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'Johnny Carson: King of Late Night' takes an in-depth look

A PBS 'American Masters' documentary investigates the mystique of the elusive 'Tonight Show' host, 20 years after he left TV.

May 13, 2012|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Johnny Carson performs a monologue on "The Tonight Show" in the 1960s.
Johnny Carson performs a monologue on "The Tonight Show" in… (Carson Entertainment Group,…)

Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer all made their best pitch but were turned down. Johnny Carson, the man who changed forever the world of late-night talk, wasn't talking.

The network news powerhouses had separately attempted to secure interviews with Carson to get him to speak about his life and his place as one of the most influential figures in TV history. But from his 1992 retirement after 30 years on"The Tonight Show"until his death in 2005 at age 79, Carson steadfastly refused to cooperate with almost all interviews, books or films that would have called on him to reflect on his past or his show, which simultaneously reflected and influenced the nation's conversation about itself. Despite his immense popularity and connection to his audience, he maintained a cloak of impenetrability, aided by his tight circle of friends and family members who shielded him.

Meanwhile, Carson was also being pursued by little-known documentary filmmaker Peter Jones, who unfailingly wrote him every year requesting an interview. His pleas were always greeted with a polite but definitive refusal from Carson's longtime assistant Helen Sanders.

Then came a phone call in 2003. "It was Johnny," recalled Jones. "He said, 'Thank you for all the letters … and you write a damn fine letter. I admire your persistence and style. But I'm not going to do anything because I don't give a ....' I tried to convince him that a lot of people did care, wanted to know what his thoughts were. He said, 'I will let the work speak for itself. You may be the one to do something, but I will not cooperate or participate. I've said everything I want to say.'"

Still determined after Carson's death, Jones eventually earned the trust of Carson insiders. His painstaking commitment to getting to the core of the Carson mystique has resulted in "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," an engrossing PBS "American Masters" documentary that airs Monday. In the end, Carson is letting the work speak for itself. Many of the clues into the Carson mystique are provided by comments that the host made on the show during his monologues and interviews.

With the assistance of a database, Jones, along with fellow producers Mark Catalena and Brian Tessier, combed for two years through "Tonight Show" episodes dating to 1962 with the idea of finding remarks from Carson and others that would shed light on his elusive personality. "Our theme was to define and give details about himself through what he said on the show," said Jones, whose documentaries include PBS' "Inventing L.A: The Chandlers and Their Times." "This was important to show this guy who was the most famous man in America but who almost nobody knew."

Watch "Carson's Cellar" on PBS. See more from American Masters.

The nearly two-hour film contains not only familiar sketches, chummy interactions with sidekick Ed McMahon and moments with show business legends such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch but also includes a multitude of "Tonight Show" clips that have not been seen since their initial broadcast. The project showcases Carson's star power, which rivaled most of the Hollywood celebrities sitting on "The Tonight Show" couch.

Supplementing the clips are insights from some of Carson's friends and popular guests, including David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Don Rickles, Ray Romano, Ellen DeGeneres and Dick Cavett, who explain the host's uncanny connection to the cultural zeitgeist and the viewing audience.

What emerges is a complex examination of how a shy and awkward fledgling magician from Nebraska born John William Carson eventually created the "Johnny Carson" character who was comfortable, charismatic and in control in front of the camera. He turned NBC's "The Tonight Show" into a phenomenon — in the 1970s, the show accounted for nearly a fifth of the network's total profit from advertising revenue.

However, his power and command onstage were offset by a host of private traumas and emotional upheavals. He was married four times and was known to be unfaithful. He had distant relationships with his three sons, who felt detached from their famous father. His mother, whom he adored, gave him little support or reassurance even when he was at the height of his success, and that absence of motherly affection hurt him deeply. He admitted that he could become quite nasty after a few drinks. Away from the camera, he was uncomfortable around people and was characterized in a 1969 biography as being a ruthless and cold womanizer who could be mean to his wives and petty in dealing with his business associates.

"This is 'Here's Johnny — warts and all,'" said Jones. "But he still emerges as a wonderful human being. He deeply regretted his failed marriages and his lack of attention to his three sons."

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