Legendary ‘Tonight Show' Personality Ed McMahon, 86, Dies

Remembering the life and career of legendary television showman Ed McMahon.
By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ed McMahon, 86, the veteran television entertainer best remembered as the giggle-prone sidekick to Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" for 30 years, died June 23 at a Los Angeles hospital.

Mr. McMahon's publicist, Howard Bragman, did not give a cause of death, saying that Mr. McMahon had a "multitude of health problems the last few months." He was earlier reported to be ailing from bone cancer.

Mr. McMahon, who as announcer on "The Tonight Show" created the catchphrases "Hey-o!" and "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!," built a long career on what he called his "whiskey baritone," starting as a carnival barker and road-show bingo caller. He also was a salesman on the Atlantic City boardwalk before entering television during its infancy in the late 1940s.

He became one of the most visible personalities of the medium. He hosted the syndicated talent show "Star Search," co-hosted "TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes" with Dick Clark and appeared often with Jerry Lewis on annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons.

A pitchman for products ranging from Budweiser beer to Breck shampoo, Mr. McMahon also was the presenter in a long-running ad campaign for the American Family Publishers sweepstakes, known for the tag line, "You may have already won 10 million dollars!"

In an unpleasant irony, Mr. McMahon was later threatened with foreclosure on his own multimillion-dollar house in Beverly Hills, and American Family Enterprises was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1999.

Mr. McMahon won his greatest fame as second banana to Carson on "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992. Carson almost always seemed to get the upper hand in their stage banter. He poked fun at Mr. McMahon's girth and reputation for heavy drinking.

In one memorable running skit, Carson played Carnac the Magnificent, a psychic who gave ridiculous responses to "questions" hidden in "hermetically sealed" envelopes that Mr. McMahon handed to the host.

Mr. McMahon's role was predominantly to laugh at everything Carson said as Carnac. But frequently he and Carson traded ad-libbed insults over a Carnac gag that didn't fly.

Carson: "May I have absolute silence, please."

McMahon: "Many times, you get that."

Because of his frequent guffaws and his supporting role, Mr. McMahon was often derided as little more than Carson's laugh track. That was intentional, he wrote in his 2005 memoir, "Here's Johnny!"

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