ONE EVENING LAST FEBRUARY, JOHNNY Carson paid a rare visit to the modest North Hollywood town-house of his second son, Richard, to check out Rick's new Nissan Pathfinder. It was, says Rick's neighbor Jeff Pastor, "just like any father coming over to see his son's new car."

On June 21, only three days after his 39th birthday, Rick was driving the Pathfinder near the scenic coastal town of Morro Bay, Calif., when it plummeted 125 feet down an embankment, killing him instantly. Police say a camera tripod was set up nearby; it appeared that Rick, a photography enthusiast, was moving the car in search of better light or a different angle when the wheels slipped off the road shoulder.

Johnny, who has been on vacation from NBC's Tonight Show, has not spoken publicly about the tragedy. He was seen at Rick's home after the crash. "He was walking really slowly," says neighbor Mike Paciorek. "He looked distraught."

Johnny's first wife, Jody Wolcott Buckley, the mother of Rick, Cory, 38, a Los Angeles musician, and Chris, 40, a sometime golf pro in Ft. Lauderdale, has been estranged from her sons and did not learn of the accident until after the small, private memorial service held in L.A. on Sunday, June 23. According to Jody, Johnny gives each son $50,000 annually, which the unmarried Rick supplemented with behind-the-scenes jobs at NBC. Johnny's second wife, Joanne, who has stayed in touch with the boys, says Rick was "very sensitive, very special. Photography was rather a recent interest. He loved it."

Johnny once said, "All I ever told [my kids] was, 'Do what makes you happy.' " It appears Rick had been doing just that.