07/06/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
In a business centered on the star, Ed McMahon, 86, embraced his role as the ultimate No. 2 man. "It takes a talent all its own, like being a catcher," McMahon told PEOPLE. "It's your job to absorb what's thrown because, in final analysis, he's the guy who has to throw the ball." He spent 30 years introducing Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show with his signature "Heeeere's Johnny!" But it was more than a role. "Ed is what you see up there," said Carson, who died in 2005. "He's the same guy off as he is on." A decorated combat pilot in the Korean war, McMahon rose through a series of TV and radio jobs before starting on Tonight in 1962. While holding court on the show he also became a ubiquitous pitchman and launched several projects, including 1983's Star Search, which he hosted for 12 years. McMahon—who had five children with two ex-wives, and a stepson from his wife of seven years, Pamela Hurn—broke his neck in 2007 and not long after faced foreclosure on his home for back mortgage payments. But McMahon, who battled cancer near the end, always kept his perspective: "You can have 15 pairs of shoes; you can only wear one. But friends, you can have as many as you can handle. I don't mind dying; the part I'll miss is my friends."