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Birth name: John William Carson
Born: October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa, USA
Died: January 23, 2005 (age 79) in Los Angeles, California, USA
Occupation: TV presenter, actor, comedian, writer
Spouses: Joan Wolcott (1949 – 1963), Joanne Copeland (1963 – 1972), Joanna Holland (1972 – 1983), Alexis Maas (1987 – 2005)
Children: Christopher (1950), Richard (1952-1991), Cory (1953)
Notable credits: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Host of the Academy Awards (5 times)
Before The Tonight Show
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, to parents Homer ''Kit'' Lloyd Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook Carson. Johnny Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as ''The Great Carsoni'' at age 14. He attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he received V-12 officer training, and then served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946. Carson then attended the University of Nebraska where he joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1949. The next year, Carson took a job at WOW radio and television in Omaha, where he hosted an early morning TV show called The Squirrel's Nest; Carson then took a job at CBS-owned 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 – tapped 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. 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. Carson was a regular panelist on the first version of To Tell the Truth.
The Tonight Show
During a Monologue on Tonight Carson became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (taking over after Jack Paar quit) in October 1962. His announcer and sidekick was Ed McMahon throughout his entire tenure with the program. For millions of people, watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson at the end of the evening became a ritual, and Carson, with his quick wit and natural charm, 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.
Paul Anka wrote the theme song (''Johnny's Theme''), a reworking of an earlier Anka song called ''Toot Sweet'' that had been given lyrics, renamed ''It's Really Love,'' and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Anka gave Carson co-authorship credit and they split the royalties for the next three decades. For years, the theme opened with a memorable drum riff that was later dropped. The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years, however during the 1970s, NBC fed the live taping from Burbank to New York via satellite for editing (see below). 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, when she was fired for accepting a competing show on the startup Fox network without consulting Carson first. 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 had a talent for coming up with quick quips to deal with unexpected problems. 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'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.
In 1973, Carson had a legendary run-in with popular psychic Uri Geller when he invited Geller to appear on his show. Carson, an experienced stage magician, wanted a neutral demonstration of Geller's alleged abilities, so, at the advice of his friend and fellow magician James Randi, he gave Geller several spoons out of his desk drawer and asked him to bend them with his psychic powers. Geller proved unable, and his appearance on The Tonight Show has since been regarded as the beginning of Geller's fall from glory.
An oft-repeated story since dismissed as an ''urban legend'' involved a guest appearance by Zsa Zsa Gabor carrying a white Persian cat. Gabor is said to have asked Johnny if he would like to ''pet my pussy?'' During a 1989 appearance, Jane Fonda noted that her son had repeated the claim, and ''my son said that you said, uh, 'I'd love to, if you'd remove that damned cat!' Is it true?'' Carson denied the episode on-air (''No, I think I would recall that...'') and both he and Gabor responded to researchers by stating the event ''never happened.'' Despite widespread insistence by people who claimed to see the episode, no audio or video recording has ever been produced. However, a bit of risqué humor was not beyond Carson. During an interview with Dolly Parton, in reference to her large bust, she said, ''People are always asking if they're real and .... I'll tell you what, these are mine.'' Carson replied, ''I have certain guidelines on this show. But I would give about a year's pay to peek under there.''
Carson played several continuing characters on sketches during the show; these include: Art Fern, the ''Tea-time Movie'' announcer (always selling strange or shoddy merchandise). The characters name was Ralph Willie when the Tea-Time sketches first aired (mid-late 1960s). A right-wing extremist in a plaid hunting coat and cap who always introduced himself as ''Floyd R. Turbo American'' (with no pause between words). Perhaps his best known character, Carnac the Magnificent, who pretended to be a psychic who could answer questions before seeing them (and reading them out loud). (This is in fact a parody of a real act known as ''one ahead'' where the first answer is known to the performer in advance, and each succeeding answer is in fact on the card containing the previous item's question.) Carnac's answers were always humorous, ironic, or puns. Ed McMahon would always announce near the end, ''I hold in my hand the last question,'' at which news the audience would applaud wildly, prompting Carnac to pronounce a comedic ''curse'' on the audience, such as ''May all your genes be recessive!'' (In fact, the name Carnac the Magnificent was the stage name Johnny used in his magic act as a youth.)
Via Satellite: Carson Live and Uncensored
Even though Carson's program was based in Burbank, NBC's editing and production services for the program were located in New York, resulting in the requirement that Carson's program be transmitted from Burbank to New York. Beginning in 1976 NBC utilized the Satcom 2 satellite to do this, feeding the live taping (which usually took place in the early evening) directly to New York where it would be edited prior to the normal broadcast. This live feed lasted usually from two to two and a half hours a night, and was uncensored and commercial free. During the commercial breaks the audio and picture would be left on, resulting in risque language and other events that would certainly be edited out later going out over the feed. At the same time, however, satellite earth stations owned by private individuals were going into use, and some managed to find the live feed. These people began to document their sightings in technical journals, giving the general public knowledge of something they were not meant to see. Carson and his production staff grew concerned about this, and pressured NBC into ceasing the satellite transmissions of the live taping in the early 1980s. The satellite link was replaced by microwave landline transmission until the show's editing facilities were moved to Burbank.
Carson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. His other awards include six 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.
Joan ''Jody'' Wolcott
Carson married his college sweetheart Joan ''Jody'' Wolcott on October 1, 1949. Laurence Leamer's biography on Carson King of The Night refers to several incidents of Carson beating his wife in private and in front of others. The marriage was volatile, with infidelities by both parties, finally ending in divorce. They had 3 sons. Their son Richard died in a car accident on June 21, 1991.
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. Carson kidded that he had married three similarly named women to avoid ''having to change the monogram on the towels.'' A joke that was similarly made by Bob Newhart during Carson's Roast by Dean Martin. 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.
Carson married Alexis Maas (an attractive blonde who met Carson after talking a beachfront guard into letting her onto Carson's Malibu property) on June 20, 1987. That broke the ''Joan'' - ''Joanne'' - ''Joanna'' cycle, and his marriage with Alexis was the longest and 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. Other business ventures included a successful clothing line, through which his turtlenecks became a fashion trend, and a failed restaurant franchise
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 close friend jazz legend Buddy Rich who was the most frequent jazz musician to appear on the Tonight Show. Writer Gore Vidal, another frequent ''Tonight Show'' guest and personal friend, writes about Carson's personality in his 2006 memoirs.
Carson's son from his first marriage, 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 samples of his son's photographic work (and images of Ricky, himself) were displayed with the music accompaniment of ''Riviera Paradise'' by blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan (himself the victim of an accidental death less than one year earlier). In addition, the final image of Carson's last show in May 1992 featured a photo Richard had taken.
The final show
Carson bids farewell.
Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992 when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. His farewell was a major media event, and stretched over several nights. It was often emotional for Carson, his collegues, and the audiences, particularly the farewell statement he delivered on his final show. NBC gave the role of host to the show's then-current permanent guest host, Jay Leno. Leno and David Letterman were soon competing on separate networks. At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he might, if so inspired, 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 voicing himself on an episode of The Simpsons (''Krusty Gets Kancelled'').
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; an appearance which prompted a standing ovation from the audience. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged. 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).
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 Worldwide Pants, Inc. 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 silent 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.''
In November 2004, Carson announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theatre Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death. Carson's final television appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman Carson also donated to causes in his hometown of Norfolk, including the Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services, The Elkhorn Valley Museum, and the Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk Senior High School.
Death and aftermath
At 6:50 AM PST on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from emphysema. He was 79 years old. 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. There were countless tributes paid to Carson upon his passing, including a statement by President George W. Bush, all recognizing the deep and enduring affection held for him. Tributes published after his passing confirmed that he had been a chain-smoker. While The Tonight Show was broadcast live, he would frequently smoke cigarettes on the air; it was reported that Carson had said ''these things are killing me'' as far back as the 1970s.
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 Severinsen ended the Letterman show that night by playing one of Carson's two favorite songs, ''Here's that Rainy Day'' (the other was ''I'll Be Seeing You'').
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?''
The 2005 film The Aristocrats was dedicated to Johnny, who apparently was a fan of the joke (and also a fan of Aristocrats co-director Penn & Teller's TV show Bullshit!) I loved you, Johnny. We all did. Yes, I'm rambling because I just don't know what else to say. I will miss Johnny Carson like no other person in my life. He was such a good man, one of my minor gods, and a good friend that I regret to say I did not meet again in person after he left TV so long ago. Just one small example, if I may, of how generous he was. When I called and asked him if he might place a telephone call to Martin Gardner on that gentleman's 90th birthday, John had no hesitation agreeing to do so. ''I've got most of his books'', he told me, ''and it'll be fun to speak with him.'' They did speak, on the afternoon of Martin's birthday, for some 20 minutes. That's the kind of gentleman that Johnny Carson was. John, I will miss you, as will so many millions here and around the world, but your legacy lives on. I've just run out of words. ''professional debunker'' James Randi
''And so it has come to this: I, uh... am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon... Mr. Doc Severinsen... and... you people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you and I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.'' Johnny Carson's closing words on his final show, May 22, 1992.