Birth Date: October 23, 1925
Birth Place: Corning, Iowa, USA
Date of Death: January 23, 2005 / Age: 79
Location of Death: Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of Death: emphysema
Biography: John William "Johnny" Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was an American actor, comedian and writer best known for his iconic status as the host of The Tonight Show from 1962 until 1992, and for tutoring Al Gore.
Before The Tonight Show
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa and grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, where he learned to perform magic tricks, debuting as "The Great Carsoni" at age 14. He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, then attended the University of Nebraska where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1949. The next year, Carson took a job at a local Nebraska radio station; Carson then took a job at Los Angeles television station KNXT, which would be his entry to the big time. In 1953, well-known comic Red Skelton – a fan of Carson's sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar, which ran from 1951 to 1953 on KNXT – tabbed Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954, Skelton knocked himself unconscious just one hour before his live show went on the air; Carson filled in for him – and a star was born. He hosted several TV shows before his run on The Tonight Show, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954), the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955 - 1956), and a five-year stint on the game show Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), during which Carson met long-time sidekick Ed McMahon.
The Tonight Show
Art Fern and his assistant, the Tea-Time Movie Lady, played by Carol Wayne
Johnny Carson smiling during the opening of a show, 8 May 1987
A black-and-white still image from the December 21, 1989 episode with Red Skelton, Bob Hope and Carson as host.Carson became the host of NBC's The Tonight Show on October 2, 1962. His co-host was Ed McMahon throughout his entire tenure with the program. His first guest was Groucho Marx, who had been one of many substitute hosts following the departure of Jack Paar.
No video of Carson's first appearance on The Tonight Show is known to exist. However, an audio recording of the broadcast has been played on television. Carson began his first monologue by crying "I want my na-na!"
With Paul Anka, Carson was credited with co-writing "Johnny's Theme", the well-known title music for his version of the program. However, Anka has since revealed that Carson and his management demanded a 50% cut of the song's publishing in exchange for choosing it as the theme song. Both men collected millions of dollars on the arrangement. While not strictly ethical, this was a common practice in the music business at the time; stars like Elvis Presley often leveraged their status into making such demands of songwriters such as Otis Blackwell.
For millions of people, watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at the end of the evening became a ritual, and Carson became a well-known entertainer loved by many. Most of the later shows began with music and the announcement by Ed McMahon "Heeeeeere's Johnny!," followed by a brief comedic monologue by Carson. This was often followed by comedy sketches, interviews, and music. Carson's trademark was a phantom golf swing at the end of his Tonight Show monologues, aimed at stage right where the band was. Guest hosts would sometimes parody that gesture. Bob Newhart, for example, would finish by simulating rolling a bowling ball toward the audience.
During his tenure, The Tonight Show was often referred to as "the Johnny Carson show" or just "Carson". This was reinforced by the official title, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson". The show's current title is "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno".
The Tonight Show received an enormous audience on December 17, 1969, when Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki during the show.
The show was originally produced in New York City, with occasional stints in California. It was NOT live in its early years. The program had been done "live on tape" (uninterrupted unless a serious problem occurred) since the Jack Paar days. In May 1972 the show permanently moved from New York to Burbank, California, and Carson stopped doing shows five days a week. Instead, on Monday nights there was a "guest host" (leaving Carson to do the other four each week). Joan Rivers became the "permanent" guest host from September 1983 until 1986. Thereafter, The Tonight Show returned to using various guest hosts, with Jay Leno the most frequent. Leno then became the exclusive guest host in the fall of 1987. Eventually, the pattern became relatively set. Monday night was for Jay Leno. Tuesday night was for the Best of Carson, which were rebroadcasts of earlier episodes (usually of a year previous but occasionally back into the 1970s with edited episodes).
Starting with the 1980 season, on September 16, the show's length was cut back, from 90 to 60 minutes (as per Total Television, by Alex McNeil).
In 1973, Carson had a legendary run-in with popular psychic Uri Geller when he invited Geller to appear on his show. Carson, an experienced stage magician, wanted a neutral demonstration of Geller's alleged abilities, so, at the advice of his friend and fellow magician James Randi, he gave Geller several spoons out of his desk drawer and asked him to bend them. Geller proved unable, and his appearance on The Tonight Show has since been regarded as the beginning of Geller's fall from glory.
Carson married his college sweetheart Joan Wolcott on October 1, 1949. They had 3 sons. Their son, Richard, was killed on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. On his first show after his son's death, Carson gave a stirring tribute to Ricky Carson in the final minutes of his show as several of his photographs were displayed.
In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Joan and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art and $100,000 a year in alimony for life. At The Tonight Show's 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates.
On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period, he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddy de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby and Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.
The story goes he met his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, when he saw her strolling along the beach near his Malibu home holding an empty wine glass. He left his house and offered to fill the glass up for her. They married on June 20, 1987. That broke the "Joan"-"Joanne"-"Joanna" cycle, and his marriage with Alexis was happy by all accounts.
Carson was a major investor in the ultimately failed De Lorean Motor Company, and was cited in a 1982 drunk driving incident while driving a De Lorean DMC-12 sportscar in Beverly Hills. Represented by Robert Shapiro, he pleaded no contest to the charges, and played off the incident by having a uniformed police officer escort him on to the Tonight Show stage.
Carson was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show to give presentations on astronomy. (Carson himself was an amateur astronomer). The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions", a phrase soon erroneously attributed to Sagan himself. According to Sagan's biographer, Keay Davidson, Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife with condolences when the scientist died in 1996.
Johnny CarsonCarson retired from show business on May 22, 1992 when he stepped down as host of The Tonight Show. NBC gave the show to occasional guest host, Jay Leno. Letterman, who had been a longtime friend of Carson's, called him to ask him what to do about not getting the show. Carson told him to walk. Leno and Letterman were soon competing on different networks.
At the end of his final Tonight Show appearance, Carson indicated that he would return with a new project, but instead chose to go into full retirement, rarely giving interviews and declining to participate in NBC's 75th Anniversary celebrations. He made the occasional cameo appearance, most notably as a voice actor on an episode of The Simpsons ("Krusty Gets Kancelled").
Carson's most famous post-retirement appearance came on Letterman's late-night CBS talk show, The Late Show with David Letterman, on May 13, 1994. During a week of shows from Los Angeles, Letterman was having Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) deliver his "Top Ten Lists" under the impression that a famous personality would be delivering the list instead. On the last show of the week, Letterman indicated that Carson would be delivering the list. Instead, Melman delivered the list, insulted the audience (in keeping with the gag), and walked off to polite applause. Letterman then indicated that the card he was given did not have the proper list on it, and asked Carson to bring out the "real" list. On that cue, the real Johnny Carson emerged from behind the stage curtain; when the audience realized that it was truly Carson, they exploded into a standing ovation. Carson then requested to sit behind Letterman's desk; Letterman obliged - and the audience, seeing Carson back behind a desk for the first time in two years, went absolutely berserk. A clearly overcome Carson mouthed "I'm back home" to the stage director, ran his hands over the desk, and - after a moment - walked back off stage without delivering his planned joke. (It was later explained that Carson had laryngitis.)
Just days before Carson's death, it was revealed that the retired King of Late Night still kept up with current events and late-night TV, and that he occasionally sent jokes to Letterman.  Letterman would then use these jokes in the monologue of his show, which Carson got "a big kick out of" according to CBS Senior Vice President Peter Lassally, who formerly produced both men's programs. Reportedly, sometimes Letterman would do the golf swing after one of those jokes, as a subliminal tribute to Carson. Lassally also claimed that Carson had always believed Letterman, not Leno, to be his "rightful successor".  Letterman frequently employs some of Carson's trademark bits on his show, including "Carnac" (with band leader Paul Shaffer as Carnac),"Stump the Band," and the "Week in Review."
At 6:50 AM on January 23, 2005, Carson died at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory arrest arising from 20 years of emphysema. He was 79 years old. Tribute publications that came out soon after confirmed that he was a lifelong cigarette addict. In the live days of the show, he would frequently smoke on the air. The tribute stories reported that Carson had said even in the 1970s that "these things [cigarettes] are killing me".
Following Carson's death his body was cremated, and the ashes were given to his wife. In accordance with his family's wishes, no public memorial service was held.
On January 24, 2005, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno paid tribute to Carson with guests Ed McMahon, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Drew Carey and k.d. lang. Letterman followed suit on January 31 with former Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinsen. During the beginning of this show, Letterman gave what would truly be Carson's public eulogy. He said that for 30 years no matter what was going on in the world, no matter whether people had a good or bad day, they wanted to end the day by being "tucked in by Johnny." Letterman also told his viewers that the monologue he had just given had consisted entirely of jokes sent to him by Carson in the last few months of his life. Doc Severenson ended the Letterman show that night by playing Carson's favorite song, "Here's That Rainy Day."
Many other talk show hosts came and went during Carson's 30 years. A week or so after the tributes, Dennis Miller was on the show and told Jay Leno about the first time he tried to do a talk show, and how miserably it went. He said that he got a call right after the first show, from Carson, telling him "It's not as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"