05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
He is Mr. Television, Titan of talk, minister of celebrity, night watchman of the global village, comedian laureate of a nation that loves to laugh itself to sleep. Journalists have dubbed him "the Sominex of the masses" and "history's most effective contraceptive." Beyond question he is TV's most durable superstar, an electronic Mississippi that just keeps rolling along. In 26 triumphal years as master of the revels on NBC's midnight megahit, Tonight, Johnny Carson has presided over 6,500 shows, interviewed more than 20,000 guests, cracked 700,000 jokes and collected a weekly audience of 75 million viewers, who have made him America's No. 1 nocturnal luminary. "More people look at Johnny," an NBC press agent crowed, "than look at the moon."
His power is formidable. Entertainers need him: One fetching gig on the Carson circus can hype a book into a million seller and overnight transform a zip into a VIP. Over the years he has annihilated at least 14 talk show hosts (among them Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Alan Thicke, Joan Rivers and David Brenner) who tried to beat his time—and Arsenio Hall recently joined his hit list along with CBS's Pat Sajak. Viewers trust him: When he warned of a toilet-tissue shortage, all over the U.S. supermarket stocks of t.t. were cleaned out within 24 hours.
Advertisers adore him: To piggyback on Carson's prestige, they shell out more than $100 million a year—for 20 years in a row, Tonight has been the top-grossing show on NBC. The network pampers him: Well aware that losing Carson would mean losing a fifth of its annual profits, it has steadily whittled his work schedule and bloated his salary. Spelled by guest hosts and "Best of Carson" reruns, Johnny now shoots only three new shows a week. For putting in 140 hours a year on the air, he takes home about $20 million—which figures out to $2,380.95 a minute. He milks another $20 million from other sources.
Carson's magic eludes definition. Looks figure into it. Frost-topped and crinkle-cheeked at 63, Johnny is still trim, perky, immaculate, a stainless-steel pixie with eyes that twinkle like Christmas tree lights. Wit is a key ingredient too. Quick and slick as a cat in pattens, he is a grand master of the mad lib—when a husband protested that his wife watched the Carson show instead of coming to bed, Johnny was right there with a zapper: "Have you thought of putting on a better show than I do?" He is a dazzling acrobat on the fine line between shock and shlock: Warned to avoid improper language at a love feast for Lucille Ball, Johnny brought down the house when he gravely introduced the guest of honor as "Miss Lucille Testicle."
Control is Carson's fetish—every instant the man knows exactly what he's doing. Watch how he artfully lingers for a laugh, celebrates the funeral of a joke that just died, slips to a commercial when the going gets dull, aligns himself subtly with his viewers when a guest says something they might take amiss, adds punch to every pause by tapping his nose, scratching his head, worrying his tie, flipping his pencil—anything to arrest the world's attention and manacle it to Mr. C.
Yet Carson's fascination lies as much in what he hides as in what he does. On the surface he's just a bright bubble on the American mainstream: charming but modest, smart but not a show-off, a real nice guy to shoot the breeze with at the end of a busy day. But shadows move inside the bubble, hints of an elusive and mesmerizing person within the persona. The man is a mystery, a hometown boy from Nebraska who has cast his spell over an entire continent, and night after night millions lie awake trying to unriddle the Carson enigma—sometimes with odd results. Medical science now recognizes a pathological condition called Carsono-geneous Monocular Nyctalopia: temporary blindness in one eye caused by watching the Carson show with one visual organ buried in the pillow and the other on the box.
Chalk and cheese are not more different than the public and the private Carson. Off-camera, genial Johnny turns into a pillar of ice. Oh, he's brilliant: an information junkie who can memorize a hundred names as fast as he can read them. But he's also a recluse with few close friends and a deep aversion to strangers—at one party he escaped into an empty room, picked up a telephone and faked outgoing calls until he could decently scram. What's more, the man can display a tyrannosaurian temper. After the show he often rages at the stupidity of his guests, and he once tried to fire Ed McMahon, his straight man since the program started, for getting too many laughs. For years, alcohol fueled his furies—now on the wagon, Carson admits, "I couldn't handle it"—and two of his three ex-wives (Joan, Joanne and Joanna—think about that) have found him at times a horror to live with. Joanna took ruthless revenge: In a divorce proceeding that escalated into a national titration, she won a cash-and-property settlement worth better than $20 million.
"Many people," Carson once said wistfully, "have more talent for happiness than I do.... But I think I'm getting the hang of it." He's definitely getting a lift from his electrifyingly elegant fourth wife, Alexis Mass, a former aide to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Looking younger and bouncier than he did 10 years ago, Johnny insists he'll stay on the air "as long as I enjoy doing the show." What will it say on his tombstone? Deadpan, he once replied: "I'll be right back."