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The King: 1925 – 2005

TV legend Johnny Carson dies at 79

Johnny Carson, “The Tonight Show” host who reigned for 30 years as the undisputed king of latenight television, has died. He was 79.

Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told the Associated Press, “Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning … surrounded by his family.” He offered no further details, though in recent years Carson had suffered from emphysema. He also had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.

From 1962-92, the genial but wry Carson turned “Tonight” into a national institution that attracted millions of viewers nightly. The variety/talkshow became the standard against which all others were measured, both for its consistency and its revenues, and Carson became one of the most powerful and influential figures in show business.

Although he was faced with challengers at various stages of the show’s run, Carson fended off any and all pretenders to the throne. By the end of his third decade as host, Carson was reportedly earning $10 million a year in addition to owning the program itself and operating his own production company.

Almost as notable as his tenure was the manner in which he left, abruptly announcing his departure, then opting not to perform after signing off for the final time. Friends said he realized any subsequent efforts would be measured against “The Tonight Show,” with longtime producer Peter Lassally calling Carson’s ability to shun the spotlight both a reflection of his sense of security regarding his legacy and “an elegant ending to his career.”

Jay Leno, Carson’s successor, issued a statement saying, “No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard.”

Paying tribute

The network was mulling how best to memorialize the TV giant — who declined to participate in recent latenight and NBC anniversary festivities — on air.

Paying tribute to the host was David Letterman, who had maintained close ties with Carson; according to book “The Late Shift,” Carson counseled him to leave NBC when Leno got the job. “All of us who came after are pretenders,” Letterman said in a statement. “He gave me a shot on his show, and in doing so, he gave me a career. A night doesn’t go by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What would Johnny have done?’ … Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around.”

Inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame in 1987, Carson hosted numerous TV specials and was one of the most popular hosts of the Academy Awards, serving that function from 1979-82. He also hosted the Emmys. His popularity was such that his apparel line by Hart, Schaffner & Marx became an immediate and consistent success.

Ed McMahon’s cry “Heeere’s Johnny,” followed by the familiar “Tonight Show” theme, was as familiar as any introduction in TV history. “The Tonight Show,” with its regular retinue of second banana McMahon, band leader Doc Severinsen (who joined in 1967) and producer Fred De Cordova (since 1970) attracted the top talents in entertainment and was a launching pad for numerous comics including Woody Allen, David Brenner, Freddie Prinze, Roseanne, Richard Lewis and Drew Carey.

In a statement issued Sunday, McMahon said that Carson was “like a brother to me,” and that he had continued to seek Carson’s advice and approval on career decisions in the dozen years since the program concluded.

Catalog of characters

In addition to his signature monologue, Carson introduced a catalog of comic characters over the years, including the bigoted Floyd Turbo, the lecherous Art Fern, the wisecracking Aunt Blabby, the consumer advocate David Howitzer and, of course, the diviner Carnac the Magnificent.

Carson was born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska. In his early teens, he developed a fascination with magic tricks and created his first theatrical persona, “the Great Carsoni.” Through his teen years, he entertained at private parties, clubs and lodges. At Norfolk High School, he wrote a humor column for the school newspaper.

Inducted into the Navy right after graduation, he attended midshipman’s school at Columbia U. and served on the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific. After the war, he attended the U. of Nebraska, earning a B.A. in 1949 and penning his senior thesis on comedy writing.

His first job, before graduation, was writing a comedy/Western for KFAB radio in Lincoln. Afterwards, he joined WOW radio station in Omaha, where he ad-libbed inappropriate and hilarious rejoinders to pre-recorded celebrity interviews.

He worked at WOW-TV until 1951, when he moved to California and landed a position as an announcer on L.A.’s KNXT-TV. He soon had his own half-hour comedy show, “Carson’s Cellar,” on Sunday afternoons, and comics like Red Skelton and Groucho Marx began dropping by unannounced.

The show folded after 30 weeks, but Skelton hired Carson as a comedy writer. In 1954, after Skelton was injured, Carson substituted for him, impressing CBS officials, who gave him his own primetime show. But “The Johnny Carson Show” lasted only 39 weeks.

Carson left California and moved to New York, where he made guest TV appearances on Jack Paar’s “The Morning Show” as substitute host and “Earn Your Vacation” (both on CBS), slowly rebuilding his reputation. In 1957, ABC hired him to host “Who Do You Trust?”; over the next five years, it became a top-rated daytime TV program.

Although he’d substituted for Paar as host of “The Tonight Show” in 1958, Carson rejected NBC’s entreaties that he replace Paar (who was constantly threatening to quit). But when Paar finally walked away in March 1962, Carson accepted NBC’s offer for a reported $100,000 a year.

He did not host his first show until Oct. 1, 1962, because ABC refused to release him from his contract (guest hosts substituted for Paar in the intervening months). The first show, aired from New York, boasted a guest roster of Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee and Tony Bennett and ran 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Longtime relationship

McMahon was already at Carson’s side. He had moved over with Carson from “Who Do You Trust?” in a relationship that would last 34 years. Skitch Henderson was the bandleader; he was replaced by Milton DeLugg in 1966 and by Severinsen a year later.

In his first year, Carson’s average audience was 7.5 million viewers. Six months into his 30-year run, NBC saw the show’s annual revenues climb to $15 million. By 1980, Carson was pulling in 15.5 million viewers on average and the net’s revs were growing past $20 million (accounting for as much as 17% of the network’s profits before taxes). By the mid-1980s, they hit $30 million, capturing 66% of all latenight ad bucks.

Even at the end of his tenure, with growing competition from video and cable, Carson was still attracting 12 million viewers on average (16% of the available audience).

Household fixture

Carson’s natural interviewing style, his encouragement of young talent and his ability to balance mischievous bad-boy qualities with a self-deprecating wide-eyed innocence made him a mainstream household fixture in latenight TV homes.

For young talent, “The Tonight Show” was the entryway to national acceptance. As Woody Allen told Time magazine in a 1967 profile of Carson, “He appears to be most pleased when a guest scores. He feels no compulsion to top me.”

Carson was dryly parodied by Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy,” Martin Scorsese’s drama about the obsessed fan (Robert De Niro) of a talkshow host who kidnaps his idol. (Carson himself was the victim of an unsuccessful extortion attempt.)

Carson’s relationship with NBC was not always a happy one. In 1967, he quit the show, accusing the network of illegally showing reruns during an AFTRA strike. NBC assuaged him by raising his salary from $7,500 to $20,000 a week and reducing the show to 90 minutes.

Two years later, Carson scored his biggest ratings coup by staging the marriage of gimmick personality Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki on his show, which was viewed by 21.4 million homes.

Competitors were numerous and almost all short-lived. Joey Bishop went up against him on ABC in 1967 but averaged only a 3.7 Nielsen rating — half Carson’s score. Merv Griffin did only slightly better in 1969 on CBS. Dick Cavett tried in 1973 on ABC, doing about as well as Bishop.

Alan Thicke gave it a go in syndication in 1983 to a disastrous 1.0 share vs. Carson’s 6.6. Joan Rivers, an exclusive guest host on Carson from 1983, unwisely did dubious battle with her former patron and friend in 1986 on Fox TV. She didn’t do much better than Thicke.

Carson moved “Tonight” from New York to Burbank in 1972. By the mid-’70s, he was down to hosting four nights a week. In 1977, he was earning $3 million a year, with 15 weeks paid vacation, 25 three-day weeks and just 12 four-day weeks. Guest hosts — something the current generation of hosts have fastidiously avoided — regularly sat in for him, including such future competitors as Rivers and Bishop.

Then in 1979, Carson announced he was quitting. He was said to be quietly feuding with then-network president Fred Silverman.

Renegotiations once again were successful, upping Carson’s salary to $5 million and reducing the running time of the show to 60 minutes.

Following his rupture with regular substitute host Rivers, Carson named Jay Leno his regular substitute host in 1987. Garry Shandling and Billy Crystal also were frequent subs for Carson.

In 1991 he officially announced his retirement. The move set off a frenzy of jockeying to replace him, and rival production companies saw the end of Carson’s domination as a chance to hit it big with their own latenight talkers. Though Letterman lobbied for “Tonight” hosting duties, Leno succeeded Carson on May 25, 1992.

Carson’s 4,351st and final golf swing signoff took place May 22 and attracted 55 million viewers. Carson, with his fourth wife, Alex, and sons Chris and Cory in the audience, signed off with a simple but choked-up farewell: “I bid you a very heart-felt good night.”

Reclusive

Despite signing a contract with NBC for a series of specials, Carson became more reclusive in his later years and regularly declined opportunities to work. “You have to know when to walk away,” he told Daily Variety in 2003.

Carson authored two books of cartoons, “Happiness Is … a Dry Martini” and “Misery Is … a Blind Date.”

In 1948, Carson married his college sweetheart, Jody Wolcott, with whom he had three sons, Chris, Cory and Richard. In 1991, then 39-year-old Richard was killed in a car accident.

Carson divorced Wolcott in 1963 and married Joanne Copeland. Their well-publicized divorce came nine years later, the same year he married Joanna Holland. In 1987, he married Alexis Maas, who survives him.

There will be no memorial service.