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John William Carson

Also Known As: "Johnny"
Birthplace: Corning, Adams County, Iowa, United States
Death: January 23, 2005 (79)
West Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California, USA, Malibu, Los Angeles, California, United States (Emphysema)
Place of Burial: California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Kit L. Carson and Ruth E. Carson
Husband of Private
Ex-husband of Joan Morrill Carson; Joan Copeland and Private
Father of Private; Richard Wolcott Carson and Private
Brother of Private and Private

Occupation: Comedian
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Johnny Carson

American television host and comedian, known as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years. Carson received six Emmy Awards including the Governor Award and a 1975 Peabody Award; he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1993. Although his show was already highly successful by the end of the 1960s, it was during the 1970s that he became an American icon and the "best guest" in American homes up until his retirement in 1992. Carson is credited with molding modern television late night talk shows, transitioning the format from Ed Sullivan's era of post-war vaudeville-derived variety where the host was merely an announcer of acts, to today's more casual, conversational approach with extensive interaction with guests. Late night hosts David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon have all cited Carson's influence on their late night talk shows, which greatly resemble Carson's show in format and tone.

Born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925 to Homer "Kit" Lloyd Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook Carson. He grew up in southwest Iowa until the age of 8, when the family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska. There he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as "The Great Carsoni" at 14. He attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he received V-12 officer training, and then served in the Navy from 1943-1946. He served in USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) in the final days of the war. Carson then attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where he joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, wrote a thesis on the structure of Jack Benny's comedy routines, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949.

He began his performing career in 1950 at WOW radio and television in Omaha, Nebraska. He appeared on radio with Ken Case, an Omaha native who was later a news anchor and sportscaster in Monroe, Louisiana. Carson soon hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel's Nest. One of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would allegedly report on the political corruption they had seen. Carson supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local church dinners, attended by some of the same politicians and civic leaders that he had lampooned on the radio. The wife of one of the political figures owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles and referred Carson to her brother, who was influential in the emerging television market in Southern California. Carson went to work at CBS-owned Los Angeles television station KNXT. He would later joke that he owed his success to the birds of Omaha.

In 1953, comic Red Skelton — a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show Carson's Cellar, which appeared from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT — asked Carson to join his show as a writer. Skelton once accidentally knocked himself unconscious an hour before his show went on the air live. Carson filled in for him.

In 1955, Jack Benny invited Carson to appear on one of his programs, during the opening and closing segments. Carson imitated Benny and claimed that Benny had copied his gestures. Benny, however, predicted that Carson would have a successful career as a comedian.

Carson hosted several shows before The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), and the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955–1956). He was a regular panelist on the original To Tell the Truth until 1962. After the prime time The Johnny Carson Show failed, he moved to New York City to host Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), where he met his future sidekick Ed McMahon. Although he saw moving to daytime as hurting his career, Who Do You Trust? was a success. It was the first show where he could ad lib and interview guests.

Carson's success on Who Do You Trust led NBC to invite him to replace Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show, who would leave in March 1962. Carson declined the offer, but NBC asked him again after Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, and Joey Bishop also refused. Carson accepted in March, but had six months left on his CBS contract, during which NBC used many guest hosts including Merv Griffin.

Although he continued to have doubts about his new job, Carson became host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in October 1962 and quickly overcame his fears. His announcer and sidekick was Ed McMahon throughout the program. McMahon's opening line, "Heeeere's Johnny" became a hallmark. Most of the later shows began with music and the announcement "Heeeeeere's Johnny!", followed by a brief monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his monologues, aimed stage left where the Tonight Show Band was. Guest hosts sometimes parodied that gesture. Bob Newhart rolled an imaginary bowling ball toward the audience. Johnny enjoyed what he calls the "Carson Kits," or beautiful girls to dress his show. Theona Bryant, a favorite, was a model. The other "Carson Cuties" were Phyllis Applegate, Norma Brooks, and Sally Todd.

Paul Anka wrote the theme song ("Johnny's Theme"), a reworking of his "Toot Sweet", given lyrics, renamed "It's Really Love," and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Anka gave Carson co-authorship and they split the royalties for three decades.

The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was not live in its early years, although during the 1970s, NBC fed the live taping from Burbank to New York via satellite for editing. The program had been done "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days.

In May 1972, the show moved from New York to Burbank, California. Carson often joked about "beautiful downtown Burbank" and referred to "beautiful downtown Bakersfield," which prompted Mayor Mary K. Shell to chide Carson and invite him to her city to see improvements made during the early 1980s.

After July 1971, Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a guest host, leaving Carson to do the other four each week. Shows were taped in Burbank at 5:30pm (8:30 pm Eastern time) to be shown that evening at 11:30pm Eastern time. On September 8, 1980, at Carson's request, the show cut its 90-minute format to 60 minutes; Tom Snyder's Tomorrow added a half hour to fill the vacant time. Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986, when she was fired for accepting a competing show on Fox without consulting Carson. The Tonight Show returned to using rotating guest hosts, including comic George Carlin. Jay Leno then became the exclusive guest host in fall 1987. Leno stated that although other guest hosts upped their fees, he kept his low, assuring himself the show. Eventually, Monday night was for Leno, Tuesday for the Best of Carson, rebroadcasts usually of a year earlier but occasionally from the 1970s.

Carson had a talent for quick quips to deal with problems. If the opening monologue fared poorly, the band would start playing "Tea for Two" and Carson danced, to laughs from the studio audience. Alternately, Carson might pull the boom mic close to his face and announce "Attention K-Mart shoppers!"

Carson's show was the launch for many performers, notably comedians. Many got their break on the show, and it was an achievement to get Carson to laugh and be called to the guest chair. Carson was successor to The Ed Sullivan Show as a showcase for all kinds of talent, as well as continuing a vaudeville-style variety show.

In 1973, Carson had a run-in with psychic Uri Geller. Carson, a magician, wanted a neutral demonstration of Geller's abilities, so, at the advice of his friend and fellow magician James Randi, he gave Geller spoons and asked him to bend them with his psychic powers. Geller proved unable, and his appearance on The Tonight Show has been regarded as Geller's fall from glory.

Carson successfully sued a manufacturer of portable toilets who wanted to call its product "Here's Johnny".

Even though Carson's program was based in Burbank, NBC's editing and production services for the program were located in New York, resulting in the requirement that Carson's program be transmitted from Burbank to New York. Beginning in 1976, NBC used the Satcom 2 satellite to do this, feeding the live taping (which usually took place in the early evening) directly to New York, where it would be edited prior to the normal broadcast. This live feed lasted usually from two to two-and-a-half hours a night, and was uncensored and commercial-free. During the commercial breaks the audio and picture would be left on, capturing at times risque language and other events that would certainly be edited out later going out over the feed.

At the same time, however, satellite ground stations owned by private individuals began to appear, and some managed to find the live feed. Satellite dish owners began to document their sightings in technical journals, giving viewers knowledge of things they were not meant to see. Carson and his production staff grew concerned about this, and pressured NBC into ceasing the satellite transmissions of the live taping in the early 1980s. The satellite link was replaced by microwave landline transmission until the show's editing facilities were finally moved to Burbank.Even though Carson's program was based in Burbank, NBC's editing and production services for the program were located in New York, resulting in the requirement that Carson's program be transmitted from Burbank to New York. Beginning in 1976, NBC used the Satcom 2 satellite to do this, feeding the live taping (which usually took place in the early evening) directly to New York, where it would be edited prior to the normal broadcast. This live feed lasted usually from two to two-and-a-half hours a night, and was uncensored and commercial-free. During the commercial breaks the audio and picture would be left on, capturing at times risque language and other events that would certainly be edited out later going out over the feed.

Carson retired from show business on May 22, 1992, when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. His farewell was a major media event, and stretched over several nights. It was often emotional for Carson, his colleagues, and the audiences, particularly the farewell statement he delivered on his 4,531st and final Tonight Show:

"And so it has come to this: I, uh — am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for thirty years, Mr. Ed McMahon — Mr. Doc Severinsen — and — you people watching, I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you — and I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.”

NBC gave the role of host to the show's then-current permanent guest host, Jay Leno. Leno and David Letterman were soon competing on separate networks.

At 6:50 AM PST on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, of respiratory arrest arising from emphysema. He was 79 years old.

In 2010 the website was relaunched and now features classic Tonight Show moments on demand.

He was married four times. In 1954, Carson married his high school sweetheart Joan. The marriage was volatile, with infidelities by both parties, finally ending in divorce. They had three sons. Their son Richard died in a car accident on June 21, 1991. Another son, Cory, worked as a stage manager at NBC in Burbank.

In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Joan and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art and US$100,000 a year in alimony for life.

At the Carson Tonight Show's 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates. Carson kidded that he had married three similarly named women to avoid "having to change the monogram on the towels." A similar joke was made by Bob Newhart during Carson's roast by Dean Martin. On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage, even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddy de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby & Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.

Carson married Alexandra Mass on June 20, 1987; Johnny was 61, Alexis 35.

On March 19, 1999, Carson suffered a severe heart attack at his home in Malibu, California, and was hospitalized in nearby Santa Monica, where he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.

At 6:50 am PST on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of respiratory failure arising from emphysema. He was 79, and had revealed his terminal illness to the public in September 2002. His body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife, Alexis Maas. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held. Carson is also survived by his younger brother, Dick, who is an Emmy Award-winning director of, among other things, the competing Merv Griffin Show and Wheel of Fortune.

Entertainer, Television Host, Comedian. Born in Corning, Iowa, he moved with his family to nearby Norfolk, Nebraska when he was eight-years-old. At age 14, Carson began his act as the magician "The Great Carsoni" for the local Rotary Club in his hometown. During World War II, he served in the Navy for two years as an Ensign. He was a radio-drama major at the University of Nebraska. He hosted his first radio program, "The Squirrel's Nest", at WOW in Omaha. Moving to Hollywood in the early 1950s, he began his television career with "Carson's Cellar", a comedy-variety-talk show. He was a writer for "The Red Skelton Show" and the host of quiz show, "The Johnny Carson Show". Teaming up with long-time sidekick Ed McMahon in 1958, he hosted the daytime game show, "Who Do You Trust?". He tried his hand at dramatic acting, appearing in "Three Men on a Horse" during the inaugural season of "Playhouse 90". In 1960, he shot a pilot for a prime-time TV series, "Johnny Come Lately," but that was not picked-up by a network. He succeeded Jack Paar as host of “The Tonight Show” on October 1, 1962. Over his career he hosted a number of network television specials, including the Academy Awards and Emmy Awards, and performed stand-up comedy at the top hotels in Las Vegas. In the early 1970s, TV Guide reported that Carson was earning $2 million a year, making him the highest paid TV entertainer ever; this was a record he repeatedly surpassed, making a then-record $5 million annual salary in the 1980s. He was beloved by his viewers and guests, along with the legions of young comics whose careers were launched on "The Tonight Show". He married four times: Jody Wolcott in 1948 and divorced in 1963, then married Joanne Copeland, next Joanna Holland and last to Alexis Maas in 1987. He had three children by his first wife. He spent the last decade of his life in retirement in Malibu, California. Unlike every other TV star, he remained on top until the very end with the show winning its ratings period every year for 30 years. When Carson retired, his last appearance was one of the highest rated late night TV shows ever. He suffered from emphysema and had quadruple bypass surgery in 1999. He died peacefully at the age of 79 surrounded by his family and friends.

Bio by: Jane Stacy Eubanks

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Johnny Carson's Timeline

October 23, 1925
Corning, Adams County, Iowa, United States
California, United States