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The Off-camera Carson

July 06, 1986|PAUL ROSENFIELD

On the face of it--and the closer you get to him--Johnny Carson seems not very different from other people. He has one best friend he trusts implicitly. He has a beautiful girlfriend he met on the beach. He drives himself to work, to the same job he's had for 24 years. He has three sons and three divorces. He works out regularly, yet smokes excessively. He's dallied with alcohol, but not on the job. He can be mischievous. When his next-door neighbors threw a wedding last year, he reportedly took a broomstick and wrote an epithet on the sand to shock the helicopter pilots and the press. (Not printable here, thank you very much.)

The bride and groom happened to be Madonna and Sean Penn--and Johnny Carson is obviously different from other people.

He opened the front door himself. The glass-walled Malibu house sits on a 200-foot cliff overlooking the world, and it's a little overwhelming, even for Johnny Carson. He related that "Bob Newhart took one look and said, 'Where's the gift shop?' " Director Billy Wilder may have been more to the point: "Where's the desk?" There is no question that Johnny Carson could do "The Tonight Show" here, and that may be the unconscious intent: to create a living area that's an idealized, glamorized version of the work area. Mirrored tables on white area rugs, swivel chairs and simple glass ashtrays. This has to be the ultimate $9-million show-business house. Ed Murrow, if only he knew about this house, would return to Earth for a special segment of "Person to Person." Overflowing with flora and fauna, the living room seems higher and wider and deeper than the lobby of the Kahala Hilton.

It's no wonder that Carson bought the place almost on a whim last year, 24 hours after a first look. "I was in escrow on another house," he confided, "when I saw this. I said 'Can I come back tomorrow?' And I did. Then I said, 'Can I come back tonight?' And I did. And then I bought the place." (The move was typically Carson: In the early '70s, he bought Mervyn LeRoy's Bel-Air house for $800,000--over dinner.) "My dad," said Carson, a little self-consciously, "would probably say to me, 'John, do you really need this house?' The answer, of course, is that I really don't."

Carson poured black coffee into simple white mugs--and began a tour of the greenery and grounds and grotto. He likens the setting to Carmel or Acapulco, and he likes to remind a visitor that his tennis building now in construction across the road won't be anywhere near as splashy. Which is apt. Because Carson--at a distance and right up close--is the opposite of splash. He's a master of energy, of using and saving it--and there's a conservatism about him that has nothing to do with politics. As he settled into a leather swivel chair for what was to be a two-hour interview, his posture was midshipman-perfect. When two hours stretched to nearly five, another session was suggested--and the posture didn't change. Johnny Carson apparently cannot slouch.

Carson hasn't been interviewed in seven years, since he discussed comedy in a Q&A piece for Rolling Stone. (The framed Rolling Stone cover hangs in the outer office of his inner NBC office along with all his other covers--Time and Life and Look and so on, most of them from the late '60s. His last intensive print interview was with the late Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker in 1977.)

In the last two months Carson has refused to do covers of Vanity Fair, Esquire and People. Primarily because he did not want to discuss The Mouth, a.k.a. Joan Rivers, the comedienne he installed as the first permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show." In mid-May, just after the first of Carson's two interviews with Calendar, Rivers announced that she'd begin her own syndicated show in October. She had pulled an Eve Harrington by not only walking out on Carson but walking over and around him. While The Mouth never closed, Carson, while obviously not amused, said only, "I felt if I answered one question, then one question would lead to another."

Sitting in his living room with a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls, Carson, 60, might just as well have been in a dressing room in Burbank. At home, as at NBC, he fiddles with pencils or cigarettes (smoking a full pack during the first interview. His only stipulation: That he not be photographed smoking). It's not surprising to discover that Carson in college wanted to be either a psychiatrist or a journalist. On and off camera he probes and questions and listens and then answers. An extrovert when working, Carson is, however, an introvert when he isn't. Barbra Streisand's definition of fame--"not being left alone"--doesn't apply here. There is no bodyguard, no entourage, no driver.

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