Entertainer Johnny Carson Dies (2005)

Entertainer Johnny Carson Dies
By Scott Holleran

Johnny Carson, an entertainment industry icon whose comedy dominated American television and popular culture for 30 years, died of emphysema on Sunday morning at his Malibu, California, home, according to NBC. Mr. Carson was 79 years old.

The former television host of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which aired from October 1, 1962, to May 22, 1992, left an indelible mark on American culture. During the first broadcast, comedian and movie star Groucho Marx introduced him. In the last show to include guests, he was serenaded by comedienne, singer and actress Bette Midler in a memorable and moving tribute. Midler sang one of his favorite tunes, “Here’s the Rainy Day”.

Mr. Carson’s dry, topical humor, which could bring audiences to uproarious laughter with a pause or a facial expression, fueled the enormously successful program, which began with his monologue and featured seated interviews with writers, actors, singers and politicians. Everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Ayn Rand sat beside his famous desk. His routine included characters, such as Carnac the Magnificent and Aunt Blabby, and skits with animals, contraptions and sexual innuendo bits with buxom Carol Wayne.

Mr. Carson was known for allowing guest and substitute host performances by a variety of comedians, including those whose acts were unknown. Tonight Show regulars included Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, David Brenner, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, Albert Brooks, George Carlin, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey. The Tonight Show ran for 90 minutes until 1972, when it was reduced to a 60-minute program and moved from New York to Burbank, California.

The huge audience also drove Hollywood, with an actor’s guest appearance sure to get the widest possible exposure. The guest list—there were 24,000 guests—reads like a history of Hollywood: Lillian Gish, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, Rex Harrison, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Lemmon, Anthony Hopkins, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams.

Mr. Carson served as Master of Ceremonies at the Academy Awards in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and in 1984, joining the late Bob Hope as one of the few solo entertainers to host the long-running telecast several times.

The native Iowan, who was raised in Nebraska, served during World War 2 in the United States Navy, from 1943 to 1946, and moved to Hollywood after the war. He became a writer for The Red Skelton Show, which provided him with a walk-on opportunity that led to quiz, game and variety show hosting. After The Tonight Show’s success, he proved to be a tremendously successful businessman, selling a line of clothing, creating Carson Productions—which produced Late Night with David Letterman beginning in 1982—and making million dollar contracts with NBC. Mr. Carson insisted on, and largely achieved, creative control of the show that bore his name.

Upon news of Johnny Carson’s death, longtime sidekick Ed McMahon issued a statement: “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. 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 retiring from his show in 1992, Johnny Carson rarely appeared in public, despite several requests. In an interview with Playboy, conducted by Alex Haley (who later wrote Roots) for the December 1967 edition, the intensely private comedian, when asked about speculation that he was anti-social, explained:

I couldn’t care less what anybody says about me. I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with that, that’s his business. Whatever you do, you’re going to be criticized. I feel the one sensible thing you can do is try to live in a way that pleases you. If you don’t hurt anybody else, what you do is your own business.”

Mr. Carson, who was married four times, is survived by his wife, Alexis, two sons (a third, Ricky, died in 1991) and his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, a former Tonight Show producer who also operates Carson Productions.

Posted January 23, 2005 on Box Office Mojo