JOHNNY CARSON, 1925-2005

The King of late-night answers his final curtain call

Published: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 12:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 1:08 p.m.

Johnny Carson didn't invent the late-night TV talk show but he made the most of it.


Classic moments with Johnny's characters

Here's a look at some key moments in the history of Carson's reign on "The Tonight Show":

1964: Carson introduces two of his most popular characters: the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-silly mind reader Carnac the Magnificent and the crabby, wisecracking Aunt Blabby. But the biggest laugh of the year -- perhaps the biggest one in the history of "The Tonight Show" -- came when singer/actor Ed Ames demonstrated how to throw a tomahawk, only to hit a cardboard dummy in the crotch.

1966: Carson begins "The Mighty Carson Art Players," a sketch format that, over the years, saw him parody personalities such as President Reagan and actor Karl Malden (hawking the American Express Card).

1969: More than 45 million viewers tune in to see the on-stage wedding of falsetto singer Tiny Tim and his teenage bride Miss Vicki. Just as with the premiere episode of Carson's "Tonight Show," copies of this episode have been lost.

1971: Caron debuts as the lascivious Art Fern, host of the "Tea Time Movie." With his pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair and tacky suits, Fern would peddle products, seduce his buxom co-hostess and give nonsensical, forever-changing directions to the Slauson freeway cutoff.

1977: Carson introduces the last of his great characters, the super-patriotic but dim-witted Floyd R. Turbo, who would deliver bombastic editorials dressed in a checked buffalo jacket and a hat with earflaps.

1992: On the next-to-last show on May 21-- the final installment that featured guest stars -- Bette Midler brings Carson to tears when she serenades him with the standard "I'll Be Seeing You."

His "Tonight Show" monologues, celebrity banter and the corny but winning skits all had the Carson touch of heartland charm and humor that remained on the polite side of risque.

When he died Sunday, his quiet retirement of nearly 13 years hadn't dimmed the memory of his three decades as king of late-night or the admiration of entertainers and others.

"All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again," said David Letterman, host of CBS' "Late Show."

President Bush described Carson as "a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment."

Carson died early Sunday morning, according to his nephew, Jeff Sotzing. He did not provide further details, but NBC said Carson died of emphysema - a respiratory disease that can be attributed to smoking - at his Malibu home.

Carson often had a cigarette in hand in the early years of "Tonight," eventually dropping the on-air habit when smoking on TV became frowned on. But he remained a heavy smoker for some years afterward, said a former associate who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The boyish-looking Iowa 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, like Letterman - 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 odd animals, 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. Actress-singer Bette Midler, who memorably serenaded Carson on his next-to-last show with "One More For My Baby," recalled him warmly Sunday.

"I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He had it all. A little bit of devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class," Midler said in a statement.

His generosity to up-and-coming comics who got their big break on "Tonight" was lauded by Bill Cosby and others.

"Johnny was responsible for the beginning and the rise of success for more performers than anyone. I doubt if those numbers will ever be surpassed," Cosby said in a statement.

McMahon said Sunday that Carson was "like a brother to me."

"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,'" McMahon said.

Carson's 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 flagship late-night show.

Carson chose to let "Tonight" stand as his career zenith and his finale, withdrawing into a private retirement that suited his nature and refusing involvement in other show business projects.

"I just let the work speak for itself," he told Esquire magazine in 2002.

Carson did find an outlet for his creativity: He would send a joke occasionally to Letterman, who lost the battle for "Tonight" but remained a Carson friend. Some bits made it into Letterman's monologue.

Carson made his debut as "Tonight" host in October 1962 and quickly won over audiences. He even made headlines with such clever ploys as the 1969 on-show marriage of eccentric singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, which won the show its biggest-ever ratings.

In 1972, "Tonight" moved from New York to Burbank. Growing respect for Carson's consistency and staying power, along with four 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 he 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 1974.

He made presidential history again in July 1988 when he had then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on his show a few days after Clinton came under widespread ridicule for a boring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton traded quips with Carson and played "Summertime" on the saxophone in what was hailed as a stunning comeback.

Competing networks tried a variety of formats and hosts to challenge Carson, but never managed to best "Tonight."

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, Jerry Lewis and Jay Leno, Carson's eventual successor.

"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard," Leno said.

Rivers was one of the countless comedians whose careers took off after they were on Carson's show. After she rocked the audience with her jokes in that 1965 appearance, he remarked, "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star."

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 was host of the Academy Awards five times in the '70s and '80s.

Carson's graceful exit from "Tonight" did not avoid a messy, bitter tug-of-war between Leno and Letterman to take over his throne. Leno won, and on May 25, 1992, became the fourth man to hold the job after Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Carson. Letterman landed on rival CBS.

Born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in nearby Norfolk, Neb., Carson 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.

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), the variety show "The Johnny Carson Show" (1955-56), the game show "Who Do You Trust?" (1957-62).

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 Paar. When Paar left the show four years later, Carson was NBC's choice as his replacement.

After his retirement, he and his wife, Alexis, traveled 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 that same year, but divorced nine years later. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland Carson, took place in 1972. They divorced in 1985.

Carson won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992, with the first President Bush saying, "With decency and style he's made America laugh and think." In 1993, he was celebrated by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement.

His nephew said there will be no memorial service.

Carson helped young comics like no other

Backstage before her first appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1985, Roseanne Barr read a letter she'd written to herself years before, dreaming of this moment. "This is the beginning of your life for She who is and is not yet," the letter said in part, as recounted in a profile of the comic by The New Yorker's John Lahr.

Much has been and will be said about how Johnny Carson "discovered" Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Ellen Degeneres. But they all had managers and club careers by the time their "The Tonight Show" debut happened. Carson didn't discover them, what he did was take them by the hand and say, "Here, America."

I can't think of the last time a comedian went on a talk show and, in essence, was introduced to the nation -- or even just to the entertainment industry. The platform, if not the performances, no longer exists, not since Carson created it during the three decades he ruled late night as host of the only game in town.

Carson was good for comedians in this way, but he was even better for comedy. He created space in his show for up-and-coming young talent to do their acts before a nationwide audience, but, just as important, he made it an event, a showcase, for which competition was fierce (you first had to gain the hard-won approval of "Tonight Show" producer Jim McCawley, who scouted Los Angeles clubs like a kind of prophet of either your future or your doom). Once on the show, there were still barometers to gauge whether you had arrived. Did Johnny give you the OK sign or even, perhaps, wave you over to the couch?

Shandling, noting in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times that he didn't get to the couch after his first "Tonight Show" appearance, joked that "when you go to Johnny's house, you stand the first few times you are there."

It sounds somewhat officious, the lordly position he created over the stand-up world, and there were odd undertones of betrayal to the attempts by Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall to have competing late-night shows, to say nothing of the Shakespearean drama that unfolded before "The Tonight Show" went to Jay Leno instead of Carson's favored son, Letterman.

Whatever was happening backstage, the rewards for the viewer were tangible. If Carson functioned as a paterfamilias for new comics, he got cheerfully and shrewdly out of the way of the established ones, who did their sets and then came over to sit down on the couch -- usually because Carson thought they were a riot and wanted to continue to interact with them. In this way he taught us how to appreciate a comic, to intuit his appreciation, whether the act was Steven Wright or Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield or Rivers -- among the comedians, as I recall it, who had the ability to reduce Carson to tears.

Notable quotes on the death of former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson:

"Laura and I are saddened by the death of Johnny Carson. Born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska, Johnny Carson was a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment. He was a patriot who served in the United States Navy during World War II and always remembered his roots in the heartland of America. We send our prayers and condolences to the entire Carson family."

- President George W. Bush

"It's a sad day for his family and his country. All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again. He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so, he gave me a career. A night doesn't go by that I don't ask myself, 'What would Johnny have done?' He has been greatly missed since his retirement. Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around. He was the best, a star and a gentleman."

- CBS "Late Show" host David Letterman.

"Maria and I are deeply saddened to learn of the death of this comedic genius. As an irreplaceable member of the entertainment community, Johnny Carson shared his spirit and laughter with his family, friends and countless fans. Johnny was a great friend and always showed me profound respect. He welcomed me on his show when no one knew who I was and helped promote the image of bodybuilding."

- Former actor and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"He was the most decent, marvelous man I've ever known, and we're going to miss him a lot ... I think that Johnny, no matter how long he lived in Hollywood and no matter how much money he made, he still had a piece of straw stuck in his ear."

- Actor-comedian Jerry Lewis.

"Being Johnny's friend was an honor. To hear of his sudden death, a great shock. He was so much more than just the 'King of Late Night,' he was a real intellect with broad interests; thankfully, many of which he was able to enjoy in the last decade. It is a terrible loss to his friends. I am deeply saddened."

- Actor-comedian Chevy Chase.

"He was the definition of class and dignity."

- Comedian Rosie O'Donnell.

"Johnny Carson was the public face of American comedy for decades, but anyone who knew him well knew he was an intensely private and yet deeply generous man. So many of us who are working in show business today owe our careers to him. I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He had it all. A little bit of devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class."

- Singer-actress Bette Midler.

"He was the greatest talk show host of our time with the quickest mind ... One of the greatest thrills of my career was not on stage but when Johnny called me after seeing me host the Oscars and telling me how much he loved what I did. That's how much I looked up to him. He was a true idol."

- Comedian-actor Billy Crystal.

"I'm first of all stunned to hear it. I think he's been one of the greats of our time."

- Daytime talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

"I guest-hosted for Johnny many years ago for a month straight and experienced firsthand just how great he was, making it look so easy night after night. Once you sit in that chair, you knew there was nothing easy about it. It's a huge loss."

- Actor-comedian Bob Newhart.

"I liked him very much, as a comedian and as a person. I have only the most positive things to say about him. I found him to be a terrific guy."

- Filmmaker-comedian Woody Allen, who served as an occasional vacation host for Carson on "Tonight."

"He was the best, and I think even the other talk show hosts would have to take a bow to Johnny Carson. ... He loved listening to comedians, loved helping comedians. He had more comedians on who broke into bigger things than anybody."

- Impressionist-comic Fred Travalena, a frequent "Tonight" show guest with Carson.

"Johnny Carson was a man I considered 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."

- Ed McMahon, Carson's former "Tonight" sidekick.

"He always drove himself to work, never took a limo. He went down quickly to what we called the 'Carson bunker,' under Studio 1 where the show was done" at NBC in Burbank.

- Charles Barrett, former longtime "Tonight" publicist, on Carson's penchant for privacy.

"When you're working with wildlife, you have to be able to react very quickly. So the comedians that work with notes, or that have to think about how they respond find it difficult working with animals. But he was at his best when he was totally spontaneous ... He was one person that you knew when you walked out from behind that curtain, you could just toss those notes."

- Joan Embery, former goodwill ambassador for the Zoological Society of San Diego and frequent guest on "Tonight."

"The death of Johnny Carson is a huge loss for all of us. He was a comedian who not only made us laugh, but also made us stop and think. Ronnie and I always enjoyed him on The Tonight Show and we were honored to know him as a friend. My prayers go out to his entire family at this very difficult time."

- Former first lady Nancy Reagan

"All of us who grew up on Johnny Carson had three decades in which to go to sleep with a smile on our faces. He loved to laugh, he loved to make you laugh, and he loved comedians and entertainers. His occasional touch of boyish naughtiness made America a sweet and kind place to be, and he without doubt enriched our nation."

- Actor-comedian Steve Martin

"For generations, Johnny's distinct comedic voice defined the American experience with humor and heart. He was a true original whose genius gave us so many of television's most memorable moments."

- Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael D. Eisner and Disney President Bog Iger.

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