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Five Night-Years From Johnny : Wheeeeeeeeeeere's Johnny? Happily out of the spotlight.

May 18, 1997|Brian Lowry | Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

Back in 1992, Johnny Carson said, "I bid you a very heartfelt good night," and, remarkably, stepped out of the spotlight for good.

After coming into America's bedrooms for nearly three decades as host of "The Tonight Show," Carson walked away from performing and has completely eschewed the public eye.

Such discipline seems all the more unusual given the power Carson wielded. Far more than just a late-night host, he was also perhaps the most influential political commentator in America, and his program was widely viewed as a show-business career-maker. Appearing on "The Tonight Show" during his tenure was considered the ultimate breakthrough for stand-up comics, especially if Carson invited them to his desk.

After writing an unflattering 1989 biography of Carson, "King of the Night," author Laurence Leamer complained that talk shows wouldn't book him because people so feared Carson, whom he called "the most powerful person in Los Angeles."

Word of Carson's departure left executives at NBC--then in the midst of a ratings downturn--scrambling. Two months after his final episode aired on May 22, 1992, attracting a Super Bowl-sized share of audience, NBC announced that Carson had agreed to an exclusive contract to "star in and/or develop a variety of original programs" for the network.

Such projects, however, never materialized, and aside from a few cameos on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and NBC's 90th-birthday tribute to Bob Hope, Carson has essentially been absent from television.

NBC officials say they actively pursued Carson, who expressed interest in certain projects proposed to him but eventually opted not to go forward.

"There would come a point at which he would say, 'You know, this is not for me,' and he bowed out," says Rick Ludwin, NBC senior vice president of specials, variety and late-night programs, who still speaks with Carson periodically to take his temperature about a return engagement.

"He's done everything there is to do in television and really has no desire to come back. He knows if he changes his mind, we are there," adds Ludwin, who acknowledges that the likelihood of that happening seems to diminish with each passing day.

The onetime king of late night did put out a video compilation series, and a collection of his popular characters and skits, "Carson's Comedy Classics," airs twice daily on cable's Family Channel.

Carson, now 71, works a few days each week out of his company's offices in Santa Monica. He recently bought a boat, owns several homes and still turns up at events like Wimbledon.

Always an intensely private person, Carson (through his assistant) declined an interview request, providing the same reasoning he offers in turning down invitations to appear and perform publicly: namely, that agreeing to do one thing would open the floodgates to everything.

In the eyes of friends and former employees, Carson's ability to abruptly sever himself from the public persona he lived with for decades has only added to his mystique.

Peter Lassally, an executive producer of "The Tonight Show" who does the same now for "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder," is proud that Carson has been able to maintain such a policy.

"He's an intelligent, informed human being with lots going on inside his head," Lassally says. "The reason I think he can do it is that he's not dependent on the love and approval of an audience to feel complete. It's an elegant end to his career."

"Elegant," perhaps, because few performers have had the restraint to stay away. Even Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon, has remained active since the program ended, recently taking a recurring role in a new WB network series starring Tom Arnold that premieres in the fall.

By going out at the top of his game, friends say, Carson won't leave behind the sort of memories brought about by seeing a star like Jack Benny--one of Carson's idols--hanging on beyond his prime.

"You look at old athletes who played the game too long and it was always embarrassing," says Robert Morton, a former producer of Letterman's show, who is now developing prime-time series. "Why compete with what you established? It's very admirable. . . . Johnny Carson went out with a real high that last month of shows. How can he possibly top that?"

"Johnny once said to me, 'Listen, Fred, I did it,' " notes Fred de Cordova, Carson's executive producer for 22 years, who still consults to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." "I think he's very happy the years were so good, and why take a chance on not being as good as he was?

"There's no arrogance in this. It's just him saying, 'I had a helluva run. Leave it alone.' "

Some nevertheless marvel that Carson--accustomed as he was to receiving a nightly ovation--seems so content keeping such a low profile.

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