He is the Stradivarius of second fiddles, but on those nights when "Wheeere's Johnny?" would be the appropriate opener, when he finds himself playing to such stand-ins as Joan Rivers, Burt Reynolds and even Kermit the Frog, doesn't Ed McMahon ever dream about being concertmaster? Wouldn't the veteran of more than 4,000 Tonight shows over almost 18 years like to slide up the couch and onto the Great Carsoni's throne?
The answer, insists McMahon, 57, is no. "I did host the show in the beginning, maybe 12 times. But at this point I don't want to disturb the audience. They like me where I am. People think—there's Johnny, there's Ed. I don't want to throw the thing out of whack."
Nor, presumably, is he interested in destabilizing his relationship with the sensitive Carson. History may be crowded with ambitious No. 2s, but since joining forces with Johnny in 1958, McMahon has reserved most of his zingers for guests. ("You're such a great mimic," he once asked an obstreperous Jerry Lewis, "why don't you mimic humble for a minute?") Ed finds the job too rewarding to upstage his boss.
As he himself might ask a guest, "How rewarding is it?" Well, on The Tonight Show he warms up the audience, guffaws over jokes at his own expense ("Ed did a wonderful act of charity recently—during a rainstorm, he let a family of midgets huddle under his belly") and acts as a one-man laugh track for doomed skits. For this, NBC pays him a salary that one network insider estimates at $600,000 to $1 million and allows him 11 weeks and 12 Mondays off each year. In addition, McMahon tapes more than 825 radio and television commercials for products ranging from Ford to Budweiser to Alpo, performs in an occasional movie (Fun with Dick and Jane, the TVer The Kid from Left Field), and is co-producer and star of a series of variety specials premiering on pay TV later this month.
Under the circumstances, Ed and his second wife, Victoria, 35, weren't exactly sweating the mortgage rate when they okayed plans for a $3 million mansion in Beverly Hills. Says McMahon, looking around the still-unfinished house with satisfaction, "It's my reward for hard work." Work hard he does. Typically, Ed begins his day whittling vainly at the girth that has persuaded Carson to call him "the bluebird of flabbiness." He once regularly whisked his 6'3", 245-pound frame off to a posh Bahamian fat farm. "I haven't been there in years," he says. "What I try to do is work out on the Dynavit machine. You get on that baby for 17 minutes and you're perspiring like a racehorse." At 9:30 a.m. he is picked up by his Serbian chauffeur, Patrick Marwick, who drives him via local streets (Ed dislikes riding on freeways) to his first appointment, usually at a TV studio. "I can do four to six commercials from 10 to noon," says McMahon. After lunch Marwick ferries Ed to a West Hollywood studio to record radio ads. By mid-afternoon McMahon arrives at NBC in Burbank to prepare for Tonight.
"About 5 p.m.," he says, "I get into my suit. I consider this the uniform. Once I get into it, I'm geared up. I never sit down until the show. I don't want to get wrinkled. At 5:15 I walk into Johnny's dressing room next to mine and spend about eight minutes with him. We never talk about the show. We talk about sex, politics, religion—whatever is going on in the world. Usually within four seconds Johnny has made a joke of it. I leave him at 23 after the hour. Downstairs, I chat with whoever is backstage, but I'm not listening—I'm on automatic pilot. Finally they say, 'The one and only Ed McMahon,' and I walk out. I never know what I'm going to do in the warm-up. I look at the crowd and figure out what they need to be a good audience for Johnny. It's like taking a bunch of pearls and making a necklace."
After 90 minutes of taping, McMahon leaves the set but not his role. "I might go through the lobby, say a few lines to the crowd—boom, boom, boom—then get to a restaurant and ask for a quiet table for Victoria and me and a few of our friends," he says. "Then we go home and close the door. Our day begins at the bar-for-two in the living room. Now I'm entertaining Victoria—I go from thousands to 40 to three to one. I shut off, but not as much as I'd like. I stay 'up' for her because she lent me to all those people. Now she has a right to have me back again. It's her reward, and mine."
Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was to the Chautauqua born. Born in Detroit, he spent his early childhood sharing his parents' life on the road. Ed Sr. was a pitchman—"to put it nicely, a promoter," says McMahon—and was forever on the move. "I changed towns more often than a pickpocket," McMahon recalls. "I went to some 15 schools before high school. Nobody ever knew my name, and I was painfully shy." To compensate, he fantasized he was a radio announcer, using a flashlight as a make-believe microphone. Finally his parents left him in Lowell, Mass., with his grandmother Katie Fitzgerald McMahon, and from his shyness emerged an ambitious young extravert.
Graduating from Lowell High School in 1939, McMahon went on to Boston College and worked summers running a carnival bingo game. Joining the Marines in 1941, he spent two years as a flight instructor in Jacksonville, Fla. In 1945 he married Alyce Ferrell of Dade City, left the Marines the next year and enrolled as a drama and speech major at Washington's Catholic University. "I had known since I was 12 that I wanted to be on the radio," Ed recalls. "I guess the reason really gets down to the desire to be loved. That starts very early in life, and the first time you get a laugh, you're hooked." To help pay his way under the GI Bill, McMahon sold pots and pans door to door and one summer earned up to $500 a week pushing vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Graduating in 1949, McMahon landed a job at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Nine years later, after a second tour with the Marines in Korea, he was hosting his own local show when he was summoned to New York to meet Johnny Carson, then starring on ABC's Who Do You Trust? "Johnny didn't look as if he was dying to see me," Ed recalls. "He was standing with his back to the door, staring at a couple of workmen putting letters on a theater marquee. I walked over and stood beside him. Finally the two guys finished, and Johnny asked, 'What have you been doing?' I told him. He said, 'Good to meet you, Ed,' shook my hand and I was out of the office. The whole meeting was about as exciting as watching a traffic light change." Several weeks later a startled McMahon was offered the job as Carson's foil.
In 1962, after four years of Who Do You Trust?, Carson succeeded Jack Paar as host of Tonight and persuaded NBC to bring his sidekick along. The years that followed have been tranquil and prosperous—with dramatic exceptions. In 1971 McMahon became involved with Nick Torzeski, a businessman with alleged links to the Mafia. They had a $1.75 million scheme to improve the image of the Teamsters with a nationwide public relations tour, a high school essay contest and a network TV special. Within 18 months their company went bankrupt and the Teamsters filed suit. McMahon was cleared of wrongdoing, but confesses he was deeply embarrassed. "A lot of my business endeavors have taught me that if you get too far from your area of expertise, you can get into trouble," he says. "I learned my lesson."
More painful still was McMahon's divorce from Alyce, from whom he had separated before Tonight moved to Los Angeles in 1972. The split was a bitter one, partly because of his wife's dissatisfaction with the relatively modest $50,000-a-year support payments she was awarded. "Ed's life was my life," she said at the time, "but he got the excitement and the adulation and just lost interest in family life. I never thought of there being another woman. I was very naive. Now I see pictures of him with girls his daughter's age."
Indeed, McMahon's second wife, Victoria Valentine, is only nine months older than his first daughter, Claudia. Called "Queenie" by pals, Victoria was a National Airlines VIP hostess in Houston when she was assigned to meet Ed's plane in 1974. In town for the Super Bowl, Ed later telephoned Victoria to invite her to fly to New Orleans, where he was appearing in a nightclub. The invitation made her nervous. "He seemed to be a fast mover," says Victoria. Nonetheless, she accepted, then went to the racetrack with him the next day. A month later he shocked her by calling and blurting, "This is Valentine's Day and you are the Valentine of my life." The following year Ed proposed, and they were married in March 1976, on his 53rd birthday.
Ed and Victoria do not intend to have children, and he is relieved that his relationships with his two sons and two daughters by Alyce seem less antagonistic. Four years ago Claudia, now 34 and a drug therapist, Michael, 29, a student, Linda, 27, a Montessori teacher, and Jeffrey, 20, also a student, sided with their mother in a lawsuit to prevent Ed from selling their $225,000 summer home in New Jersey. "It was hard on everyone," admits Ed. Recently he and his three youngest rafted down the Colorado River. "All of a sudden we were together again, solving the problem of these rapids," he says. "It was really something special."
"When I hooked up with Victoria," Ed recalls, "I said, 'Do one thing for me. Remember all our friends' birthdays and anniversaries.' Friends need nurturing. I mean, what do you have in life, really? You can have 18 cars, you can only drive one. But friends, you can have as many as you can handle." Unlike many Hollywood couples who avoid the Beverly Hills party circuit, or pretend to, the McMahons embrace it wholeheartedly. Though Ed's drinking has been made legend by Carson, McMahon firmly denies he overdoes it. "I'm a drinking man," he has said, "but I can absorb a great deal. And I like to." An enthusiastic party giver, he is barely able to contain himself while awaiting the completion of Chez McMahon. The house will feature six bars, a custom-built 200-bottle wine cooler with individual temperature controls, a brook stocked with Japanese fish, a saltwater tank for Ed and Victoria's pet shark, Jaws, 1½, and enough video and electronic gadgets to dazzle even George Lucas.
In the meantime the McMahons shuttle between L.A.'s finer restaurants—Ma Maison, La Scala, Chasen's—and dinners at the homes of their friends. Among them are Frank and Barbara Sinatra ("We see them whenever they are in town, and we visit them at Palm Springs a couple of times a year"), Bob and Ginny Newhart, Don and Barbara Rickles, Dick and Dolly Martin, Sammy and Altovise Davis, and golfer Doug Sanders and Scotty. The McMahons socialize less frequently with Johnny and Joanna Carson. "Johnny is a very frugal man about time, about friends, about everything," muses Ed, perhaps thinking back to the early days when the two were tighter than Damon and Pythias. Today, he says, in addition to their brief pre-show discussions, "Johnny and I have a catch-up lunch every eight weeks or so, and the ladies plan dinners for us about once every three months. It's a relationship based on mutual respect."
If a gradual distancing is the price for a collaboration that has become a show business triumph, the 1980s still look good for McMahon. Carson has re-enlisted through 1983 for a show that, come September, will be trimmed to 60 minutes. Ed believes the change will be beneficial. "Johnny's energy level will be higher, and so will mine," he says. Two years ago, at Christmas, McMahon presented Carson with a statue of Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza inscribed: "I follow ever in your footsteps, O Master. But you told me it would only be for 10 years!" Today he is decidedly more patient. "With Victoria at my side," he says, "and as long as I am able to push Johnny Carson out onstage in a wheelchair and keep him awake long enough to hear me say 'Heeerrre's Johnny,' the future will indeed be very bright."