felt it would never betray him, and it never has betrayed him."
Although his first divorce became final in 1963, that relationship flared up in 1990 when his wife, Jody "Joan" Wolcott, the mother of all three children and his college sweetheart, demanded a nine-fold increase in her alimony payments, to $120,000 per year. Carson's attorneys called the request "a baldfaced holdup."
Carson was married to his fourth wife, Alexis, in 1987. The two met on the beach a few years prior and wed in a private ceremony at his Malibu home. His passions included astronomy and tennis, both as a player and fan, evidenced by his regular trips to the Wimbledon tournament in England.
"If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to 'The Tonight Show,' I'd probably have a hell of a marriage," Carson told the Times in '86. "But the fact is, I haven't given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages: I put the energy into the show."
For all the plaudits heaped on him, Carson's influence within Hollywood was equally legendary. Laurence Leamer claimed no other talk show would book him when he wrote "King of the Night," an unflattering 1989 biography of Carson, who he called "the most powerful person in Los Angeles." In the book, Leamer characterized him as a cold and ruthless individual, a womanizer who was both abusive with his wives and petty in his business dealings.
Carson freely admitted that he "never was a social animal." He didn't like being surrounded by people, drove himself to work and was extremely selective about his friends, spending lots of time in his sprawling hilltop Malibu estate, so large as to prompt comic Bob Newhart to quip, "Where's the gift shop?"
The build-up to Carson's final episode in 1992 became a national event. The Comedy Central network went dark during that hour, and Arsenio Hall aired reruns of his late-night series the last week out of deference to Carson.
Ratings swelled, with millions tuning in the penultimate night to see final guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, the latter singing a memorable duet with Carson. His family attended the final "Tonight" taping, and Carson addressed his sons, Chris and Cory, in signing off.
"I realize that being an offspring of someone who is constantly in the public eye is not easy," Carson said. "So guys, I want you to know that I love you. I hope that your old man has not caused you too much discomfort."
Despite eschewing the public eye after leaving, Carson continued to maintain offices in Santa Monica, going in a few days a week. Company affairs-including the sale of "Tonight Show" videos that continued to sell briskly, marketed via TV "infomercials"-have been run by his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who had been a producer on "The Tonight Show."
Carson also indulged his passion for the sea in his later years, sailing extensively on a specially equipped 130-foot yacht, the Serengeti-named, he said, for the region in Africa that captivated him on a trip there in the 1990s.
In fact, the night of NBC's anniversary, Carson was on his boat, on a trip that took him through the Panama Canal and to the Caribbean.
NBC's Wright told Esquire that he offered to send a helicopter to pick Carson up, but the host refused, saying his decision to stay away had "served me well."
Although Carson appeared in the 1964 movie "Looking for Love," which starred Connie Francis, he ultimately decided to focus his career almost exclusively on "The Tonight Show." Carson admitted he had "thought about movies for years" but felt movies didn't offer a terribly viable option because he was so well-known as himself. "[Robert] Redford can play a baseball player, but I'm playing me. Every night," he said.
Among the film offers Carson turned down was the chance to play a character modeled after him, opposite Robert De Niro, in the film "The King of Comedy," a role that ended up going to Jerry Lewis.
While he eschewed acting himself, Carson did host the Academy Awards on five occasions between 1979 and '84 (the exception being in '83). His own list of honors included six Emmys and the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.
In a sense, Carson was the perfect personality for television-reflecting the generation following the great radio stars like Benny and Hope, one that grew up with the medium.
"I use the camera," Carson said. "I remember seeing a silent film from the '20s with Oliver Hardy sighing directly into the camera. I can't explain how perfect that sigh was. It's like trying to explain comedy."
Carson's nephew said there will be no memorial service.