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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Johnny Carson’

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JOHNNY CARSON
By Henry Bushkin
Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 294 pages

Jimmy Fallon recently became the sixth host of NBC's "Tonight" show.

It's an exciting moment for the talented comedian and actor. He follows in the large footsteps of the long-running talk show's previous hosts — Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Jay Leno (twice), Conan O'Brien and the legendary Johnny Carson.

From 1962 to 1992, Carson was a familiar face on our television screens. He was accompanied by his famous sidekick, Ed McMahon, who would always overextend his introduction, "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" The NBC Orchestra, under the direction of bandleader Doc Severinsen, provided its own musical stylings.

The great comedian conducted thousands of interviews with celebrities, musical acts and many others. Carson created memorable characters, including Carnac the Magnificent and Floyd R. Turbo, and did a rather good imitation of Ronald Reagan. He also had many famous bits, including his call-and-response routine (ie. "It was so hot in California today ... ," which prompted the audience to shout, "How hot was it?").

Sadly, Carson's public face has often been juxtaposed with private demons that constantly haunted him. Henry Bushkin, his close friend and legal adviser for 18 years, examines the comedian's personality and psyche in his biography, "Johnny Carson."

This fast-paced and animated book adds yet another layer to our vast understanding of the inner Carson.

As a word of warning, this book has many dark overtones. While some details won't surprise either Hollywood buffs or casual readers, other incidents are rather unpleasant — and downright shocking. The language used by many key players is very crude in certain chapters. While Carson may have been a hero to many, Mr. Bushkin's account (if everything is to be believed) shows a far less heroic host of late-night television.

Here's one example. On the day Mr. Bushkin was hired by Carson, he learned "Johnny had substantial evidence" that his second wife, Joanne, "had secretly leased an apartment within blocks of their U.N. Plaza home, which she used for clandestine rendezvous with her lover."

The lawyer assumed his client wanted to file for divorce. That's not what Carson wanted to do, however. The comedian told him, "I want you to go with Arthur [Kassel] and me and some other guys when we break into the apartment to find evidence to prove the [expletive] is cheating on me."

Incredibly, Mr. Bushkin went along with this break-and-enter scheme. When Carson was shown some articles of clothing, he acknowledged they belonged to his wife, "leaned against the living room wall and began to weep." If that wasn't enough, "Carson's raincoat had fallen open," wrote Mr. Bushkin, and "I was shocked to see that Johnny was carrying a .38 revolver in a holster on his hip."

There are many unsourced accounts about Carson's wives, affairs, business relationships and private feelings about other individuals laced throughout the book.

There's even a strange passage describing Carson's third wife, Joanna, telling Mr. Bushkin, "I'm outraged — and embarrassed — that Victoria McMahon [Ed's wife] — had better seats than me" during Reagan's presidential inauguration in 1981.

Could all of these tales be true? Only the author knows for sure.

Where Mr. Bushkin's book contains the most value, in my view, is in the author's deeply personal descriptions of Carson.

In one notable passage, Mr. Bushkin writes he "embarked on a complicated relationship" with Carson. "We were friends, but it wasn't a friendship of equals. We were business associates, and although we were very friendly ones, in any business arrangement the question 'What have you done for me lately?' is never long out of the room."

Even so, the author acknowledges "we were close, and what bonded us was trust. Carson had been looking for, and had really needed to find, someone he could trust — trust to be competent, trust to protect his interests, trust to be on his side. And the more he trusted me, the more trustworthy he found me to be."

Sadly, this trust (and their friendship) came to a crashing halt in 1988. The circumstances were unfortunate, and many fingers could easily be pointed in the blame game. Except for one unexpected phone call, they never spoke again.

Mr. Bushkin hopes that Carson, a "man so suspicious of flattery and sentimentality might have appreciated my attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating, and mysterious relationship of my life — a portrait of a man I loved." That's difficult to say.

However, in honor of this talented albeit troubled comedian, let's use one of his patented phantom golf swings to close out this difficult tale.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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