Johnny Carson, King of Late Night, Dies
56 minutes ago
By JEFF WILSON, Associated Press Writer
LOS ANGELES - Johnny Carson (news), the "Tonight Show" TV host who served America a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter, droll comedy and heartland charm for 30 years, has died. He was 79. "Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service."
Slideshow: Johnny Carson Dies at 79
Sotzing would not give further details, including the time of death, the location or the cause of death.
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 audiences never tired of him; Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992.
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 (news - web sites) 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 (news - web sites) and Wimbledon (news - web sites).
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.