JOHNNY CARSON | 1925-2005

Comedian Defined Late-Night TV

'Tonight Show' Host Dominated Airwaves and Helped Launch Careers

January 24, 2005|Brian Lowry and Scott Collins | Special to The Times

Johnny Carson, who in three decades as host of "The Tonight Show" became one of America's most influential entertainers as well as one of television's most powerful figures, died Sunday. He was 79.

His nephew, Jeff Sotzing, a former producer of "The Tonight Show," said Carson died peacefully, but declined to give a location or other details.

NBC, Carson's longtime employer, said the comedian died of emphysema at his Malibu home. He had suffered a heart attack and undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.

Sotzing said there would be no memorial service.

Former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker once called Carson's run on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" "the biggest and best television has ever been."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 26, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Johnny Carson obituary -- The obituary of late-night TV star Johnny Carson in Monday's Section A said he worked at television station KNXT when he came to Los Angeles in 1950. The station's call letters at the time were KTSL-TV.

When Carson announced his retirement in 1991, another comedy legend, Bob Hope, said it was "sort of like a head falling off Mt. Rushmore."

Although Carson was not the first "Tonight" host -- Steve Allen and Jack Paar preceded him -- he carried the format to previously unimagined heights and made late-night TV an enduring institution.

Millions of fans stayed up past their usual bedtimes to watch his interviews with stars and odd newsmakers, as well as sketches involving his silly, sometimes demented characters, such as TV host Art Fern and fortune teller Carnac the Magnificent.

He also is frequently credited with giving vital early breaks to two top-rated late-night hosts -- Jay Leno and David Letterman -- as well as a legion of stand-up comics. That list includes David Brenner, George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld.

Ed McMahon, the sidekick who always introduced Carson with "Heeeeere's Johnny!" said the former talk-show host 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," McMahon said in a statement

"It's a sad day for his family and for the country," Letterman said in a statement. "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again."

Leno, who followed Carson as host of "The Tonight Show," called him "the gold standard" of television.

"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny," Leno said in a statement. "It's hard to believe he's actually gone. It's a tremendous loss for everyone who Johnny made laugh for so many years."

Peter Lassally, Carson's producer for more than two decades, told reporters last week that even though the comedian had been battling emphysema "a long time," he remained an avid TV viewer and was even sending jokes to Letterman for monologues on his CBS show, "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Known for his deadpan expressions and wry delivery, Carson proved that late night could be profitable for the networks, and the wee hours are now crammed with talk shows inspired by his success on "The Tonight Show."

But none of those shows will probably ever match Carson's reach. In 1969, ukulele-playing camp figure Tiny Tim and his bride, Miss Vicki, married in an on-air ceremony on Carson's "Tonight Show." Critics derided the event as a stunt, but more than 40 million viewers tuned in -- a staggering figure for late night, and about as many as watched the 2004 Academy Awards in prime time.

Carson kept growing his audience throughout the 1960s and '70s, even as NBC's competitors cooked up rival shows designed to end his dominance. But TV viewers developed a bond with Carson that others could neither duplicate nor shatter. In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson, writer Kenneth Tynan observed that this was "a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television."

Carson spun running gags from those who joined him on the show. There were frequent cracks about McMahon's supposed penchant for alcohol and the relentlessly dull social life of band member Tommy Newsom. But as an interviewer, Carson was as gentle as he was effective. He asked guests questions that viewers wanted answered, but he managed to avoid seeming prying or mean-spirited.

That goes a long way toward explaining why virtually every figure of importance from show business and politics eventually wound up on "The Tonight Show," from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Clinton to Tom Cruise. All told, Carson was host to 22,000 guests during his 30 years on "The Tonight Show."

The late-night host had become an extraordinarily private figure in recent years, given the national stage he commanded for three decades. He seldom appeared in public and -- other than a few cameos on Letterman's late-night show and a tribute to Hope -- completely eschewed television after leaving "The Tonight Show" on May 22, 1992, with a retrospective that drew an audience that rivaled ratings for the Super Bowl.

"I bid you a very heartfelt good night," were his parting words.

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