NEW YORK — Helen Gorman Kushnick, who helped engineer Jay Leno's rise from small-time comic to host of "The Tonight Show" only to be fired four months after he replaced Johnny Carson, has died. She was 51.
Kushnick died Wednesday at her home in Manhattan after a long battle with cancer, said Jane Rosenthal, a close friend.
Kushnick had been Leno's manager for years and became executive producer of "The Tonight Show" when he began hosting it full time on May 25, 1992. The show suffered from an avalanche of criticism in its early months as ratings dipped deeper and longer than NBC executives expected.
Kushnick was fired after she was accused of demanding that guests booked by "Tonight" not appear on rival talk shows. Her disappointment over her dismissal lasted for years, said her longtime Los Angeles attorney Barry Langberg.
"She was hurt by it and she didn't ever stop being hurt by it, including Leno's treatment of her," Langberg said.
Leno had no comment on Kushnick's death, an NBC spokeswoman said Wednesday night. "Everyone at NBC expresses our condolences to the family," the spokeswoman added.
Kushnick grew up in Harlem and her first job was as secretary to producer David Gerber at 20th Century Fox in New York. She later moved to Hollywood and eventually ended up at ICM, where she rose from secretary to agent.
Her husband, Jerry Kushnick, died of cancer seven years ago. The couple had twins, but lost their son after he became infected with AIDS during a blood transfusion. The child was 3 when he died 13 years ago, Rosenthal said.
Kushnick is survived by her daughter Sara Rose, 16, of Manhattan and her brother, Joseph Gorman of Manhattan.
A funeral service will be held Friday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.