- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Johnny Carson, the quick-witted “Tonight Show” host who became a national institution putting his viewers to bed for 30 years with a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter and heartland charm, died yesterday. He was 79.

NBC said Mr. Carson died of emphysema at his Malibu home, and a relative said the king of late-night comedy was surrounded by family when he died early yesterday morning.

The boyish-looking Nebraska native with the disarming grin was a star who managed never to distance himself from his audience.

“Heeeeere’s Johnny!” was the booming announcement from sidekick Ed McMahon that ushered Mr. 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; Mr. Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992.

Mr. McMahon yesterday said that Mr. Carson was “like a brother to me.”

“Our 34 years of working together, plus the 12 years since then, created a friendship which was professional, family-like and one of respect and great admiration,” Mr. McMahon said. “When we ended our run on ‘The Tonight Show’ and my professional life continued, whenever a big career decision needed to be made, I always got the OK from ‘the Boss.’”

Mr. 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 Mr. Carson’s professional life was spent in television, from his start at Nebraska stations in the late 1940s to his three decades with NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Mr. Carson chose 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.

Mr. 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.

“I just let the work speak for itself,” he told Esquire magazine in 2002.

Mr. 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 conservative columnist William F. Buckley, comedian Don Rickles and others.

He still managed to sneak a bit of his wit and humor into late-night television.

“When he reads the paper in the morning, he can think of five jokes right off the bat that he wishes he had an outlet for,” said Peter Lassally, a CBS senior vice president and one of Mr. Carson’s former producers, during an interview earlier this month.

He would send a joke every now and then to CBS “Late Show” host David Letterman, who used some of them in his monologue, Mr. Lassally said.

Mr. Carson made his debut as “Tonight Show” host in October 1962 — replacing Jack Paar — and quickly won over audiences.

In 1972, “Tonight” moved from New York to Burbank, Calif. He won four consecutive Emmy Awards in the late 1970s.

When his jokes missed their target, the smooth Mr. Carson won over a groaning studio audience with a clever look or a 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 Mr. Nixon’s fall from office in 1974.

He made presidential history again in July 1988 when he had Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on his show a few days after Mr. Clinton came under widespread ridicule for a boring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Clinton traded jests with Mr. Carson and played “Summertime” on the saxophone.

Competing networks tried a variety of formats and hosts to challenge Mr. Carson, but never managed to best “The Tonight Show.”

There was the occasional battle with NBC: In 1967, for instance, Mr. Carson walked out for several weeks until the network managed to lure him back with a contract that reportedly paid him more than $1 million a year.

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

Miss Rivers was one of the countless comedians whose careers took off after they were on Mr. 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 later recalled.

In the ‘80s, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Carson 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 five times in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Mr. Carson’s graceful exit from “Tonight” did not avoid a messy, bitter tug of war between Mr. Leno and fellow comedian David Letterman to take over his throne. Mr. Leno took over on May 25, 1992, becoming the fourth man to hold the job after Steve Allen, Mr. Paar and Mr. Carson. Mr. Letterman landed on rival CBS.

Born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in nearby Norfolk, Neb., Mr. Carson started his show-business career at 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.

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), the variety show “The Johnny Carson Show” (1955-56) and the game show “Who Do You Trust?” (1957-62).

In 1958, Carson sat in for Mr. Paar as host of “The Tonight Show.” When Mr. Paar left the show four years later, Mr. Carson was NBC’s choice as his replacement.

After his retirement, Mr. Carson and his wife, Alexis, traveled frequently. The pair met on the Malibu beach in the early ‘80s. He was 61 when they married in June 1987; she was in her 30s.

Mr. 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 that same year, but divorced nine years later. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland, took place in 1972. They divorced in 1985.

Mr. Carson won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1992, with the first President Bush saying of him, “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.

A relative said there would be no memorial service for Mr. Carson.

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