America Remembers TV Legend Johnny Carson

America Remembers TV Legend Johnny Carson
Herb Ball/MPTV

updated 01/23/2005 at 02:00 PM EST

originally published 01/23/2005 02:00PM

Johnny Carson, who brought late-night laughs to millions as the host of NBC's Tonight Show for nearly three decades, has died at age 79.

"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service." NBC reports that he died from emphysema.

Carson had been dogged by health problems in recent years, including emphysema. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.

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News of his death came as a surprise – and immediately prompted heartfelt tributes from all over the country. President Bush called the TV star a "steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades." Current Tonight host Jay Leno described his predecessor as "the gold standard," while David Letterman said, "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again."

Long before Letterman and Leno, Johnny Carson was the king of late-night television, hosting The Tonight Show until his retirement on May 22, 1992. Carson started the job when he was just 35 years old and quit when he was 65 – and never seemed to age. Compared to his Tonight predecessors – the zany Steve Allen (who launched the show in 1954) and the volatile Jack Paar who hosted from 1957-1962 – Carson was pure vanilla, but with a sharp, invigorating freshness.

Carson's famous opening monologue, which over the years took in eight presidencies, became something of a national barometer. Of course, he had writers, but the monologue nonetheless was pure Johnny. At breakfast, he would jot down possible jokes from the headlines. "He woke up every morning," his longtime sidekick Ed McMahon once said, "and just identified with Tonight."

NBC, meanwhile, never had a hotter commodity. At one point, Carson was delivering the network roughly 20 percent of its income – $100 million or more.

Carson's show was also a vital whistlestop for the up-and-coming, the fully arrived and the slowly sinking. His very first show, Oct. 1, 1962, featured Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Rudy Vallee and Tony Bennett. In the week before signing off, Carson was visited by Robin Williams, Bette Midler, Jack Lemmon, David Letterman and Bob Hope – his most frequent guest with 101 appearances.

Carson's eye for new standup talent was impeccable. Roseanne Barr, Richard Lewis, Don Rickles and Woody Allen saw their careers skyrocket after appearing on Tonight. To be asked to join Carson on the couch following a standup routine, Carl Reiner once observed, "was like the Pope blessing you."

Yet Carson often seemed happiest interviewing non-celebrity guests with some odd pursuit or quirk – a 100-year-old woman with a black belt in karate, for instance, or the obituary writer for The New York Times (who read Carson's prepackaged obit, as the amused comedian performed a trademark double take).

Carson announced his retirement May 23, 1991, at NBC's annual promotional meeting in Manhattan. After entertaining the crowd with a string of one-liners, he nonchalantly added, "This is the last year I am doing The Tonight Show, and it's been a long, marvelous run." Recalled his producer, Fred de Cordova: "It took me and the network by total surprise."

The very last show, May 22 ,1992, was given over to Tonight?s true star. Carson sat alone at his desk and reviewed memories before an invitation-only audience of friends and family, including his fourth wife, Alexis, a former secretary he met on the beach at Malibu and married in 1987, and his two surviving sons, Christopher, 54, a golfer, and Cory, 51, a guitarist. (His other son Rick died in a car accident in 1991.) Making his final bow, Carson concluded, with a faint crack in the voice: "You people watching, it has been an honor and a privilege coming into your homes and entertaining you. Good night."

In retirement, McMahon said, Carson was "having a wonderful time doing nothing." He played tennis almost daily and claimed to go to bed at 10 p.m. "No TV, no newspapers, no radio, no telephone," he told USA Today. "They don't know who I am and they don't care."

Just last week it was reported that David Letterman occasionally uses jokes sent to him by Carson, though in 1993 Carson was quoted saying: "Every morning when I'm reading the newspaper, I start writing jokes for the monologue in the margin, and then I realize, 'Who's gonna hear these jokes? The fish?'"

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