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'Tonight' And Forever

Carson was a heavy smoker for years, and when he started as "Tonight" host, with the show still originating from NBC Studios in New York, smoke was always wafting up from an ashtray on his desk. He eventually tried to avoid taking puffs while on camera, and -- chided by such guests as Tony Randall -- finally gave up smoking altogether. But permanent damage may have been done.

Hundreds and hundreds of guests passed through "The Tonight Show" talking to Johnny over those 30 years, most of them plugging movies or TV shows or books. Carson made it all entertaining with his sharp wit and self-deprecating humor. There were also regular scripted comedy segments in which Carson would wear a costume and play a wacky character, a kind of throwback to the vaudeville era and to showbiz as Carson -- though hardly any of today's stars -- remembered it.

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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He would don a wig and dress and be irreverent "Aunt Blabby," a character with more than a passing resemblance to Jonathan Winters as "Maude Frickert." When Carl Sagan was a popular figure, Carson -- an astronomy buff himself -- would do a dead-on Sagan impression, always talking about "billions and billions" of these or those in the solar system. To deliver the news of the future, Carson would turn himself into "Zontar Rather," and to divine questions without ever having seen the answers (because, as straight man McMahon explained, they had been kept in "a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls' porch since noon today"), Carson plopped a turban on his head and became "Carnac the Magnificent."

Answer: Sis boom bah. Question: What is the sound of a sheep exploding?

These and other bits -- Art Fern, the hammy commercial pitchman who kept interrupting the afternoon movie on an unnamed local TV station -- usually followed the monologue, which was the jewel in the turban for the show. Carson's best interviews, meanwhile, were not necessarily with movie or TV stars so much as the ones he did with small children and very old people, whom Carson always seemed to find awesome.

Kids were great because they weren't intimidated by cameras and lights. Little Zachary La Voy, a fledgling actor, kept peeking at himself in a monitor during a 1989 show now available on home video. Carson: "How do you think you look?" Little boy: "Cute!" Carson erupted in laughter.

He also very dependably got laughs from segments featuring wild animals brought to the studio by zoologists and other experts. Once when a leopard in a cage suddenly growled and swiped at Carson, Carson ran all the way across the studio floor and jumped into the arms of McMahon.

The show was almost always a joy to watch because Carson almost always took great joy in doing it.

Carson turned down all entreaties -- and there were dozens -- to come out of retirement for one show, one little sketch, one brief appearance. Except for a tiny appearance on Letterman's CBS show, Carson stayed away. During a 1993 interview, he revealed one of the main reasons for remaining out of the public eye: Bob Hope. Carson thought Hope seemed sad continuing to make appearances on television, even if only to stand up and wave, as he waded further and further into his nineties and grew increasingly infirm. Carson did not want to look pathetic, nor come across as someone who refused to leave the stage even though the hour had clearly come.

The tabloids occasionally printed sneaky photographs of Carson on his boat or walking in Malibu and appearing to be less trim and buoyant than he always was on "The Tonight Show." But for the most part, the prevailing image that Carson left us was of a man still full of vitality, mischief, irreverence and incomparable charm -- a man who still seemed boyish even as he crossed the boundary into his seventies.

"I hope when I find something I want to do and think you would like, I can come back," Carson said in his final remarks that last night. Faithful fans knew he was bluffing even then, and that it was unlikely he would ever return. Now it is official, though his image will always be available through one form of electronic legerdemain or another.

It can never be the same as when the multicolored curtains parted, the band played Johnny's theme (which he wrote with Paul Anka) and McMahon did his trademark "Heeeeeere's Johnny."

His death received almost marathon coverage on some of the news channels yesterday as though he had been a head of state. In a way, he was. New comedians couldn't really be popular until Carson had officially christened them with appearances on his show -- perhaps even including a few accolades from the master himself, or an invitation to sit down and chat on the couch.

When an especially celebrated person dies, it is often called the end of an era. But Johnny Carson's era didn't end yesterday; it ended many years earlier. One way or another, it's gone.

And yet there are times when you are watching a movie made in the past three decades and you hear a Carson show or his familiar theme music in the background, and suddenly you perk up, do a double take, and think maybe he never left and he'll be on again tonight after all.

When he left, Johnny said he would like to relive all 30 years over again. If only we could. If only we could.

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