Late-Night TV Icon Johnny Carson Dies

ByABC News

Jan. 23, 2005 — -- Johnny Carson, the king of late-night television, died today at age 79.

"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable."

Sotzing said no memorial service is planned, and NBC -- the network on which Carson starred for decades -- said Carson's death resulted from complications from emphysema, the AP reported.

Night after night, for 30 years, Johnny Carson was an American entertainment fixture with his soothing, consistent blend of comic timing and consummate charm.

When Carson took the helm of "The Tonight Show," he invented a new genre now followed by scads of imitators who often admit they envy the skills of the master. The show won 40 Emmy Awards during his long, illustrious tenure.

"I don't know of a person in comedy or television who didn't sort of grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model," David Letterman once said.

While Carson was launching the careers of comedians -- Don Rickles, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart and more -- he may have been ruining the sex lives of Americans. Dr. Ruth Westheimer once told "Entertainment Weekly" magazine, "On any given night he's hosting 'The Tonight Show,' there are 10 times more couples watching his monologue than making love."

His celebrity guests appreciated the attention, though. Bill Clinton once said, "Those 20 minutes on 'The Tonight Show' did more for my career than speaking for two days at the Democratic National Convention."

Carson, unlike many of today's slick hosts, was known to veer from script, have fun with guests and truly listen. And, as one guest said, "He never forgot the plug."

In addition to his timeless skits, Carson often brought animals on the show, perhaps most famously when a marmoset perched on his head and an elephant lifted him off the ground with her trunk.

Growing up in Norfolk, Neb., the young Carson walked around his house asking his family to "pick a card, any card." He soon became "The Great Carsoni," playing at the local Kiwanis club and in high school plays.

After graduating from high school, Carson went on to the Naval Air Corps. Though his first assignment was clearing 20 corpses, most of his military career was spent entertaining his fellow men with jokes and magic.

When he was honorably discharged in 1946, Carson enrolled at the University of Nebraska. A speech and drama major, his thesis was titled "How to Write Comedy Jokes."

Carson started in radio, but moved on to TV as the medium blossomed. He was given a 15-minute show on KNXT that aired Sunday afternoons called "Carson's Cellar." Red Skelton saw it and hired Carson to write for his show. When Skelton broke his leg falling through a trap door, Carson subbed and was soon given "The Johnny Carson Show" when he was only 24.

What sent him over the top though, was getting the job as host of the game show "Who Do You Trust?" which became ABC's top-rated program. By 1961, Carson was earning a whopping $2,500 a week.

On Oct. 1, 1962, Groucho Marx stepped on the stage of "The Tonight Show" and introduced Carson as the new host who would be taking over for Jack Paar. By the mid-1960s, "The Tonight Show" made more money than any other show on television, landing Carson on the cover of Time.

After Carson went on strike from the show, his salary was upped to $1 million a year and he got total creative control.

The real Carson was someone the public never knew. He was a very private man, especially after his 1992 retirement. He would break from this on occasion, when he'd include jokes about how his ex-wives were gunning for his money.

Carson was married four times. He wed Joan Morrill Wolcott in 1949 and they had three sons. After a messy 1963 divorce, he married Joanne Copeland, but they split in 1972. His third marriage, to Joanna Holland, lasted from 1972 to 1985. The fourth time was the charm. He married Alex Mass in 1987 and the couple remained together.

Tragedy found Carson when his son Rick, a photographer, died in a car accident in 1991. When that happened, Carson did his usual monologue and guest chats. But in a rare moment of personal display, he thanked America for its condolences, asked forgiveness "for a father's pride" and showed a mini-slideshow of his son's nature photographs.

Most of Carson's energy went into the show and in return, America gave its attention to him.

When Carson once mentioned that he loved turtlenecks, he received dozens, starting a national trend. When Carson made a joke about fruitcakes -- "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other" -- he received tons, inspiring the classic line, "Some fruitcake sent me another fruitcake."

On Dec. 17, 1969, "The Tonight Show" attracted more than 45 million viewers when Tiny Tim, the long-haired, falsetto-voiced singer of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," married 17-year-old flower child Miss Vicki.

Carson's final show on May 22, 1992, was one of the highest rated programs on television that year. The show paid tribute to couch sidekick Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinson.

His second-to-last show was even better loved, and included guests Bette Midler and Robin Williams. Midler won an Emmy for her performance.

Carson ended his program with, "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight." And of course, his famous good-bye golf swing.

Carson is survived by his wife, Alex, and two sons, Chris and Cory.

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