Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny Carson, 30-year king of late night TV, dead at 79

Rest In Peace. - Sailor

Johnny Carson, 30-year king of late night TV, dead at 79

By Duane Byrge and Cynthia Littleton

Johnny Carson, a TV icon whose easy Midwestern charm and quick wit made him the king of late night during his 30-year reign as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," died Sunday at his Malibu home. He was 79.

"He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable," Carson's nephew Jeff Sotzing told the Associated Press. NBC News reported the cause of death as complications from emphysema.

Carson's down-home personality and always-tasteful humor set the standard by which all TV hosts who followed him have been judged. During his 1962-92 run on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," the program was a cherished bedtime ritual for millions of Americans and one of the most profitable programs in television history.

The audience for his final "Tonight" telecast on May 22, 1992, was estimated at more 50 million viewers as he, along with longtime sidekick Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, replayed highlights from past shows. Carson's command of the post inspired such followers as David Letterman, who considered Carson his mentor, and Jay Leno, who succeeded him as host of "Tonight Show."

"All of us who came after him are pretenders," Letterman said. "We will not see the likes of him again."

When Carson relinquished his late-night throne, frequent "Tonight Show" guest Bob Hope said it was like "a head falling off Mount Rushmore. He's had a profound impact on millions of lives. He changed people's sleeping habits, sex habits and their midnight eating habits."

Carson's successor, Leno, observed in a statement issued Sunday that "no single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny."

Carson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992 and the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He won six Emmy Awards for his hosting talents as well as Harvard's Hasty Pudding Man of the Year Award. He also hosted the Academy Awards ceremony five times, from 1979-82 and in 1984.

Carson was famously guarded about his private life throughout his career and especially in his retirement.

"I have an ego like anybody else, but I don't need to be stoked by going before the public all the time," Carson told the Washington Post in 1993.

More recently, Carson did find an outlet for his creativity: He wrote short humor pieces for the New Yorker magazine, including "Recently Discovered Childhood Letters to Santa," which purported to give the youthful wish lists of William Buckley, Don Rickles and others. And just last week, former "Tonight Show" executive producer Peter Lassally, now a producer on CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman," told reporters that Carson still occasionally submitted jokes for Letterman to use in his nightly monologue.

But for the most part, Carson spent his retirement years sailing, traveling and socializing with a few close friends including media mogul Barry Diller and NBC Universal chairman and CEO Bob Wright.

"When he would see other performers staying too long at the fair, he said 'You must stop me from doing that. I want to leave at the top of my game ... and if I do retire, don't let me come back,' " said Lassally, who remained close to Carson after his retirement.

John William Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on Oct. 23, 1925, one of three children of electric company worker Homer Lloyd Carson and his wife, Ruth. Carson grew up mainly in nearby Norfolk, Neb. He made his performing debut at age 6, playing a bumblebee in a school skit, but not until six years later, when he came upon a book about magic acts, did he get serious, billing himself as "The Great Carsoni." He made appearances at fraternal lodges but went into the Navy following high school. While serving in the Navy, Carson amused his shipmates with his tricks. After the war, he was discharged and enrolled at the University of Nebraska on the G.I. bill.

While at the University of Nebraska, he worked as disc jockey for radio station WOW in Omaha. Soon after acceptance of his senior thesis, "How to Write Comedy Jokes," Carson landed his first TV job in Omaha, hosting a program called "The Squirrel's Nest."

In 1950, he loaded up his car with his first wife, Jody, and young son and moved to California, where he found work on local radio and TV shows, including "Carson's Cellar" on KNXT-TV Los Angeles (now KCBS-TV) in 1951. He also wrote and performed on "The Red Skelton Show." At age 29, he was tapped to host his own network evening show, "Earn Your Vacation." Carson experienced the only setback in his upward career the following season with "The Johnny Carson Show," a short-lived CBS variety series that debuted in the fall of 1955.

Following the demise of this show, he played in small clubs but was restless in California. In 1956, the Carsons moved to New York, where he hosted the TV quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" which became ABC's top daytime program. He also appeared as a panelist on the popular quiz show "What's My Line?" Off the air, Carson dazzled his show business colleagues at the Friars Club roasts with his rapierlike retorts.

He made his first appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1958 with his comedy act. During the late '50s he also filled in occasionally for Jack Paar as "Tonight Show" host. Carson's performances got the attention of NBC head of talent Dave Tebit, who was the force behind Carson's becoming host of "The Tonight Show."

Carson's hosting of "The Tonight Show" began Oct. 1, 1962, with guests Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee and Tony Bennett. The show ran an hour and 45 minutes with Ed McMahon as Carson's sidekick and Skitch Henderson as the orchestra leader. It was an instant hit.

By 1967, the show's running time had been scaled back to 90 minutes. The late Fred De Cordova came aboard as producer in 1970 and stayed through the end of Carson's run.

In 1972, "The Tonight Show" made the cross-country move from New York to NBC's Burbank studios, and joking references to "beautiful downtown Burbank" became one of Carson's catchphrases.

The show's recurring comedy skits, features and a regular repertoire of comedy characters -- Stump the Band, Carnac the Magnificent, Aunt Blabby, Art Fern, consumer advocate David Howitzer, El Moldo -- were a mix of Middle American tomfoolery and low-key humor. He was a master of the slow take, the long blank stare at the camera, the mock-insulted expression.

Certain celebrities were frequent guests, including Hope, Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, Tony Randall, Charles Nelson Reilly, Orson Bean, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Buddy Hackett and Rickles.

"I think his legacy for me and many performers will be he had a style, a great deal of class and he had a charm about him that's beyond belief," Rickles told "Dateline NBC" on Sunday. "When I was on the show ... he always, always made me look like a champion. He was something else."

During the late '60s and early '70s, he faced stiff competition from rival talk show hosts Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett, but he ultimately prevailed in the ratings as those other shows faltered or ran out of steam. It was a demanding schedule, night after night. Carson threatened to quit the show in 1979.

"The Tonight Show" was consistently familiar in format, with Ed McMahon announcing "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny" and the recognizable "Tonight Show" theme penned by Paul Anka. Carson would emerge from behind the multicolored drapes in a conservative suit but somewhat bold tie and feign surprise at the audience's delight, flashing his aw-shucks charm. His monologue would be a mix of news of the day or references to Severinsen's flashy clothing or NcMahon's drinking. It ended with his patented golf swing. During the opening segment, he would chat with sturdy sidekick McMahon or banter with bandleader Severinsen.

The show also had a flair for human-interest guests and oddball characters. The Dec. 17, 1969, show featuring the live marriage of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki was at the time the most-watched "Tonight Show," with 45 million viewers.

At the peak of its popularity in 1978, "Tonight Show" reportedly accounted for 17% of NBC's profits and continued to earn the network upward of $30 million a year through the mid-'80s. As a result, Carson was awarded a new contract that shortened the show from 90 to 60 minutes (starting in 1980) and gave him more vacation time in addition to a whopping pay increase. By 1980, as a result of that contract, Carson's production company, Carson Prods., became the sole owner of "The Tonight Show," a move that paved the way for other hosts, including Oprah Winfrey, to become principals in their own programs.

NBC also agreed to buy other shows from Carson Prods., including "Late Night With David Letterman," which debuted in 1982. Carson's show had proven power to launch careers. Guest shots on "Tonight Show" helped ignite the careers of Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne Barr and David Brenner, to name a few.

Carson surprised NBC and the rest of the nation in May 1991 when he announced his plan to retire from "The Tonight Show" the following year. Guests on his final 1992 telecast included Bette Midler, who serenaded Carson with "One More for My Baby." On Sunday, Midler told AP that it was "one of the most moving experiences of my life."

A man of varied interests -- including drums, tennis and astronomy -- Carson was shy and generally reclusive. He had a taciturn nature, and, according to colleagues and friends, he used comedy to keep a distance. Married four times, he wed his fourth wife, Alexis, in 1987.

The eldest of Carson's three sons, Rick, died in a car accident in 1991. Carson underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.

In addition to his wife, Carson is survived by sons Christopher and Cory.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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