When Johnny met Oscar

In 1979, Carson proved that a latenight superstar could be the perfect fit for the Academy Awards

When Johnny Carson walked onstage to host the Oscars for the first time in 1979, he immediately set the tone for the entire proceedings — and the standard for all emcees to come.

Like Jon Stewart, Carson never had much of a movie career. He was the king of latenight, but Academy old-timers worried his TV pedigree would cheapen a ceremony that lionized film.

But that didn’t happen, and Carson didn’t reveal his pre-show jitters. “Welcome to two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show,” Carson said, immediately catching the audience in a mix of elegance and subtle irreverence.

It opened a memorable evening in which special honoree Laurence Olivier accepted in an eloquent soliloquy and a weakened John Wayne made his final Oscar appearance to present best pic honors to “The Deer Hunter.”

That Carson hosted the show at all was an anomaly: Oscar hosts typically had substantial films to their credit; Carson had only a cameo in “Looking for Love.”

But the Academy had spent much of the 1970s looking for just the right host, with the oft-used practice of using multiple emcees wearing thin and frequent compere Bob Hope in his 70s. “The thought was, well, why don’t we get somebody who was really comfortable with live television, and the Carson name came up,” says Marty Pasetta, who directed the show that year. “It would be a new experience for him and for the show.”

Carson hosted four more times, and later resisted continued requests for his return, even after he retired from “The Tonight Show” in 1992.

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