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It's a comfort, perhaps, to know that Johnny Carson never really forgot his audience. Even living in self-imposed exile at his $12 million Malibu home—or disappearing somewhere below deck on his cream-colored 125-ft. yacht—he could never resist working up an informal monologue of jokes inspired by the latest headlines. "He would do a full routine," says Laugh-In producer George Schlatter, a longtime friend and occasional guest on that yacht, the Serengeti. "He was hysterical. It was as if he had to perform." After ending his great run as host of NBC's Tonight Show in 1992, he refused to return to TV, but he would send the occasional joke to friend David Letterman. Or share it with his famous sidekick, Ed McMahon, as he did in their last conversation a month ago. "I can't reveal what the joke was, because it was a little strong," says McMahon. "But it was a good one."

Yet McMahon hadn't seen Carson in a year. If the punch lines were still percolating, the body was failing: At 7 a.m. on Jan. 23, Carson's nephew and spokesman, Jeff Sotzing, phoned McMahon to tell him the news. Carson, 79, had died of complications from emphysema. "When I heard the words from Jeff," says McMahon, "it hit me in the gut like the guy who catches the cannonball in the silent movies."

Carson died quietly at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with only immediate family by his side: Christopher, 54, a golf instructor, and Cory, 51, a guitarist, his sons with first wife Jody, and his fourth wife, Alexis, 54, the woman who shared his many travels as well as his preference for solitude. There will be no memorial service. (A former talent coordinator for the show jokes, "Because Johnny couldn't host it") Nor would his widow or his sons comment. "We must have inherited the privacy gene," Cory Carson told PEOPLE. Sharing memories with the public "would be the last thing Johnny would want any of us to do," says Sotzing. "He wanted his work to speak for him. That is what he would want me to tell you. Let his work speak for him."

His friends and colleagues—even Presidents—weren't silent. As the host who succeeded him on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno said he still felt "like a guest in his house. Johnny was the best, plain and simple." The White House praised his "profound influence on American life and entertainment." Younger brother Dick Carson, a former TV director, told PEOPLE that at first, "I found the tributes hard to watch, but then I started laughing. So much of it is so funny. I'm glad I'm watching it now."

Those clips were the first glimpse that many young viewers ever had of Carson, who never permitted reruns to air in syndication. But that whetted an appetite: Two days after Carson's death, the $49.99 DVD set, The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection: His Favorite Moments from The Tonight Show was the best selling DVD on Amazon.com.

For the record, Carson didn't invent the late-night talk show. He didn't even invent Tonight. After rising through the world of radio and game shows, he was 36 on Oct. 1, 1962, when he took over as host from mercurial Jack Paar (who died last year at 86). But it was Carson who turned that desk—a flimsy prop table—into the Holy Grail for several generations of comic talents, including David Letterman, now on CBS, Conan O'Brien, who is expected to take over from Leno in 2009 ("Anyone who does this for a living," he said, "is trying in vain to be Johnny Carson") and Jon Stewart. "People looked at him," says talk show host Tony Danza, "and thought, I can invite this guy into my house.'"

Which, in a sense, is what they did, especially as TV sets were proliferating and creeping from the family room up into the bedroom. Says McMahon: "He made nighttime television. You got up, you had breakfast, you went to your job and came home, you had a couple of drinks and dinner and you watched Carson and you went to bed. That was the routine. If you were lucky, you had wild sex."

Carson, though, was a tonic, not an aphrodisiac. His show was a smooth-humming engine that purred on and on, toting up a final guest tally of more than 22,000 as its host over time came to resemble the hood ornament, sleek and silvery. (He was 66 when he quit.) It was an indispensable launching pad for comedians, from Woody Allen to Billy Crystal to Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres. There were also regular folk (a 90-year-old woman with a black belt in karate) and animals from the San Diego Zoo. Mostly, though, Americans settled in for Carson's timeless formula: the signature theme, jazzy yet heraldic, by Paul Anka; the band leader, Doc Severinsen, the mod guy with the trumpet; and of course, kicking off the show with "Heeeeere's Johnny," Ed McMahon, who took the official job of Carson's No. 2 back when they worked together on the game show Who Do You Trust? in 1958. Stepping onstage and greeted with applause, "Johnny blossomed and became a foot taller, powerful—like he owned the world," says former writer Bob Shayne. And then came Johnny's monologue.

Historically, that monologue was regarded as a sort of barometer of the national mood. "When he made fun of Richard Nixon during Watergate, it would be only a matter of time before the audience would be laughing at Richard Nixon," says friend Peter Lassally, who was executive producer on the old show. "Whatever he said during his monologue became what the country thought." Politically, adds Lassally, "he was a liberal. But you would never be able to judge" from the broadcast. You never detected flop sweat, either: Carson could usually tease a flat-lining joke into a laugh. But that monologue meant everything to him. "He hated when it bombed," says Shayne. "He wanted to kill people. He was in real pain."

His self-consciousness was acute enough that his retirement from show business was near-total. He never wanted to suffer the indignity of so many other aging comedians. "He didn't have that yearning to be seen and applauded again," says his friend Barbara Walters. Instead, Carson, whose show had accounted for an estimated 17 percent of NBC's profits at one point and earned $25 million at his peak, enjoyed his Malibu mansion with Alexis. To locals, the star seemed to relax after leaving TV. He became friendly, "a different person," says Daniel Forge, owner of the Beau Rivage Restaurant. When Carson made his last visit to the restaurant last year, "he came in by himself. He was in good spirits. He asked me to sit with him. He had never asked me to do that before. When he left, he said, I feel so good I think I'll come back tomorrow.' He called the next day and canceled the reservation. That was the last time I saw him."

Eventually his emphysema cut in. It was no more secret than his 1999 quadruple bypass surgery. "As Johnny used to say, 'It doesn't get any better,' " says his brother Dick. "We knew it was a matter of time." Recently Carson, who smoked most of his life, became winded easily. Having dinner at his home several months ago, says his friend Suzanne Pleshette, "he had some trouble with his breathing when he went up and down stairs." His once impeccably trim figure was bloated (with steroids, according to an NBC source). Carson still socialized with a small group of friends—he was expected to play poker just this week with a semi-regular group that included Steve Martin and Carl Reiner—but because of his appearance "he became even more reclusive than usual," says Peter Lassally. In the past few weeks, says his brother, "he had had several episodes when he had to go to the hospital. The third time, on Friday [Jan. 21], there was just no way to help him." Says the second of his four wives, Joanne Carson, 73, now a holistic therapist: "The pain of this is to the bone. To the bone."

Carson doubtless would have been more stoic. The occasions were very rare indeed in which Carson stopped grinning or drumming pencils on the desk—he was an expert jazz drummer—to show anything like real emotion. In 1991, when his 39-year-old son Rick, a photographer, died in a car accident, Carson ended the show with a photo Rick had taken of a sunset. "He tried so darn hard to please," he said, with his voice choking. "I don't think Johnny ever recovered from that loss," says ex-wife Joanne.

There were other shadows to the private Carson: He owned a nickel-plated automatic. (The gun "was strictly for protection," says Lassally.) He could hold a grudge. He never spoke to Joan Rivers again after she skedaddled to FOX for her own unsuccessful show in 1986. "It was like Stalin had sent me to Siberia," says Rivers. He was arrested for drunk driving in 1982, and indeed, says his biographer, Laurence Learner, author of King of the Night, "he turned into almost a dangerous person when he was drinking. It just wasn't good for him." (Carson realized that, too, and eventually cut back.) Then there were the failed marriages: to Jody Wolcott, whom he met as a student at the University of Nebraska; Joanne Copeland; and then Joanna Holland. Carson once said: "If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to The Tonight Show, I'd probably have a hell of a marriage.... I put the energy into the show." And he knew what he'd accomplished with that drive. "He was very secure," says Schlatter. "He did not envy anybody. Letterman and Leno are darn good, but Johnny Carson was the king."

Still, he always remained "a little boy from the Midwest with impeccable manners," in the words of ex-wife Joanne. Throughout his life, he felt a special fondness for his home state, Nebraska, and his hometown, Norfolk. He contributed huge sums to both. Just last November, he donated $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska, and in Norfolk, says his former PE teacher, Fred Egley, now 88, "you can't imagine the things he did for this community—the football field, the school theater, the cancer center, the zoo, the senior center." John William Carson grew up in a four-bedroom white frame house with brother Dick and an older sister Catherine. His father, Homer, managed a local power company; mother Ruth was a homemaker (with a scathing sense of humor, according to one biographer). The Carsons came from generations of farmers, yet produced a son who discovered a love of performing. "He told me once that he was so shy he began to do magic," says Walters, "and it was the magic that enabled him to relate."

He began with local shows in Omaha, then broke into L.A. then New York. (In 1972 he moved the Tonight Show to L.A.) In 1992 he stunned NBC officials by telling them that three decades of Tonight was long enough. A few months before the announcement, says comedian David Brenner, "he leaned over to me during a commercial break and said, 'David, I've asked every question there is to ask.' I was reminded of a greyhound that finally figures out that he's not chasing anything but a mechanical device." But he may simply have wanted to idle out his days with his wife: "As much as he loved that show and loved jokes," says George Schlatter, "I think the real love of his life was Alex," a former secretary he wed in 1987. They traveled the world: He learned Swahili for trips to Africa, and once took the yacht through the Panama Canal and up to New York City. (The yacht, by the way, was named for one of his favorite spots: the African Serengeti.)

Who'll ever know how far away he really needed to get from the rest of the world? Looking back, he would never have described himself as "happy," says Joanne. "He would never use the word—he always said he was content." What matters, she says, is the happiness he gave others. "He wanted to bring laughter into people's lives to end their day. He was there to make people feel better. And he did."

Tom Gliatto and Alex Tresniowski. Frank Swertlow, Champ Clark, Lorenzo Benet, Maureen Harrington, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Pamela Warrick, Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles, Liza Hamm, Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Kate Klise in Chicago, Jane Podesta in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Frank Swertlow,
  • Champ Clark,
  • Lorenzo Benet,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Liza Hamm,
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Kate Klise,
  • Jane Podesta.