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Famous Like Me > Writer > C > Johnny Carson

Profile of Johnny Carson on Famous Like Me

Name: Johnny Carson  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 23rd October 1925
Place of Birth: Corning, Iowa, USA
Profession: Writer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia
Johnny Carson

John William "Johnny" Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was an American actor, comedian and writer best known for his iconic status as the host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Before The Tonight Show

Carson was born in Corning, Iowa and grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as "The Great Carsoni" at age 14. He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, then attended the University of Nebraska where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1949. The next year, Carson took a job at a local Nebraska radio station; Carson then took a job at Los Angeles television station KNXT, which would be his entry to the big time.

In 1953, well-known comic Red Skelton – a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT – tabbed Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954, Skelton knocked himself unconscious just one hour before his live show went on the air; Carson filled in for him – and a star was born.

He hosted several TV shows before his run on The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955 - 1956), and a five-year stint on the game show Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), during which Carson met long-time sidekick Ed McMahon.

The Tonight Show

During a Monologue on Tonight

Carson became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in October 1962. His co-host was Ed McMahon throughout his entire tenure with the program.

With millions of people, watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at the end of the evening became a ritual, and Carson became a well-known entertainer loved by many. Most of the later shows began with music and the announcement by Ed McMahon "Heeeeeere's Johnny!," followed by a brief comedic monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his Tonight Show monologues, aimed at stage left where the band was. Guest hosts would sometimes parody that gesture. Bob Newhart, for example, would finish by simulating rolling a bowling ball toward the audience.

The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years. The program had been done "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a serious problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days. In May 1972 the show permanently moved from New York to Burbank, California.

After the move, Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a "guest host" (leaving Carson to do the other four each week). Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986. Thereafter, The Tonight Show returned to using various guest hosts, with Jay Leno the most frequent. Leno then became the exclusive guest host in the fall of 1987. Eventually, the pattern became relatively set. Monday night was for Jay Leno. Tuesday night was for the Best of Carson, which were rebroadcasts of earlier episodes (usually of a year previous but occasionally back into the 1970s with edited episodes).

Carson was often at his best, however, when sketches went wrong, as they often did. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing the song "Tea for Two" and Carson would start to dance, which invariably earned laughs from the studio audience. Alternately, Carson might pull down the boom mike close to his face and announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!" Carson had a talent for declaring quick quips to deal with unexpected problems.

Carson's show was the launching pad for many talented performers, notably comedians. Many got their "big break" by appearing on the show, and it was considered the crowning achievement to not only get Johnny to laugh out loud, but also to be called over to the guest chair. In many ways, Carson was the successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing the Vaudeville variety-show tradition.

Critical acclaim

Carson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. His other awards include 6 Emmy Awards, and a George Foster Peabody Award. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

Personal life

Johnny Carson

Carson married his college sweetheart Joan Wolcott on October 1, 1949. They had 3 sons. Their son, Richard, was killed on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. On his first show after his son's death, Carson gave a stirring tribute to Ricky Carson in the final minutes of his show as several of his photographs were displayed.

In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Joan and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art and $100,000 a year in alimony for life. At The Tonight Show's 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates.

On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddy de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby & Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.

The story goes he met his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, when he saw her strolling along the beach near his Malibu home holding an empty wine glass. He left his house and offered to fill the glass up for her. They married on June 20, 1987. That broke the "Joan"-"Joanne"-"Joanna" cycle, and his marriage with Alexis was happy by all accounts.

Carson was a major investor in the ultimately failed De Lorean Motor Company, and was cited in a 1982 drunk driving incident while driving a De Lorean DMC-12 sportscar in Beverly Hills. Represented by Robert Shapiro, he pleaded no contest to the charges, and played off the incident by having a uniformed police officer escort him on to the Tonight Show stage.

Carson was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show to give presentations on astronomy. (Carson himself was an amateur astronomer). The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions", a phrase soon erroneously attributed to Sagan himself. According to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife with condolences when the scientist died in 1996. Also a talented amateur drummer, Carson was shown on a segment of 60 Minutes practicing at home on a drum set given to him by jazz legend Buddy Rich.


The Final Show
Johnny's Final Remarks

Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992 when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. NBC gave the show to occasional guest host, Jay Leno. Leno and Letterman were soon competing on different networks.

At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he would return with a new project, but instead chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC's 75th Anniversary celebrations. He made the occasional cameo appearance, most notably as a voice actor on an episode of The Simpsons ("Krusty Gets Kancelled").

Johnny Carson Appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman
Johnny Carson at David Letterman's Desk

Carson's most famous post-retirement appearance came on Letterman's late-night CBS talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, on May 13, 1994. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman was having Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) deliver his "Top Ten Lists" under the impression that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, Melman delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it, and asked Carson to bring out the "real" list. On that cue, the real Johnny Carson emerged from behind the stage curtain; when the audience realized that it was truly Carson, they exploded into a standing ovation. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged - and the audience, seeing Carson back behind a desk for the first time in two years, went absolutely berserk. A clearly overcome Carson mouthed "I'm back home" to the stage director, ran his hands over the desk, and - after a moment - walked back off stage without delivering his planned joke. (It was later explained that Carson had laryngitis).

Johnny Carson's Final Television Appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman

Just days before Carson's death, it was revealed that the retired King of Late Night still kept up with current events and late-night TV, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman. Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got "a big kick out of" according to CBS Senior Vice President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men's programs. Reportedly, sometimes Letterman would do the golf swing after one of those jokes, as a subliminal tribute to Carson. Lassally also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor". Letterman frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac" (with band leader Paul Shaffer as Carnac),"Stump the Band," and the "Week in Review."

At 6:50 AM on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from 20 years of emphysema. He was 79 years old. Tribute publications that came out soon after confirmed that he was a lifelong cigarette addict. In the live days of the show, he would frequently smoke on the air. The tribute stories reported that Carson had said even in the 1970s that "these things [cigarettes] are killing me".

Following Carson's death his body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held.

On January 24, 2005, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and k.d. lang. Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. During the beginning of this show, Letterman said that for 30 years no matter what was going on in the world, no matter whether people had a good or bad day, they wanted to end the day by being "tucked in by Johnny." Letterman also told his viewers that the monologue he had just given had consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life. Doc Severenson ended the Letterman show that night by playing Carson's favorite song, "Here's That Rainy Day."

Many other talk show hosts came and went during Carson's 30 years. A week or so after the tributes, Dennis Miller was on the Tonight Show and told Jay Leno about the first time he tried to do a talk show, and how miserably it went. He said that he got a call right after the first show, from Carson, telling him "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

Further reading

Johnny Carson's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Bart, Peter. "We Hardly Knew Ye." Variety (Los Angeles), 18 May 1992.
  • Corkery, Paul. Carson: The Unauthorized Biography. Ketchum, Idaho: Randt, 1987.
  • Cox, Stephen. Here's Johnny!: Thirty Years of America's Favorite Late-night Entertainment. New York: Harmony, 1992.
  • de Cordova, Fred. Johnny Came Lately: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
  • Knutzen, Erik. "Celebs Say Thanks, Johnny." Boston (Massachusetts) Herald, 21 May 1992.
  • Leamer, Laurence. King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. New York: Morrow, 1989.
  • Smith, Ronald L. Johnny Carson: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
  • Van Hise, James. 40 Years at Night: The Story of the Tonight Show. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1992.
  • Zoglin, Richard. "And What A Reign It Was: In His 30 Years, Carson Was The Best." Time (New York), 16 March 1992.

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Johnny Carson