View Full Version : Johnny Carson dead at 79

01-23-2005, 02:59 PM
Just saw it on ABC news.


01-23-2005, 03:15 PM
:eek: aww man


01-23-2005, 03:17 PM
He was the king of late night TV. To me, no one, not Leno, not Letterman, no one else comes close. RIP.

01-23-2005, 03:19 PM

By JEFF WILSON, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES - Johnny Carson (news), the "Tonight Show" TV host who served America a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter, droll comedy and heartland charm for 30 years, has died. He was 79. "Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service."

Sotzing would not give further details, including the time of death or the location.

The boyish-looking Nebraska native with the disarming grin, who survived every attempt to topple him from his late-night talk show throne, was a star who managed never to distance himself from his audience.

His wealth, the adoration of his guests ó particularly the many young comics whose careers he launched ó the wry tales of multiple divorces: Carson's air of modesty made it all serve to enhance his bedtime intimacy with viewers.

"Heeeeere's Johnny!" was the booming announcement from sidekick Ed McMahon that ushered Carson out to the stage. Then the formula: the topical monologue, the guests, the broadly played skits such as "Carnac the Magnificent."

But America never tired of him; Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992. In his final show, he told his audience: "And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."

His personal life could not match the perfection of his career. Carson was married four times, divorced three. In 1991, one of his three sons, 39-year-old Ricky, was killed in a car accident.

Nearly all of Carson's professional life was spent in television, from his postwar start at Nebraska stations in the late 1940s to his three decades with NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

Carson choose to let "Tonight" stand as his career zenith and his finale, withdrawing into a quiet retirement that suited his private nature and refusing involvement in other show business projects.

In 1993, he explained his absence from the limelight.

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

He was open to finding the right follow-up to "Tonight," he told friends. But his longtime producer, Fred de Cordova, said Carson didn't feel pressured ó he could look back on his TV success and say "I did it."

"And that makes sense. He is one of a kind, was one of a kind," de Cordova said in 1995. "I don't think there's any reason for him to try something different."

Carson spent his retirement years sailing, traveling and socializing with a few close friends including media mogul Barry Diller and NBC executive Bob Wright. He simply refused to be wooed back on stage.

"The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself," he told Esquire magazine in 2002 in a rare interview.

The former talk show host 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.

Carson made his debut as "Tonight" host in October 1962. Audiences quickly grew fond of his boyish grin and easy wit. He even made headlines with such clever ploys as the 1969 on-show marriage of eccentric singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, which won the show its biggest-ever ratings.

The wedding and other noteworthy moments from the show were collected into a yearly "Tonight" anniversary special.

In 1972, "Tonight" moved from New York to Burbank. Growing respect for Carson's consistency and staying power, along with four consecutive Emmy Awards, came his way in the late 1970s.

His quickness and his ability to handle an audience were impressive. When his jokes missed their target, the smooth Carson won over a groaning studio audience with a clever look or sly, self-deprecating remark.

Politics provided monologue fodder for him as he skewered lawmakers of every stripe, mirroring the mood of voters. His Watergate jabs at President Nixon were seen as cementing Nixon's fall from office in 1974.

He made presidential history again in July 1988 when he had then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (news - web sites) on his show a few days after Clinton came under widespread ridicule for a boring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton traded quips with Carson and played "Summertime" on the saxophone. Four years later, Clinton won the presidency.

Carson dispatched would-be late-night competitors with aplomb. Competing networks tried a variety of formats and hosts but never managed to best "Tonight" and Carson.

There was the occasional battle with NBC: In 1967, for instance, Carson walked out for several weeks until the network managed to lure him back with a contract that reportedly gave him $1 million-plus yearly.

In 1980, after more walkout threats, the show was scaled back from 90 minutes to an hour. Carson also eased his schedule by cutting back on his work days; a number of substitute hosts filled in, including Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Jerry Lewis and Jay Leno, Carson's eventual successor.

Rivers was one of the countless comedians whose careers took off after they were on Carson's show. After she rocked the audience with her jokes in that 1965 appearance, he remarked, "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star."

"If Johnny hadn't made the choice to put me on his show, I might still be in Greenwich Village as the oldest living undiscovered female comic," she recalled in an Associated Press interview 20 years later. She tried her own talk show in 1986, quickly becoming one of the many challengers who could not budge Carson.

In the '80s, Carson was reportedly the highest-paid performer in television history with a $5 million "Tonight" show salary alone.

His Carson Productions created and sold pilots to NBC, including "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes." Carson himself made occasional cameo appearances on other TV series.

He also performed in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J., and was host of the Academy Awards (news - web sites) five times in the '70s and '80s.

Carson's graceful exit from "Tonight" did not avoid a messy, bitter tug-of-war between Leno and fellow comedian David Letterman. Leno took over as "Tonight" host on May 25, 1992, becoming the fourth man to hold the job after founding host Steve Allen, Paar and Carson.

Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in nearby Norfolk, Neb. He started his show business career at age 14 as the magician "The Great Carsoni."

After World War II service in the Navy, he took a series of jobs in local radio and TV in Nebraska before starting at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950.

There he started a sketch comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," which ran from 1951-53 and attracted attention from Hollywood. A staff writing job for "The Red Skelton Show" followed.

The program provided Carson with a lucky break: When Skelton was injured backstage, Carson took the comedian's place in front of the cameras.

Producers tried to find the right program for the up-and-coming comic, trying him out as host of the quiz show "Earn Your Vacation" (1954) and in the variety show "The Johnny Carson Show" (1955-56).

From 1957-62 he was host of the daytime game show "Who Do You Trust?" and, in 1958, was joined for the first time by McMahon, his durable "Tonight" buddy.

A few acting roles came Carson's way, including one on "Playhouse 90" in 1957, and he did a pilot in 1960 for a prime-time series, "Johnny Come Lately," that never made it onto a network schedule.

In 1958, Carson sat in for "Tonight Show" host Jack Paar. When Paar left the show four years later, Carson was NBC's choice as his replacement.

After his retirement, Carson took on the role of Malibu-based retiree with apparent ease. An avid tennis fan, he was still playing a vigorous game in his 70s.

He and his wife, Alexis, traveled frequently. The pair met on the Malibu beach in the early 1980s; he was 61 when they married in June 1987, she was in her 30s.

Carson's first wife was his childhood sweetheart, Jody, the mother of his three sons. They married in 1949 and split in 1963.

He married Joanne Copeland Carson in 1963; divorce came in 1972. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland Carson, took place in 1972. They separated in 1982 and reached a divorce settlement in 1985.

On the occasion of Carson's 70th birthday in 1995, former "Tonight" bandleader Doc Severinsen, who toured with musicians from the show, said he was constantly reminded of Carson's enduring popularity.

"Every place we go people ask `How is he? Where is he? What is he doing? Tell him how much we miss him.' It doesn't surprise me," Severinsen said.

The brisk sale of the video collection "Johnny Carson: His Favorite Moments From The Tonight Show," released in 1994, offered further proof of his appeal.

He won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992, with the first President Bush (news - web sites) saying, "With decency and style he's made America laugh and think." In 1993, he was celebrated by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement.


AP Television Writer Lynn Elber contributed to this report.

01-23-2005, 03:19 PM
He was great. The kind of guy everybody likes.


01-23-2005, 03:21 PM
So long, Johnny. :(

01-23-2005, 03:25 PM
He was one of my all time favorite entertainers. Late night television has never been the same since his retirement. I'm sure the angels in Heaven are now announcing "Here's Johnny!" RIP Johnny Carson!:cry:

01-23-2005, 03:44 PM
Sorry to hear this...somehow seems surprising, probably because he was such a private person.... always my favorite night-time guy....makes one suddenly feel old.

01-23-2005, 03:48 PM
Interesting timing, in that it just came out in the last few days that he had been feeding monologue jokes to Letterman. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/18/entertainment/main667673.shtml) That should make things interesting at the funeral, since both Leno and Letterman are likely to attend.

01-23-2005, 03:57 PM
How sad. :( RIP Johnny.

01-23-2005, 04:01 PM
Itís quarter to three,
Thereís no one in the place ícept you and me
So set íemí up joe
I got a little story I think you oughtta know

Weíre drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

I know the routine
Put another nickel in that there machine
Iím feeling so bad
Wonít you make the music easy and sad

I could tell you a lot
But you gotta to be true to your code
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

Youíd never know it
But buddy Iím a kind of poet
And Iíve got a lot of things I wanna say
And if Iím gloomy, please listen to me
Till itís all, all talked away

Well, thatís how it goes
And joe I know youíre gettiní anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didnít mind
My bending your ear

Falls City Beer
01-23-2005, 04:11 PM
Man, the cloth they cut him from is long gone. So, too, it seems, subtle humor. Rare genius.

Bob Borkowski
01-23-2005, 04:45 PM
Interesting timing, in that it just came out in the last few days that he had been feeding monologue jokes to Letterman. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/18/entertainment/main667673.shtml) That should make things interesting at the funeral, since both Leno and Letterman are likely to attend.

Supposedly Carson was unhappy with the direction in which Leno took the show after taking over for Johnny.

Anyway, we have lost a classy performer. I have lots of great memories of Carson on the Tonite Show...and he wasn't afraid to let his guests have the spotlight. His ego didn't demand that he always had to be the center of attention.

01-23-2005, 05:40 PM
Never cared for the Tonight Show after Johnny left. Had he been ill?

01-23-2005, 06:26 PM
The Pearly Gates are opening and in the background can be heard, "Heeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrreeee'sssss Johnny"
RIP Johnny Carson.

01-23-2005, 07:33 PM
Never cared for the Tonight Show after Johnny left. Had he been ill?The link I posted is from last week and it mentions that he'd been ill for awhile with emphysema. I think the only place I'd seen anything about Johnny's illness was on the cover of a supermarket tabloid.

01-23-2005, 07:38 PM
Very sad :(

01-23-2005, 09:08 PM
I quit watching late night TV after Johnny left. So no one knows what the cause of death was at this stage?

01-23-2005, 09:56 PM
NBC is saying emphysema.


01-23-2005, 11:14 PM
Supposedly Carson was unhappy with the direction in which Leno took the show after taking over for Johnny.

Anyway, we have lost a classy performer. I have lots of great memories of Carson on the Tonite Show...and he wasn't afraid to let his guests have the spotlight. His ego didn't demand that he always had to be the center of attention.
I agree. Carson always seemed to really listen to his guests and then respond to them, whereas Leno and Letterman seem too scripted to me.

Chip R
01-23-2005, 11:19 PM
He always seemed to be at his best when interviewing kids and regular folks. I don't think Dave or Jay have the aptitude or the desire to do that well. It's going to be weird knowing that he's no longer around.

01-23-2005, 11:39 PM
Johnny Carson was the Beatles of late night TV.

as hammer said. "you can't touch this"

Roy Tucker
01-24-2005, 08:49 AM
Heard of his passing on the radio while out driving around. I exclaimed with a big "oh no!" and the kids wondered what was wrong.

A class guy, a consumate TV host, and he defined the late night host role for all to follows. I wish he would have come back to TV every so often to let us know he was doing OK. But I understand his desire for privacy and he certainly earned it.

RIP Johnny and we'll miss you.

01-24-2005, 09:02 AM
Yeah, it would have been nice if he had guest-hosted one of the shows, or even come on as a guest once in a while. But he earned his retirement.

The TV was always loud in my house, and when I was in HS, my bedtime was 10:30pm. central time. on school nights. I could listen to the monologue while I was drifting off to sleep.

Certainly was one of a kind.

01-24-2005, 09:17 AM
Sad. It doesn't seem real to me sometimes when someone you grew up with has passed away. It doesn't seem as though Johnny Carson can really be gone.

I never was a huge fan. Only b/c I was never much into the late night Primetime TV thing. But I saw my fair share of Johnny and I can remember when it was kind of a treat, when I was child, for my parents to let me stay up that late to see it.

Legends are few and far between. I truly feel that Johnny was a legend. His sense of humor and his act were true classics in the TV world.

In today's world of much more riskee behavior and a lot of people complaining that the FCC has limited their rights, Johnny was one who didn't need to be dirty or filthy. He could get a laugh by simply giving one of those funny looks at the camera. He didn't need Jenna Jamison or didn't need to make fun of people with disabilities. He only needed himself, a good-guy sidekick and material that the world itself supplied. A true legend and a good guy too.

01-24-2005, 10:47 AM
I just read a tribute post in the blog of Andy Ihnatko, one of my favorite computer columnists. Thought it was good enough to share.


During Macworld Expo, a friend and I were having dinner, and talk turned to Carson. Ten years after he handed over The Tonight Show to Leno, we were still marveling at both Johnny's legend and at how successfully and completely the man had forsaken public life. I always thought that the latter was a damned shame. My big fear is that Carson will eventually suffer the same fate as Elvis. By the tenth anniversary of The King's death, Elvis had been reduced to a set of memes. He became both the beautiful young man deified in airbrushed portraits hanging in countless Fifties-themed diners and the long-past-it jumpsuited pill-popper lampooned in black-velvet paintings. And neither image provokes proper respect and admiration for a performer who influenced nearly every major artist who came after him.

No, the modern torch-holders of Elvis' legacy are the scores of Elvis impersonators whose vaudevillian snarls and gyrations have nearly completely supplanted the real thing in the public consciousness. Close your eyes and try to picture Elvis Presley and his music. Five will get you ten that you are, in fact, thinking of an Elvis impersonator's act.

Which on some level is probably appropriate, I have to admit. The very first person to impersonate Elvis wasn't Andy Kaufman...it was Elvis himself, at the end of his life. But when you go out and listen to the records he made before the cartoon overtook the man, you remember exactly how brilliant a performer he was. His early recordings are still fresh and thrilling. Some of the gospel tracks Elvis recorded before he gave up altogether can provoke genuine chills. It's all a pity, because Elvis' reputation might be irredeemable by now. When you think "Elvis," you think "Thankyew...thankyewverrmuch" and "Elvis has left the building." You can't help it; it's like hearing the 1812 Overture and trying not to think of the Lone Ranger.

After all, legacies require careful caretaking. The fact that Carson's DVDs are top-sellers is very encouraging. But it makes me cringe to imagine that there might come a time when the public's limited collective awareness, with a pressing need to free up some space for new "Saturday Night Live" catchphrases and reality-TV personalities, will ultimately strip Carson's legacy down so bare that it'll be reduced to Ed McMahon's "Hey-yo!!!" and a clip of a spider monkey peeing on Johnny's head. It's not inevitable; people will recognize brilliance if they see it. But while all of P.G. Wodehouse's 100 books remain in print, and you can click into iTunes and download 85 Elvis albums without even leaving your sofa, Carson's 30 years of "Tonight" shows are currently represented by a just a few DVDs. Of clips, mind you.

None of these discs present a typical "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in its entirety. Cool: you can get Johnny's final two shows. They're hugely entertaining but the true power of Carson is represented by the dull routine, the overall continuum of broadcasts...a randomly-selected show in which his guests were the star of an NBC sitcom that you couldn't stand and a writer that you'd never heard of. Those shows are the ones that demonstrate why Carson was so damned good at what he did and why he was so sorely missed when he went away. He wasn't a comic or an entertainer: he was a broadcaster. His brilliance doesn't come through in a series of clips. You just can't get him unless you see him reacting to a live audience for an hour, and guiding two or three guests through their interviews. When the opening theme blared and Carson stepped through the curtains and into the lights, he was like a downhill skiier blasting through the starting gate. Night after night, you tuned in to watch Carson navigate from the top of the monologue to the bottom of the show, reacting to bumps and powering through straightaways as he went, emerging victorious every single time at the end. Carson was never about the material or the guests. They weren't why you tuned in; they were just the snow under Johnny's skis. When you tuned into Johnny, it was always because of the broadcast.

With Carson's passing, an entire generation of young adults have suddenly become Old. There's an entire generation behind us that never saw "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." We will try ó with embarrassing and dithering enthusiasm ó to explain what the show was like and we'll fail. Completely. No doubt part of that's due to the fact that our childhoods are so deeply infused with memories of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The first time my parents and I were in the same room laughing at the same thing, we were watching The Tonight Show together. Some years later, our bedtimes were defined by the start or the end of the monologue. That's some powerful mojo, and those kinds of memories are shared by nearly everybody who was born before 1980.

A couple of years after Letterman moved to CBS and the 11:30 PM time slot, he did a week's worth of shows in Los Angeles. Early in the week, Carson made a quick cameo ó literally, a drive-by ó in a video piece that had Dave and Paul touring the streets of LA.

It was just two years after Carson had disappeared into retirement, and the audience went nuts. In his final LA show, David ended his monologue by asking the audience to welcome a surprise visitor: "Mr. Johnny Carson." And out came Calvert DeForrest, continuing a running gag that had been going on all week. Everyone knew who was going to step onto the stage, but there was still that moment when let yourself believe that maybe, just maybe, it'd really be him.

DeForrest crossed the stage and passed by Dave's desk and waved to the crowd all the way to his exit. And then...Mr. Johnny Carson himself made the exact same entrance.

The audience quite simply died. The studio sank three inches into the ground as 600 people leaped thirty inches out of their seats and then landed on their feet. The audio engineer scrambled to his bank of sliders, to no avail: every mic was pegged into the red. Surely, VU meters exploded into showers of triumphant sparks, like the stadium lights when Robert Redford hit that home run at the end of The Natural.

Johnny sheepishly acknowledged the crowd and slowly crossed towards Dave's desk. As for Letterman himself, this clearly was the happiest moment of his life up 'till that point. It wasn't the fact that Johnny was appearing on his stage instead of Leno's. It was the simple fact that he was sharing a stage with Carson at all, being a witness to the tectonic waves of adulation that were being thrown at his mentor and idol.

It was almost a scary expression of love and it reminded me that feelings of rage and love both tend to fire from the same sector of the human brain. It was relentless, a living thing. There was just so much pent-up love out there for Johnny Carson, and this was the first time in two years that it had been provided with any sort of outlet. You could say that it was The Perfect Storm of audience reactions.

Dave crossed the stage and shook Johnny's hand. Johnny made some sort of gesture to Dave and then, getting subtle but delightedly enthusiastic response from the host...he crossed behind Dave and sat down behind the desk. Dave walked around and sat in his own guest chair, having proved against all probabilities that it was possible for him to grin even more broadly than he had when Johnny took the stage a minute earlier.

Johnny smoothed his hands across the surface of the desk, clearly savoring a point of view he'd enjoyed for thirty years and which he'd missed since 1992. At home, I was leaning way forward out of my chair, almost paralyzed with expectation: what would he say? This was almost a historic moment; Johnny Carson was back on a talk-show set, sitting behind a desk!

But the audience ruined it for everybody. They simply could not restrain themselves. Johnny gave the desk another affectionate pat, like an retired Western lawman feeling the saddle of a horse for the first time in a year and possibly for the last time of his life, and then, with a start that suggested to me that he was snapping himself out of his own trance, Johnny Carson raised his hands in protest, shook Dave's hand again, and then he was gone.

For good, this time. It was somehow satisfying that he got that last burst of adulation, unwanted though it might have been, regardless of the fact that it wrecked what was going to be the greatest television moment of the year. It was came all on its own, isolated from all of the hype and promotion that had surrounded his final Tonight Shows. This applause wasn't a formal and final thank-you, fed by a month of pre-publicity and anticipation. It was genuine as any applause can be when it's generated within LA's airspace. And when it was unleashed...it proved to be literally unstoppable.

So today, Johnny is dead, and we're all old. When the time comes for me to explain to my nieces and nephews why Johnny Carson was so terrific, I think I'm going to pull out my tape of that Letterman show and play Carson's final walk-on. And then I'll ask the kids what a man needs to accomplish in a lifetime and what he would need to represent to 600 complete strangers to receive that kind of welcome.

01-24-2005, 01:58 PM
Moving from Cincinnati and arriving in LA on a Thursday the first thing that my friends did was take me to see the Tonight Show on Friday. We partied a lot that weekend but that show is about the only thing I remember specifically.

In the 80's my girlfriend worked at Carson Productions, Carson's production company. She was the secretary to the guy that originally hired Johnny to be the host of the Tonight Show. I never met Johnnny but Lynnette did get to go to his Malibu home a couple of times. She always said that he was down to earth and pretty quiet around the office and everyone like him.

Still have my 'cast and crew' jacket from The Big Chill which, IIRC, was a Carson project.

It just makes me shake my head to think that someone such as Conan O'Brien will come to inherit the mantle that Johnny once wore so beautifully.