Born John William Carson, October 23, 1925, in Corning, IA; died of complications from emphysema, January 23, 2005, in Los Angeles, CA. Television show host. Johnny Carson was one of the most powerful figures in show business during his 30-year reign as the host of NBC's Tonight Show. From 1962 until his sign-off in May of 1992, Carson traded quips with celebrities, politicians, and ordinary Americans from his familiar desk. His show, which aired weeknights just after the local late-night newscast, was virtually the only original programming in the time slot for an entire generation in the era before cable television.
Carson was born in 1925, the middle child of three, into a farming family in Iowa. His father was a district manager for the local utility company, and the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, in 1933. An admittedly shy child, Carson discovered early on he had a gift for storytelling and jokes and, paradoxically, felt far more confident around others while performing. He was a working teenage magician before graduating from high school in 1943, and after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II enrolled at the University of Nebraska. Earning his degree in just three years, Carson began his career in radio and quickly moved on to the fledgling medium of television. He met Ed McMahon, his long-time Tonight Show sidekick, while hosting the game show Who Do You Trust? in the late 1950s.
The Tonight Show began in 1953 with comedian Steve Allen as host. He was succeeded by Jack Paar in 1957, and the mix of stand-up comedy, skits, and celebrity guests proved to be a terrific success. Carson took over as host in October of 1962, and the show would eclipse all other imitators over the next decade and cause Carson to be dubbed "the king of late-night TV" in the press. His show dominated the ratings, with 15 million viewers tuning in at its peak popularity; at one point it reportedly accounted for 17 percent of the NBC network's total profits. Middle-class Americans tuned in every night to laugh at Carson's monologue, usually rife with news-of-the-day references. The tone of his jokes became a bellwether for the national mood, and during the Watergate political scandal of Richard M. Nixon's second term, Carson's jokes about the president were the opening salvo in what became a pattern of ridicule and anti-Nixon sentiment in the country; in August of 1974 Nixon became the first president ever to resign from office.
Carson chatted with some 22,000 guests during his three-decade reign, and an appearance on The Tonight Show was an immeasurable publicity boost to any new star. He also had an ear for talented stand-up comics, and scores of future film and television stars had their careers launched by a stint on the show or, even more of an honor, filling in for Carson at his desk during his increasingly frequent days off. Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano, and Drew Carey all appeared early in their careers on The Tonight Show, and two others, David Letter-man and Jay Leno, would go on to host their own immensely successful late-night shows. Both Letter-man and Leno were the entire shortlist to succeed Carson when he announced his retirement, but Leno won The Tonight Show slot, and Letterman eventually resigned from NBC, so deep was the rebuff.
In his final years on the air, Carson earned a reported $25 million a year, and wielded enough clout even to force NBC to cut his show from 90 to 60 minutes in 1980. "More than any other individual," wrote Richard Severo and Bill Carter in the New York Times, Carson "shifted the nexus of power in television from New York to Los Angeles, with his decision in 1972 to move his show from its base in Rockefeller Center in New York to NBC's West Coast studios in Burbank, Calif. That same move was critical in the changeover of much of television from live to taped performances."
Some 50 million viewers tuned in for Carson's farewell as Tonight Show host in May of 1992. He told his studio audience as well as a record-setting number of broadcast viewers that he considered himself "one of the lucky people in the world," he said, according to CNN.com. "I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."
Though Carson had often joked in his monologues about his three divorces, he was an intensely private person. He was almost never seen in public after leaving the airwaves, but traveled around the world with his fourth wife, Alexis. They sailed on his 125-foot yacht, the Serengeti, and attended the annual Wimbledon tennis championships in England every summer. He was an avid tennis player, and a golfer, too, whose pretend-swing closed his nightly monologue. Sometimes, upon returning from a commercial in the old live days, viewers might catch Carson stubbing out a cigarette; he was a lifelong smoker and suffered from emphysema in his later years. He died of complications from the disease on January 23, 2005, at the age of 79, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, Alexis, and two sons from his first marriage, Christopher and Cory; a third son, Richard, died in a car accident in 1991.
News of Carson's death prompted heartfelt tributes from around the world. Leno, his successor, said that he still felt "like a guest in his house," according to People. Letterman, whom Carson sent the occasional joke for the monologue, credited his career to Carson's generosity, and asserted that his mentor's talent was unparalleled. "All of us who came after," Letterman told CNN.com, "are pretenders." Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/01/2310/carson.obit/index.html (January 24, 2005); http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/TV/02/10/johnny.carson.ap/index.html (February 10, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, February 4, 2005, pp. 12-16; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,15672,00.html?eol.tkr (January 24, 2005); Independent (London), January 25, 2005, p. 34; Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2005, p. A1, pp. A14-15; New York Times, January 24, 2005, p. A1; February 7, 2005, p. A2; February 9, 2005, p. A2; People, February 7, 2005, pp. 84-92;
— Carol Brennan