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updated 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

It took Elizabeth Taylor making her first appearance ever on The Tonight Show last week for the realization finally to sink in: We are soon going to lose one of the most durable and enjoyable institutions in television history. In odd black leather attire that made her look as if she were on her way to a Hell's Angels beer bash, La Liz trained those killer baby violets on Johnny and announced that she didn't have a blessed thing to plug; she just wanted to thank him for more than 30 years of brilliant entertainment. She is but the first in a procession of big names, including Burt Reynolds, Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, Steve Martin and Michael J. Fox, who are jockeying to be seated at the right hand of the King of Late Night and pay tribute before he retires May 22. "Over the years," says Tonight's executive producer Fred De Cordova, "we would call and say, 'We know you have a picture. We'd like you to come onto Mr. Carson's show.' Now we're getting calls like Patrick Swayze saying, 'Leave room for me.' " For the producer, "the only disappointment" was Cary Grant, who politely declined yet again, telling De Cordova, "That is not my business. I read the lines people write for me." Grant aside, climbing on Johnny's farewell wagon has become the biggest status trip in Hollywood. Said Johnny in a recent monologue: "We may get Elvis on yet."

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