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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

Carson married four times, was said to be a chain smoker and wrestled with alcoholism. He endured the death of one of his three sons, Rick, in a 1991 car accident at the age of 39.

Carson usually allowed his personal life to invade the show only in jest, but after that incident he fought back tears while eulogizing his son. After a much-publicized arrest for drunken driving in 1982, Carson had a policeman escort him onstage.

One of Carson's wives, Joanne, said the comic had focused on his 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."

Although his first divorce became final in 1963, that relationship became an issue in 1990 when his wife (Jody "Joan" Wolcott, the mother of all three children and his college sweetheart) demanded a ninefold increase in her alimony payments, to $120,000 per year. Carson's attorneys called the request "a baldfaced holdup."

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.

Carson was married to his fourth wife, Alexis, in 1987. The two met on the beach a few years earlier and wed in a private ceremony at his Malibu home. His passions included astronomy and tennis, both as a player and fan, evidenced by his regular trips to the Wimbledon tournament in England.

"If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to 'The Tonight Show,' I'd probably have a hell of a marriage," Carson told The Times in 1986. "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."

For all the plaudits heaped on him, Carson's influence within Hollywood was equally legendary. Laurence Leamer claimed that no other talk show would book him when he wrote "King of the Night," an unflattering 1989 biography of Carson, whom he called "the most powerful person in Los Angeles." In the book, Leamer characterized him as a cold and ruthless individual, a womanizer who was abusive with his wives and petty in his business dealings.

Carson freely admitted that he "never was a social animal." He didn't like being surrounded by people, drove himself to work and was extremely selective about his friends, spending lots of time in his sprawling hilltop estate, so large as to prompt comic Bob Newhart to quip on a visit, "Where's the gift shop?"

The build-up to Carson's final episode in 1992 became a national event. The Comedy Central network went dark during that hour, and Arsenio Hall aired reruns of his late-night series the last week out of deference to Carson.

Ratings swelled, with millions tuning in to see final guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler, the latter singing a memorable duet with Carson. His family attended the final "Tonight" taping, and Carson addressed his sons, Chris and Cory, in signing off.

"I realize that being an offspring of someone who is constantly in the public eye is not easy," Carson said. "So guys, I want you to know that I love you. I hope that your old man has not caused you too much discomfort."

Despite staying out of the public eye after leaving, Carson continued to maintain offices in Santa Monica, going in a few days a week. Company affairs -- including the sale of "Tonight Show" videos that continued to sell briskly, marketed via TV "infomercials" -- have been run by his nephew, Sotzing.

Carson also indulged his passion for the sea in his later years, sailing extensively on a specially equipped 130-foot yacht, the Serengeti -- named, he said, for the region in Africa that captivated him on a trip there in the 1990s.

Although Carson appeared in the 1964 movie "Looking for Love," which starred Connie Francis, he ultimately decided to focus his career almost exclusively on "The Tonight Show." Carson admitted that he had "thought about movies for years" but felt that they didn't offer a terribly viable option because he was so well-known as himself. "[Robert] Redford can play a baseball player, but I'm playing me. Every night," he said.

Among the film offers Carson turned down was the chance to play a character modeled after him, opposite Robert DeNiro, in "The King of Comedy," a role that went to Jerry Lewis.

Although he generally avoided acting, Carson did host the Academy Awards on five occasions from 1979 to 1984 (the exception being in 1983). His own list of honors included six Emmys and the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. He also was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and was celebrated by the Kennedy Center for career achievement the next year.

During a 1979 interview with Mike Wallace for CBS' "60 Minutes," the journalist asked Carson: "What would you like your epitaph to be?"

Without missing a beat, Carson quipped: "I'll be right back."



Key moments on Carson

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