Johnny, We've Hardly Seen Ye

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEEERE'S JOHNNY? GOOOD question. This month (May 22, to be exact) marks a full year since Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night, ended his 30-year reign as host of NBC's Tonight Show and was succeeded by Jay Leno. And until last week, when the reclusive comedian dropped by Stage 11 at NBC to offer a brief on-air hello at the taping of Bob Hope's three-hour. 90th-birthday special (airing May 14, 8 p.m. ET) the only real answer to the question was, "Who knows?"

Even celebrity pals such as Burt Reynolds, Dick Cavett and Dinah Shore say they have heard not one word from their friend over the past 12 months. So on May 1, when Carson, 67, took to the podium at Hope's bash to deliver his first televised monologue since retiring, an audience packed with the likes of Milton Berle, Ginger Rogers, George Burns and—representing the younger folks—Tom and Roseanne Arnold hung on every quip. "Well, now that my vacation is over, I can't wait to get back to the Tonight Show Monday," said Carson as the crowd laughed loudly. Then he added slyly, "Just kidding, Jay." He also took a jab at NBC's sagging lineup, which is suffering the imminent loss of Cheers and David Letterman: "I had a strange experience today...as I was walking through the hallowed halls of NBC, the house of hits.... The programming department is now a restaurant. The food is very good, but an hour later you're hungry for another program."

Minutes after finishing his lines, Carson made a discreet exit through a side door at the Burbank studios.

The abrupt departure may reflect fatigue from the back surgery he had late last month. "Nothing serious," says one friend. "He had a disk problem. He's fine now." Physically, then, all seems well. But, after his driven years in show business, is Carson beginning to suffer from chronic boredom ("Watching the hummingbirds mate," as he said at the Hope special)? His only other post-Tonight job involved lending his voice for The Simpsons' all-star season ender (other contributors include Liz Taylor, Luke Perry and Bette Midler), airing May 13. Carson plays himself in an episode in which Krusty the Clown, whose show has been canceled, asks Carson for advice on how to pull out of a depressive tailspin. "He had 10 minutes of work, but he stayed two hours," says Simpsons writer Al Jean, formerly of Tonight. "He sat in a corner of the studio and talked about Gary Cooper and how show business used to be better."

Friends say Johnny is not really unhappy without his desk set. "Yes," concedes a Tonight Show veteran, "Johnny misses the show—but there's no depression."

Indeed, his January trip to Kenya and Tanzania with wildlife expert Jim Fowler, Johnny's wife, Alexis, 43, and his two surviving sons, Chris, 42, and Cory, 39, was a real high. In preparation, he even studied Swahili for three months. "Johnny enjoyed the heck out of it," says a friend. "He was eight feet away from a lion."

Back in the Stales, Carson's social life is less adventurous. He plays tennis three hours a day with a Malibu neighbor. And he dines out with Ed McMahon and other friends and members of the old Tonight gang at his favorite Malibu haunts, Monroe's (he always takes table 3) and Beau Rivage (table Z, way in the back).

"This has been a year of solitude and reflection for him," says one former Tonight Show associate. "He's just taking it easy, figuring out where he wants to go from here." So far, none of the ideas pitched at NBC, where he has a multiyear contract, or al his own Carson Productions has tickled his fancy. Says an NBC insider: "We firmly believe he's going to do something. It's just that we've got to find something that excites him." Whatever it is, says former Tonight Show director Bobby Quinn, "it would have to be something other than what people expected of him when he did Tonight, a totally different aspect of his life—and it wouldn't be comedy."

Until then, the drum will just keep rolling. And the world will keep wondering, "Wheeere's Johnny?"

TOM GLIATTO
JOYCE WAGNER and LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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