NBC Developing Johnny Carson Miniseries

NBC developing Carson biopic

Project based on upcoming 'Carson the Magnificent' biography by Bill Zehme

NBC is developing a miniseries biopic of Johnny Carson, based on the upcoming book “Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait” by Bill Zehme, the network announced Thursday.

Although Carson remained intensely private after leaving “The Tonight Show” in 1992, Zehme had extensive access to the host in his later years, profiling him for Esquire in 2002.

NBC has optioned Zehme’s book. The project is not yet affiliated, however, with Johnny Carson Entertainment Group, the enterprise responsible for all things related to the latenight host, run by his nephew and former “Tonight” producer, Jeff Sotzing.

Contacted about the project, Sotzing told Variety, “It’s a little early in the game” to talk about doing such a movie or miniseries, given that the book has yet to be published. He declined further comment.

The intent is for the mini to cover Carson’s 30-year run (from 1962-92) as host of “The Tonight Show,” as well as his childhood in Nebraska and famously private life off camera.

Zehme and John Davies will exec produce.

Although NBC has taken steps to move back into the TV movie business, the sledding hasn’t exactly been smooth. Plans unveiled during the summer for a Hillary Rodham Clinton miniseries, to star Diane Lane, produced howls of protest from the Republican National Committee — which threatened to boycott presidential debates on NBC — and have clouded that project’s future.

Sotzing has been aggressive about mining “The Tonight Show” library, first digitizing the thousands of hours of episodes and recently signing a deal to make Carson’s extensive body of work available via iTunes.

No casting was announced for the miniseries, and the timetable for the project remains uncertain. The situation could be further complicated without Sotzing’s participation or at least blessing, which NBC will undoubtedly work to secure in order to smooth the production process and ensure a warm reception in comedy circles.

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  1. And I emphatically add to my comments earlier in this VARIETY post…it will be even all the more challenging for NBC to create and produce a credible, accurate and appealing real-life mini-series portraying the life of Mr Carson without the sanction and cooperation of The Carson Entertainment Group and its head Mr. Jeff Sotzing, former producer of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” on NBC.

  2. rcurrlin says:

    As the article wisely notes, there could be speed bumps without the ok of Carson’s estate. Johnny went to his grave hating NBC for the way it treated him in the final years (Johnny didnt thank NBC on his last show and Sotzing refused NBC permission to re-air Carson’s last show when Johnny died).

  3. An NBC mini series on Mr. Carson is surely one that should draw viewers. He still reigns as “The King of Late Night.” Bill Zehme is the right guy and writer who can certainly be the source of such an auspicious endeavor. I spent years at NBC as Mr. Carson’s publicist on TONIGHT…so I especially look forward to seeing what the network will be able to create and how exactly it will tell the “Johnny” story.

  4. Jim says:

    I hope they’re accurate about this. I remember Johnny ripping CBS for broadcasting a made-for-TV movie on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Sr., “Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter.” Was NOT accurate.

    • cadavra says:

      The Carson estate manages his image zealously. They won’t sign off on it if it strays too far from the truth. (Of course, some of those truths are pretty unpleasant.)

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