×

Ed McMahon dies at 86

Entertainer was 'Tonight Show' sidekick

Ed McMahon, the baritone-voiced announcer and commercial pitchman who served as Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” sidekick for more than three decades, died early Tuesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 86.

McMahon had been hospitalized for weeks with bone cancer and other illnesses, the Associated Press reported. McMahon broke his neck in a fall in March 2007 and battled a series of financial problems as his injuries prevented him from working.

While he had a side acting career in movies, television and local theater, McMahon will be best remembered as the man who intro’d Carson with the indelible catchphrase “Heeeere’s Johnny” on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from the early ’60s until Carson signed off in May 1992. Throughout he maintained his own personality, which made him a popular figure in his own right as well as an occasional object of derision for his obvious obeisance to Carson.

McMahon capitalized on his nightly TV appearances to make a killing as a commercial spokesman (Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes for many years), occasional actor (such films as “The Incident” and “Love Affair”) and host of his own shows, like the popular syndicated talent competition “Star Search.” He was also a fixture alongside Jerry Lewis as the anchor of the annual Labor Day telethon in support of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. McMahon made 41 appearances on the program through last year, second only to Lewis.

The work of the pitchman was in McMahon’s blood, as the son of a carnival barker who was born in Detroit. The family moved around frequently, and he spent his high school years at his grandparents’ home in Lowell, Mass. His summers were spent on the carnival circuit performing chores like calling bingo games. During those years he took elocution lessons to improve his already commanding deep voice.

After starting at Boston College, he enrolled in the Navy’s V-5 fighter pilot program, which led to a commission and a transfer to the Marines. At night he worked at radio station WLLH in Lowell. Afterward he enrolled at Catholic U. and used his selling skills to help pay for his education. His first job was at WCAU radio and television station in Philadelphia, where he was co-host and co-producer of three-hour program “The Take Ten Show.” He worked on 13 programs for the local station during television’s infancy, including “Strictly for the Girls,” “Aunt Molly and Ed,” “The Silent Service” and a circus show, “The Big Top,” in which he performed as a clown.

McMahon’s career was interrupted by the Korean War, during which he flew combat missions and earned the rank of colonel. He returned to his TV job after his service, working on “The Big Top” and “Five Minutes More,” which evolved into his own latenight talkshow, “McMahon and Company.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to break into broadcasting on the national level in New York, he was noticed by Dick Clark’s producer, Chuck Reeves, who made an introduction to ABC producer Al Stark, who was looking for an announcer for the gameshow “Who Do You Trust?,” hosted by a rising young comedian named Johnny Carson. “I let my mind linger on how nice it would be to tie up with a rising young star like Carson,” McMahon later recalled. “We could grow together.”

And indeed they did. Starting in 1958 McMahon introduced Carson, read commercials and performed other assorted regular duties on the show. The rapport between the two came in handy when NBC balked at Carson taking McMahon with him when Carson replaced Jack Paar as host of “The Tonight Show” in 1962. Though the rewards of being Carson’s straight man may not have seemed apparent, it was impossible to think of one without the other, so in synch was their routine.

After Carson retired in 1992, they remained friends until Carson’s death in 2005.

McMahon’s “Tonight Show” fame led to paydays in commercials for everything from Cheer laundry detergent to Sara Lee packaged foods and Budweiser.

Another benefit was numerous hosting gigs on such gameshows as “Missing Links” and “Snap Judgment,” as well as weekend spots on NBC radio. His biggest success outside “The Tonight Show” was “Star Search,” which bowed in 1984.

McMahon was also in demand as a thesp in film, TV and legit productions. After filling in for Alan King in “The Impossible Years” on Broadway in 1966, McMahon regularly appeared in summer stock musical productions like “Wildcat,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and his favorite, “The Music Man.”

On film, he gained attention for a dramatic turn in gritty 1967 New York drama “The Incident,” though his movie debut came in 1955 as narrator of the horror pic “Daughter of Horror.” His other film roles included 1973’s “Slaughter’s Big Ripoff,” 1977’s “The Last Remake of Beau Geste” and “Fun With Dick and Jane,” 1981’s “Full Moon High,” 1982’s “Butterfly” and 1994’s “Love Affair,” in which he played himself.

On the smallscreen he appeared in a number of telepics in the 1970s and ’80s, and he logged guest shots (both as himself and in character) on a wide range of series, from “Here’s Lucy” to “Newhart” to “Baywatch.” He was a semi-regular on WB Network sitcom “The Tom Show” in the 1997-98 season.

McMahon’s celebrity status also led to solo nightclub gigs at such locations as the Maisonette and regular stints in Last Vegas. He made numerous appearances on the college circuit and released two albums, as well as books including his 1976 autobiography “Here’s Ed” and “Slimming Down.”

McMahon’s first marriage to Alyce Ferrell ended in divorce in 1976. In addition to his wife, Pam, McMahon is survived by five children and six grandchildren. Another son died of cancer in 1995.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Ballers HBO

    'Ballers' to End After Season 5 on HBO

    “Ballers” is coming to an end after five seasons on HBO. Star and executive producer Dwayne Johnson confirmed the news via an emotional Instagram video. “My heart is full of gratitude to all of you for rocking with us every season. You made us HBO’s highest rated comedy for years and most importantly, you helped [...]

  • Sublime Primetime

    How Emmy-Nominated Writers’ Rooms Keep Politics in Mind

    In a world filled with elections, social movements and national tragedies, how open should the doors of a writers’ room actually be? For some of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows, those doors are wide open. Before the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sept. 22, the Writers Guild of America West and Writers Guild Foundation, [...]

  • Disney Villains Series 'Book of Enchantment'

    'Book of Enchantment' Series Based on Iconic Disney Villains Shelved at Disney Plus

    Disney Plus has decided to not move forward with “Book of Enchantment,” a series based on some of Disney’s most iconic villains, Variety has learned from sources. The news comes the day before Disney is set to unveil its streaming service at the biannual D23 convention in Anaheim. The prospective project was based on the [...]

  • ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS VERAFILM 2Pictured: BRENDA

    Brenda Blethyn to Star in New ITV Sitcom 'Kate and Kolo'

    Oscar-nominated Brenda Blethyn is set to star in the new sitcom “Kate and Kolo” for ITV, the U.K. broadcaster announced at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Blethyn takes on the title role of Kate in the comedy alongside theater and film actor Jimmy Akingbola as Kolo. Blethyn is a popular star with ITV audiences after having [...]

  • Sean Spicer Emmys

    Sean Spicer's Casting Explained? Red States Love 'Dancing With the Stars'

    ABC faced backlash this week after casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars.” But that outrage might actually spice up the dancing competition’s dwindling ratings — particularly in Trump Country. “Dancing with the Stars” has faced a relatively alarming decline in ratings over the past two cycles, falling 32% [...]

  • Peppa Pig

    Hasbro Acquires Entertainment One in $4 Billion All-Cash Deal

    Toymaker Hasbro is acquiring studio Entertainment One in an all-cash transaction valued at $4 billion, bringing My Little Pony and Nerf under the same umbrella as “Peppa Pig” and “PJ Masks” and furthering Hasbro’s growth goals in the infant and preschool categories. Hasbro aims to expand its operations in film and TV. Entertainment One’s production [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content