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'Tonight' And Forever

Johnny Carson, the Late-Night Host Whose Best Act Was Himself

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page C01

We've had 13 years to get over saying a painful goodbye to Johnny Carson. Now we have to start all over again. Even though he stayed almost completely out of the public eye since stepping down as host of "The Tonight Show," this time the pain is much worse.

There is absolutely no chance Johnny will come back now, even for an instant. Early Sunday morning, the great comedy star, who became known as "the king of late night" for his amazing longevity and class, died, at 79, of emphysema. On his last show, he expressed sorrow that his son Rick, victim of a car crash, couldn't be there with the rest of his family to make it a "perfect evening."

Johnny Carson, at his last taping of "The Tonight Show," May 22, 1992. (Douglas C Pizac -- AP)

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From Associated Press at 2:28 PM

More than 22,000 guests appeared on "The Tonight Show" during Johnny Carson's 30-year tenure as host. That's enough to fill a couch 8 miles long. Here’s a sample:

Movies: Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, Chevy Chase, Cher, Glenn Close, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Joan Crawford, Tom Cruise, Billy Crystal, Tony Curtis, Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Lillian Gish, Gene Hackman, Tom Hanks, Rex Harrison, Charlton Heston, Dustin Hoffman, William Holden, Anthony Hopkins, Rock Hudson, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, Steve Martin, Walter Matthau, Robert Mitchum, Eddie Murphy, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Orson Welles, Robin Williams, Natalie Wood.

Television: Steve Allen, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Bill Cosby, Walter Cronkite, Ted Danson, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Gleason, Arsenio Hall, Pee-wee Herman, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Michael Landon, Angela Lansbury, Dean Martin, Groucho Marx, Mary Tyler Moore, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Jack Parr, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Roy Rogers, Roseanne, Tom Selleck, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas.

Music: Paul Anka, Louis Armstrong, the Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Clint Black, David Bowie, James Brown, the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, Placido Domingo, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Jimi Hendrix, Lena Horne, Jefferson Airplane, John Lennon, Liberace, Little Richard, Madonna, Johnny Mathis, Paul McCartney, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, the Supremes, Lawrence Welk, Stevie Wonder, ZZ Top.

Sports: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe, Wilt Chamberlain, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Pete Rose.

Politics: Bill Clinton, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, George Wallace.

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"But I guess life does what it's supposed to do," he said, "and you accept it and move on."

Still, it's awfully hard to accept the loss of a man who was like a next-door neighbor to 20 million people, dropping by to end the day with a few laughs, even when there seemed so little in the world to laugh about, always agreeable and always at his most ingratiating. Johnny Carson always managed to find something to amuse us, usually something deflating the pompous and the self-important -- two faults of which he was never guilty himself.

"And so it has come to this," he told us on his last "Tonight" show ever. "I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it." That speaks to part of what made Carson so magnetic and infectious, what made him such a pleasure to have in the house: We didn't watch the show, we watched him, and in addition to being entertained by him, we enjoyed watching him be entertained by others.

His delight at the discovery of some newfound comic talent -- he and his staff probably discovered more of that than anyone else in the history of show business -- was palpable; he'd laugh so hard that his chair would almost roll out from under him. When Bette Midler sang a farewell "One for My Baby" to him on the penultimate show, a camera caught Midler in the foreground singing and Johnny in the background sniffing tearfully, and we felt not like intruders on a private moment but like close friends who'd been invited to share it.

Carson has been called an Everyman figure, but that would be fitting only if every man were hilarious. He not only had brilliant timing and a lightning-quick mind for ad libs, he had a unique talent for turning bum jokes into gold. If a punch line elicited silence or groans from the studio audience, Carson would make a funny crack about how bad the joke was, or pull down the overhead microphone and say into it, "Attention Kmart shoppers" or, in the darkest hours, break into a soft-shoe dance with Doc Severinsen leading the band in "Tea for Two."

Ed McMahon, Carson's longtime announcer, seemed to laugh with particular gusto at these demonstrations of desperation. Sometimes Carson grew philosophical about the strange enjoyment people got from the clunkers and from seeing him squirm.

"It's like I'm up on a ledge and the crowd below is yelling, 'Jump! Jump!' " he said.

"He was the best," David Letterman declared in a statement yesterday from St. Bart's, where he and his family are vacationing. He called Carson "a star and a gentleman" and said there wasn't a night when he didn't ask himself how "Johnny" would have done something.

Peter Lassally, a close friend of Carson's who'd joined the show as a producer in 1970, was shocked and despondent at Carson's death, especially since Carson had been having such a joyful retirement. "After he left the show, he became so much more open and gentle," Lassally recalled from his home in Malibu. "He was so much sweeter and relaxed, and it was so much fun to be with him."

Speaking often by phone in addition to sharing occasional nights out, Lassally said, he and Carson would "talk about how terrible the world situation was -- politics, books, things in the news. He was always interested in the world outside of show business. He would also call when he was watching a really bad television show, especially something live, and he'd ask if I was watching it too. If I wasn't, I'd turn it on, and we'd laugh hysterically just at how bad it was. He never failed to call when something was really, really awful."

Carson didn't miss doing "The Tonight Show," but he may have missed doing the monologue. It was Lassally who revealed just last week that Carson would occasionally write a joke about some item in the news and send it off to Letterman, and that those jokes would sometimes end up in Letterman's monologue. He'd been doing this for more than a year, Lassally said yesterday. Carson found Letterman "strange" but always liked him and would have preferred that Letterman, not Jay Leno, succeed him at the "Tonight Show" desk.

Lassally revealed the secret about the jokes because he was trying to get inquiring TV columnists off the topic of Carson's health, not wanting to discuss it any more than necessary. The National Enquirer had splashed a story about Carson being rushed to the hospital on its front page, and the tabloid is usually accurate when dealing with stories of celebrity illness. Lassally hadn't heard from Carson for three weeks, he said yesterday, and Carson's voice hadn't sounded very healthy on the phone -- high-pitched and raspy.

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