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Carson: The Great White Whale I Never Caught

Producer Peter Jones — who will produce a major PBS documentary about Johnny Carson, as Variety reported Wednesday — told a wonderful anecdote about writing Carson every year after he left “The Tonight Show” and being rebuffed.

The scenario certainly sounded familiar, inasmuch as I lived out pretty much the exact same thing.

Five years after Carson left “The Tonight Show,” I called and asked his assistant, Helen, if Carson would speak to me for an interview. Through her, he declined.

Every year thereafter, as the anniversary neared, I called again. And every year, Helen would dutifully ask and call me back. “I’m sorry,” she would say, “but as you know, he’s very private.”

Finally, in 2002 — before the 10-year anniversary of Carson’s exit — I broke down and wrote a column about him without his cooperation, mentioning my annual exercise in futility. (Here’s a link to that piece, which ran in the Los Angeles Times.) 

I received the following note — for whatever reason, the only one I have ever received that sits framed in my house.

Dear Brian,

It’s true, as you stated in your article, that we’ve never met. But if we do meet I’ll tell you now what I would tell you then — thank you for the gracious remarks in your recent column. The response was most positive and I just wanted to say thanks.

Best wishes,


Johnny Carson

P.S. Helen is prepared for next year’s request with a similar response.

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