Johnny Carson ruled late-night TV for three decades

(Originally published by the Daily News on Jan. 24, 2005. This was written by David Hinckley.)

With the possible exception of  Lucille Ball, no entertainer was ever so adored by the television camera as Johnny Carson during the 30 years he hosted "The Tonight Show."

By fortune and skill, Carson parlayed that affection into a life and a stardom galaxies removed from Corning, Iowa, where he was born Oct. 23, 1925.

He began life as the middle child of Homer and Ruth Carson, hard-working Middle Americans of solid Methodist stock.

He died yesterday in Los Angeles as well known as any President, a man who reshaped the role of television and for 30 years reinforced America's hope and belief that the plain man with good old common sense was where you put your money.

Beyond the gaze of the camera, Carson was often described as cold, indifferent and impatient. He was married four times, divorced three.

At least twice, he threatened to walk away from "Tonight" because he wanted more money and more time off.

After a "Tonight Show," Carson's ritual for years was to return to his dressing room, close the door and drink a beer alone. No Ed McMahon, his affable sidekick for almost as long as he'd been on TV. No Doc Severinsen, his bandleader.

Certainly no guests. Carson rarely talked with guests before the camera went on or after it shut off. A "Tonight" gig was a business relationship.

All that was known about Johnny Carson. It didn't matter.

On May 22, 1992, Carson walked away from "Tonight" to a standing ovation from a grateful nation, and he spent the last dozen years of his life finally doing whatever he wanted, without anybody watching him, asking him a dumb question or telling him they'd watched him for 30 years, so could he please sign this piece of paper.

Do You Believe In Magic?

In 1937, 12-year-old Johnny Carson came across "Hoffmann's Book of Magic." He sent away for a mail-order kit and drove his family nuts by asking them to pick a card, any card.

At 14, he made his performing debut as "The Great Carsoni," in a costume sewn by Ruth Carson. He was in showbiz.

"I played the Wahoo Hatch­ery in Wahoo, Neb.," he recalled years later. "I'd make appearances on the back of a flatbed truck, following a demonstration of the fire department's new aerial ladder."

He joined the Navy out of high school in 1943, and after his discharge got his diploma in 1949 from the University of Nebraska. Meanwhile, he worked in local radio and did his senior thesis on "Comedy Writing."

He saw the rise of television, and vaulted from Omaha to KNXT in Los Angeles, where he did a half-hour Sunday comedy show called "Carson's Cellar" that led Red Skelton to hire him as a writer.

One night in August 1954, Skelton was injured in rehearsal, and Carson was so impressive as a quick fill-in that CBS offered him his own show. Starting in June 1955, "The Johnny Carson Show" featured parodies of pop culture, interviews with wacky people and other notions "Tonight" fans would recognize.

That show also confirmed he wasn't always an easygoing colleague. In one season, he went through seven writers and eight directors. But after the show was canceled he came to New York and joined the Friars Club, the ultimate networking spot for celebrity comedians, which helped keep him visible enough that in 1957 ABC-TV hired him to replace Edgar Bergen as host of "Who Do You Trust?"

The original title, the racier "Do You Trust Your Wife?", didn't last. His sidekick, McMahon, did, because whatever Johnny wanted, Ed thought was great. It was a principle under which they would work together for 35 lucrative years.

The Big Time

As host of the country's most popular daytime show, Carson was invited in the spring of 1958 to sit in as a guest host for Jack Paar on NBC's "Tonight" show.

Carson was everything Paar wasn't: calm, not excitable; deadpan, not weepy; suggestive, not overt. When Paar and NBC got the inevitable divorce in 1962, NBC came to Carson. He said no, then yes.

There were reports into the '70s that Carson always needed money, and that his distrust for the world in general was fueled by a bitterness over those he felt had done his money wrong. He tried to start a food franchise, appeared in vodka ads and did one-nighters on the comedy circuit, where he was more risqué and no less adored.

Meanwhile, on the air, he didn't seem to be creating anything radical. He would start with a monologue, which over the years would blossom into perhaps the most underrated performance on television, then talk with guests while interspersing comedy bits and sketches.

This featured characters like Carnac the Magnificent, a magician clearly rooted in Carson's  affection for "pick a card;" the obnoxious Aunt Blabby; the Mighty Carson Art Players;  the knuckle-dragging Floyd R. Turbo; Father Time, and the return of The Great Carsoni.

Soon the show developed a reputation as a place to do and say things that had no forum in prime time. Guests with bizarre animals were always welcome. So were eye-catchers like Dolly Parton, and so was Tiny Tim's wedding in 1969.

While Carson was generally liberal, fans rarely saw that, even in a pointed run of Watergate gags in 1972-73. "I've got nothing to gain by it," he said  of inserting his own views, "and everything to lose."

However he did it, he made it all look so easy, and so profitable, that over the years an army of challengers marched on his late-night spot. From Dick Cavett and Les Crane to Bill Dana and Joan Rivers, he shrugged them all off.

At home, he wasn't always doing so well - even before the most jolting tragedy of his life, when his son Ricky was killed in a car crash in 1991, age 39.

Carson married Jody, his childhood sweetheart, in 1949. Three sons later, in 1963, they divorced. He married Joanne Copeland in 1963 and that lasted until 1972, when they divorced and he married Joanna Holland. They divorced in 1985 and he married Alexis Maas in 1987. He was 61, she  was in her 30s, and they remained married until his death.

Even after Carson retired, to a life that included boating, tennis, few public appearances and fewer interviews, he was still godfather of late-night TV.

When he left, there was a battle over whether David Letterman or Jay Leno would take his spot. Leno got it, with Letterman going to CBS, and just recently there were reports that Johnny had fed jokes to Dave.

To the end, the camera loved even the thought of Johnny.

photo Johnny  Carson ruled late-night TV for three decades images

photo of Johnny Carson ruled late-night TV for three decades

Relax Johnny Carson ruled late-night TV for three decades stories

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