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The Off-camera Carson

July 06, 1986|PAUL ROSENFIELD

During his show recently, during a commercial break, Carson took questions from his studio audience and, inevitably, he was asked if he would marry again. His answer bespoke of somebody not only press-shy but gun-shy. He said something to the effect of "I'm in no hurry." Earlier that day in his NBC office, Carson fiddled with drumsticks and talked about the connection between drums and magic, before circuitously getting to the subject of marriage. "I think my reading a book at 12 called 'Hoffman's Magic Tricks' probably changed the course of my life," he said when asked about an early experience that shaped him. Yes, but did magic help him with girls? "It did then," he said grinning, then added, "but not with marriage. There were not too many magic moments in marriage."

It's a touchy subject, if not the touchiest, and on-the-air humor has been Carson's way of handling it. When his last two marriages ended, the humor seemed hostile, though Carson claims the jokes were on him , and primarily at his own expense. "Maybe the jokes relieve tension," he suggested. "Comedy is a nice way of doing that without getting explicit. You can make veiled references, but you don't get too personal. . . . But I would not feel comfortable writing a book involving my marriages, nor would the people I was married to feel comfortable. Because you are then giving up a certain trust. And there's little enough trust nowadays."

Clearly, Carson has an old-fashioned propriety about marriage; after all, he's been married for much of his adult life, close to 30 years altogether. "If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to 'The Tonight Show,' " he confessed, "I'd probably have a hell of a marriage. But the fact is, I haven't given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages: I put the energy into the show.

"I've said before that what's most important to a man, in general, is his work. What's most important to a woman, in general, is her relationship. And for me, what I do comes first. But look at the failure rate of marriages in Detroit, something near 50%. Why should a guy who's doing a TV show be different from a dentist? I'll tell you why. Because of the press. But I now look at it this way: You're in the paper and you're out of the paper."

Out of the paper lately has been Joanne Copeland Carson, his second wife. Ironically, the diminutive brunette lives atop Sunset Boulevard in a glass-walled house with a panoramic view that almost rivals her ex-husband's. In New York, in the 1960s, the couple lived at the U.N. Plaza in a glass-walled 12-room apartment overlooking Manhattan. In the Carbon Beach house, the glass walls face the sea. The imagery is interesting--glass walls looking out--when one considers the Carson penchant for privacy, and introspection.

Joanne Copeland met Johnny Carson in 1960 when she was co-hosting 'Video Village" on CBS and he was hosting "Who Do You Trust?" on ABC. They shared the years before and during his catapult to major stardom. It is she who has perhaps the best perspective on Carson's need to be alone. Their New York years were much less social than the '70s, the Hollywood years he spent with his third wife, Joanna.

"Johnny isn't complicated," said Joanne carefully. "Complicated implies difficult. Johnny isn't difficult really; he's multifaceted. The difference is everything. Multifaceted means you have good sides, but many of them. Ambition was only one of his facets, which separates him right away from a Joan Rivers. With Joan it's all career. Johnny's different. Which is why he said no to 'The Tonight Show' when it was first offered."

And yet he's single-minded about the show, almost to the exclusion of the other facets. "Yes, but that was a choice. What Johnny put into the show has cost him, because he put 100% of himself into it. Johnny put his focus on the career because instinctively he knew the career would never let him down. He felt it would never betray him, and it never has betrayed him. What's also unknown about Johnny is that he hasn't used anybody."

Money Is Still a Topic Carson Has Problems Talking About

"If a star needs 10 people to prop him up," said attorney Henry Bushkin, "he's in trouble. Because sooner or later those 10 people are not going to be there." If everyone in Hollywood has a brother, Johnny Carson has Henry Bushkin. The lawyer (renowned to regular Carson watchers as "Bombastic Bushkin") is, by all accounts, the best friend. The men, with or without wives, go together to Wimbledon, to France, to breakfast at Malibu. Bushkin is also the lawyer who's best understood Carson professionally, and done the best by him.

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