'Tonight Show' icon Johnny Carson dies at 79 in 2005

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

American TV icon Johnny Carson - who for three decades kept viewers laughing and politicians squirming as host of "The Tonight Show" - died yesterday at his Southern California home. He was 79.

Carson's death left the country's greatest entertainers heartbroken and deeply indebted to the silver-haired legend, who helped launch many of them into stardom.

The "King of Late Night" died at his Malibu home after a long battle with emphysema, his family said in a statement.

"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," said his nephew Jeff Sotzing. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable."

Carson retired from his late-night duties with NBC in May 1992 and seldom returned to the limelight, savoring his privacy while letting his legendary career speak for itself.

It was recently revealed that Carson was secretly funneling jokes to David Letterman, host of CBS' "Late Show," who incorporated the zingers in his nightly monologue.

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

Jay Leno, who replaced Carson on "The Tonight Show," called Carson "the gold standard" for entertainers.

"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny," Leno said.

The reclusive Carson, who was a longtime smoker, was rarely seen in public after his 1999 quadruple heart bypass.

The first photos of him in years, printed in newspapers and magazines around the world, showed Carson on a stroll earlier this month in Malibu. Wearing wraparound sunglasses, a cap and dark jacket, Carson appeared frail and paunchier than he did in his working days, when his boyish grin and wiry frame made him a post-prime-time ritual for millions of viewers.

Born in Iowa and raised in Norfolk, Neb., Carson - a World War II veteran - took Jack Paar's place as host of "The Tonight Show" in 1962.

His sidekick Ed McMahon would introduce him each night with a trademark "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" drawing the talk-master from behind a curtain. "Johnny Carson was a man I considered like a brother to me," McMahon said yesterday.

With lightning-quick jokes about current events and barbs aimed at politicians of all stripes, including President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Carson ruled the airwaves, smashing the chances of any competitor. "His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life," President Bush said of Carson.

Former President Bill Clinton credited Carson for resurrecting his career after he gave a long and monotonous speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.

Invited on "The Tonight Show," the then-Arkansas governor traded quips with Carson and played "Summertime" on the saxophone, beginning a juggernaut that helped land Clinton in the White House four years later.

Movie action hero-turned-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called Carson "irreplaceable."

"He welcomed me on his show when no one knew who I was and helped promote the image of bodybuilding," Schwarzenegger said.

Comedian Jerry Lewis recalled Carson as a humble man, who tried to allow his guests to shine and not be overshadowed by his presence. "I think that Johnny, no matter how long he lived in Hollywood and no matter how much money he made, he still had a piece of straw stuck in his ear," Lewis said.

Singer and actress Bette Midler, the last of Carson's 22,000 guests, said she'll never forget Carson's generosity. "So many of us who are working in show business today owe our careers to him," Midler said. "I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He had it all. A little bit of devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class."

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