LOS ANGELES -- It has been an honor and a privilege to come into your home all these years and entertain you,” Johnny Carson told us on May 22, 1992, when he did his last “Tonight” show. “And I hope when I find something I want to do and think you will like and come back, that you’ll be as gracious in inviting me into your homes as you have been.”

A year and a half later, Carson still has not found that “something I want to do.” In fact, he has nearly vanished from the public eye. He has turned down requests to appear on TV from Connie Chung, Tom Brokaw, Sam Donaldson, Katie Couric and many others and declined to be part of the recent “60 Minutes” 25th-anniversary show. He has said no to all requests for interviews. Almost.

“I’ve heard from all the shows, and all the talk shows,” he says. “I just don’t want to do anything.” It may sound odd to say about a man who sometimes appeared on TV in a gray wig and black dress as Aunt Blabby, but Johnny Carson is genuinely, terminally shy.

Tonight, however, he will make a rare appearance, accepting one of the Kennedy Center Honors for achievement in the performing arts. Johnny Carson has entertained more people than the four other honorees put together. We were so busy enjoying him all those years, we may not have stopped to realize how brilliant he was.

We realize it now.

When he took over “The Tonight Show” in 1962, Johnny was a boyish 36. On Oct. 28, he turned a boyish 68. Through all those years he remained fresh, funny, flip, hip, the very model of ageless agility.

His nightly monologue was more than comedy; it was also a combination of journalism and ballet. And mountain climbing. We were with him on the hills, with him in the valleys, with him when he scaled the hills again. The golf swing, Carnac the Magnificent, “Tea Time Movie,” gags about Ed McMahon’s drinking, “The Edge of Wetness,” the Mighty Carson Art Players -- all these and more were part of our nightly lives.

His departure apparently was much less agonizing for him than it was for us.

“I thought for a moment, ‘God, what am I going to do? I won’t have anyplace to go,’ “ he recalls. The panic was short-lived. “It hasn’t bothered me. You miss it from time to time, but it has not been traumatic in any sense. I feel the move was right, the timing was perfect. Thirty years is long enough.”

Standing in the foyer of his modern, marble-and-glass Malibu home -- at the very spot where his friend Bob Newhart, on entering for the first time, asked, “Which way to the gift shop?” -- and wearing a pullover and slacks and walking shoes, Johnny looks less streamlined than he did on TV. His face is a little lumpy and his voice a bit hoarse, but he still has that rascal’s twinkle in his eye, the twinkle that became America’s night light.

Johnny actually lives on two sides of the street in this secluded yet unpretentious neighborhood. Behind one long wall, and a guard tower, is the home, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. On the other side of the street, beyond another wall, are his tennis court and adjoining clubhouse, where Johnny goes to read, play his drums or study languages of countries he plans to visit.

Books and tapes on Swahili and Russian are on the table.

He visits Russia, he visits Africa (his fourth wife, Alex, was just there with the Doc Severinsens), he had microsurgery on a pesky disk, he plays tennis “every day,” he plays cards. But very very rarely does he venture out. He chuckles when jokingly compared to Citizen Kane, roaming the grounds of his own private Xanadu, but there is a resemblance.

“I don’t want to do television just to do television,” he insists. “You have to have a reason to do it. If I had wanted to stay on television, I had a marvelous job. I could have stayed right where I was.”

Couldn’t he do four or five specials a year, like Bob Hope? Carsonrolls his eyes. “I hope not.” Smiles. “No. I don’t think so. You’ve got to have an idea. What would I do that I couldn’t do on ‘The Tonight Show,’ and do it better?”

Well, you could just go out there and be Johnny Carson.

“Hmmm. Well, that’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t think so anymore. And I’ve got to follow what I did. The nice thing about ‘The Tonight Show’ was that you could have a bad night, a guest didn’t work out, or I wasn’t working well, so you say, ‘Okay, there’s tomorrow night.’

“Not so in prime time anymore. You go on and the first thing the other network does is to counterprogram you. So let’s just say I get an idea together that I really like and get some writers and you pump a lot of effort and time into it, and the other network buys a first run of ‘Unforgiven’ with Clint Eastwood.

“So you go on at 9 o’clock at whatever night and you get killed and you say, ‘What am I doing this for? For my ego? For the money?’ I don’t need that anymore. I have an ego like anybody else, but it doesn’t need to be stoked by going before the public all the time.”

Johnny says this last part not as though it were something he has known all his life, but as though it were something he has learned only in recent years. Maybe as of May 22, 1992.

Or perhaps as of June 1991, when his oldest son, Ricky, died in a car accident near Cayucos, Calif. Blowups of two of Ricky’s nature photographs are hung on the wall of the tennis house, next to a large William Beckman painting of a rural Minnesota intersection that Johnny says reminds him of the Midwest, where he grew up.

When Carson returned to the program after his son’s fatal accident, he showed some of Ricky’s nature photographs on the air and talked movingly about his son.

“Probably the most difficult moment of my life was to do that piece at the end of the show,” Carson says, “but I wanted to do it for him.”

‘Late Night Wars’

Johnny Carson had not quite completed 30 years on the air when he left “Tonight.” That was his announced intention, but then in 1991 he moved the date up by a few months. The reason, he says, was that he didn’t want to work through the “dull summer months” and instead opted to leave at the end of the May ratings sweeps.

But there were rumors at the time that Carson left early because he was ticked off about nasty stories appearing in the press, stories that said NBC was unhappy with Carson’s older audience and couldn’t wait for young Jay Leno to take over.

“All those stories that were put out, you know where most of those came from,” says Carson. “It came from poor old Helen Kushnick,” who was then Leno’s manager and producer and has since left the show. “She planted all of those items constantly in the paper, to Jay’s detriment, and to her detriment.

“I think Jay was unaware of this. He came in to see me after that thing originally appeared in the New York Post: ‘NBC Going to DumpCarson for Leno.’ That was planted by Mrs. Kushnick. Later Jay found out about it. I told him at the time, ‘Jay, I’m sure you didn’t do it but I’ve been around a long time in this business, Jay, and people you think are serving you well have their own agenda and you’ve got to be careful of it.’ “

According to one member of Leno’s staff, everybody was under orders from Kushnick to not even mention Carson on the set or backstage at the show. Carson has heard this too.

“See, I never understood what was in her mind. What on earth was she trying to do? Leno wouldn’t have been there at all if it hadn’t been for me. She was putting the show down and everybody connected with it like we hadn’t been there for 30 years. It worked against them. It created so much hostility among the people on the show, and ill will. And from the moment they went on, they handled the whole thing badly. I like Jay. He’s a nice kid. She did him a terrible disservice.”

Attempts to reach Kushnick for comment came to naught. Sources at NBC and Leno’s office said they had no idea how to reach her.

When Carson left “Tonight,” it was a little like the fall of Saigon combined with the Gold Rush. The late-night time period Carson helped make fabulously profitable was suddenly up for grabs. The great audience Carson had attracted splintered into factions.

“I find it funny ever since I left as to what’s happened to things,” he says. “The ‘late-night wars,’ and Arsenio and Chevy and Jay and Letterman and Conan. Yeah, I get a kick out of it.”

Asked if, now that things have calmed down, he would appear as a guest on Leno’s show, Carson pauses for a tiny moment. “Not really. Not really.” On any of the shows? “I don’t know. I hear from them. David Letterman called me a couple of times. I did a thing on the phone just for the fun of it. They wanted to do ‘Stump the Band,’ and I said, ‘Sure.’

“David said, ‘Any time you want to, come on,’ but I really don’t have any desire to do anything right now,” Carson says.

He does, from time to time, take a peek at the late night war zone, however.

“I watched Dave a couple of times. I don’t usually stay up that late, to tell you the truth. And strangely enough, which is not anything against Jay or David, having done it all those years, I just don’t watch it that much anymore.”

Carson seems to like Letterman, though. Associates believe Dave was Johnny’s choice to succeed him. “David’s a bright kid. My God, I never thought I’d be calling somebody that age ‘kid.’ It shows you where I’m at now.” Letterman’s strange, though, isn’t he? “Very strange. Lot of churning going on inside David there.”

Although Carson says he feels no lingering animosity toward NBC, and that the network has the right to a first look at any TV project he might want to do, he also says he doesn’t blame Letterman for bolting to CBS.

“I remember when David was going through this agony about what to do. We talked on the phone. And I said, ‘Do what you feel is right for you.’ He said, ‘What would you do?’ I said, ‘I suppose if I’d been treated like you’ve been treated, I might be a little pissed and I might make a move myself.’ “

Carson has watched the other shows too.

“I saw the young boy Conan O’Brien a couple of times. He’s a pleasant young man, but it’s going to take him time, I think, to find out how you do this kind of show. It’s a little tough to learn on the job.”

Then there’s the squirm-inducing subject of Chevy Chase, a poker-playing crony of Carson’s who bombed big on Fox. “No, he didn’t ask for advice. And I don’t know how you can give anybody advice on a show like this anyway.”

Suppose Chase had asked Carson for a post-mortem? “I would have to say, ‘I think to be very honest, Chevy, you didn’t look very comfortable doing this kind of a show.’ I couldn’t lie and be a hypocrite. I think it became a much tougher job than he thought it was going to be. And I like Chevy.

“I think he thought he could go in there and because he had this high what they call TV ‘Q’ recognition rating, he could go in and just be there. And it doesn’t work that way. It is work. And you have to have control of the show. You have to be comfortable.

“I used to kid Chevy before he went on. I would just look at him when we played poker and say, ‘Five nights a week, huh, Chevy? You’re going to do this five nights a week?’ But I knew it was going to have to shake out. There cannot be four or five late-night shows on without somebody taking a bath.”

While Carson and Chase are friends now, they exchanged barbs early in Chase’s career, when “Saturday Night Live” suddenly seemed hipper than Carson. And yet Carson kept his own special edge. He was hip to the last drop.

For years “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels made an annual plea to Carson to be a guest host. He always said no. “I liked the show in the early days,” Carson says. “I thought ‘Saturday Night Live’ with the original cast was great. I just didn’t see any reason particularly to do it.”

Yes, he has seen Dana Carvey’s impression of him. “I didn’t mind it. I think sometimes it got a little nasty. I think they got mean-spirited for no reason. I probably could have gotten on the phone and called. That’s silly. Next day, it’s gone. I think Dana might have even said in an interview they might have gone too far. But hey, I’ve been mean-spirited with a few people. You’ve got to be willing to take that. When you do humor, you walk a fine line.”

He has also seen “The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s bitter comedy about producing a late-night talk show, on HBO. Carson’s autographed photo hangs in Sanders’s office on the show’s set. “I don’t think it’s as true to life as the critics think it is,” Carson says. “Garry’s a good friend of mine, and I think some of the things they do are very funny, but there’s a lot of mean-spirited stuff in that show that I have never seen in the business.”

Shandling’s writers prepared a script with a cameo role for Carson,as they did in the past for Letterman, Leno and other hosts. Carson says he never saw that script. “I’m not sure I’d do it anyway, right now.”

Johnny! Will you get off your duff and go back on television, please?!

It’s mind-boggling to think that Jack Paar spends all his time going on cruises and hosting dinner parties, but his former sidekick Hugh Downs is on TV every week (”20/20”). And that while you can hardly turn on the set without seeing Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson is at home practicing Swahili or rooting around Russia.

Carson still has a production company and an office in Santa Monica, and goes there once or twice a week, but he doesn’t want to manufacture sitcoms anymore, as he did with “Amen,” now in syndication. “I will never produce another television show, unless I’m in it,” he says with finality. The required deficit financing makes producing too risky a venture for any but the biggest companies, he says.

As for ever doing a sitcom himself: “That’s death.”

Don’t look for him to go in with Bill Cosby on Cosby’s rumored plans to buy NBC, either. “I thought that was the silliest thing I ever heard of. I think Bill Cosby is a marvelous performer, but what his credentials are for running a network elude me, any more than I would run a network. I think it was a lot of ego on Bill’s part.”

Carson likes to read more than he likes to watch TV. A long counter along one wall of the tennis house is strewn with the Great Books. “I think there are some good things on television,” he says. “I watch mainly, not to sound pseudo-intellectual, but I watch a lot of the Discovery Channel.

“Everybody has a talk show now. On daytime, anybody. And most of ‘em aren’t any good. Daytime has become just one big gab bag of dysfunctional people talking to dysfunctional hosts about their miserable lives. I don’t know how Donahue and Geraldo and some of those people keep their sanity every day, having to talk to these people, most of whom look like they don’t have a scintilla of a brain in their head, telling the innermost secrets of their lives to an audience. It’s just -- awful.”

He winces. Johnny Carson is still very much a product of the Midwest. Conservative, cautious, standoffish (”to sit and pose” for a photographer “just terrifies me,” he says) and uncomfortable with big displays of emotion. Which makes the fact that he did get misty-eyed on his final “Tonight” shows all the more remarkable. The pinnacle was probably “the penultimate show,” as he calls it, when Bette Midler sang “One for My Baby” to him and together they did an impromptu rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” one of Carson’s favorite songs.

“Even when I see it now, it was so affecting and it was such a moment in time,” Carson says. “Bette Midler to this day hasn’t seen it. She says, ‘I can’t watch it.’ She sent me a note and said, ‘Of all the things I’ve done in the entertainment business, that moment was the most magical electric moment.’ And I said, ‘Me too.’ It just happened. You couldn’t re-create it, ever.

“I hate the overly sentimental stuff, and that night I tried to keep it not blubberingly sentimental. I’ve seen too much of that. It gets too sticky. But at the same time, it was the end of a long run for everybody.”

‘Absolute Death’

When he accepts his Kennedy Center Honor, Johnny Carson will become the first pure television performer to do so. The others all had careers in other fields as well as TV. Carson is a veteran of television’s rocky beginnings, a member of TV’s first generation who managed to adapt and change as few others did.

“I’ve been in television since 1950,” he says, looking back. “I was doing a local show in California in 1951, I was doing a network show in 1955. I’ve done panel shows, I’ve done game shows, you name it.” He even costarred in a production of “Three Men on a Horse” for “Playhouse 90.”

These were TV’s frontier days, when everybody tried everything. It was innovation born of desperation, which has been the curious beauty of television all along.

“I can remember back in Omaha when I was doing a local show, we used to play bridge on television. I thought it was a clever idea. We had these jumbo cards. I’d have two guests come up, and we’d sit there and I’d call a lady at home, Mrs. So-and-So, and I’d hold the hand up to the camera, and she’d play it.

“I did a thing once when they were trying to get rid of the pigeons on the county courthouse, and I took the pigeons’ side and I went on top of the building and sat there talking to the pigeons.”

When he got to Los Angeles, Carson did a daily five-minute program called “Carson’s Corner.” It followed the morning news. “I had a guy run across in front of the camera one morning and I said, ‘That was our guest, Red Skelton. We don’t have time to talk to him because we’re only on for five minutes.’ It was one of the stagehands.

“I get a call after the show. It was Red Skelton. Red came down and sat on that show for five mornings. I wouldn’t let him say anything. He just sat there in back of me. I did my show and turned to him and said, ‘What’s your name?’ He’d say, ‘I’m Red Skelton.’ I’d say, ‘That’s a likely story.’ And we’d go on.” Carson later filled in for Skelton during summers on CBS.

His memory is so good on these things, Carson really ought to write a book. No, he rejects that suggestion too. He says nobody needs another book about the entertainment business. He refers to “King of the Night,” an unauthorized biography of Carson published a few years ago, as “that piece of {excrement}.”

He made $5,000 a week, and worked 48 weeks a year, when he took over the “Tonight Show” in 1962, Carson recalls. By the end of the run, he owned the show and, with all perks included, was pulling in more than $30 million, insiders say. “I was highly paid the last 10 years,” Carson concedes. “But the show made a tremendous amount of money for NBC.”

Carson was once quoted as saying that the hour he taped “The Tonight Show” was the hour he felt “most alive” each day. “Oh yeah. Absolutely. It’s a rush of adrenaline as a performer. It’s hard to explain. You come off and you’re just charged with the reaction.

“There were days when your personal life wasn’t going so good, marriages or something, that was tough. And then after Ricky died, there was a period there where it was very difficult for me to get on track, because it makes you very conscious of what’s important when you lose a child. And a couple of the marriages were very difficult to work through.

“So the show in a way could be a salvation. ‘Cause you can go out and get a lot of that energy out, and at least hide out for a moment doing something.”

He sounds like he misses it. But in the next breath he says he doesn’t.

“I can see why people love to perform, but I also don’t want to get to the point where if you don’t have that, you can’t exist, that’s your total life. I think that would not be very comfortable for me, not healthy, that I had to be out there every night or every week in front of an audience.”

He finds it unseemly that some performers continue to work long past their prime, that they seem to force themselves out onto the stage, or are forced on by associates. He remembers refusing to book Groucho Marx on “Tonight” in Groucho’s last months, “when he started to become really feeble, because we had him on one night and he was wandering around the studio. And he didn’t sound like Groucho.”

He was entreated on another occasion to wheel Jimmy Durante out in his wheelchair for a stage appearance near the end of Durante’s life. “And I said, ‘You people ought to be goddamned ashamed of yourselves! Don’t do this to that man. Please don’t do it.’ “

Three themes that recur in Johnny Carson’s conversation: comfort, timing and death. “I keep hearing from the Museum of Broadcasting. ‘We’re going to have a symposium on comedy.’ I say, ‘Count me out.’ A symposium on comedy will turn out to be death. Absolute death.”

One compensation for Carson fans will come next April, when Disney Home Video releases five or six tapes of highlights fromCarson’s tenure on “The Tonight Show.” Carson and his nephew Jeff Sotzing are putting them together now, in answer, Johnny says, to many requests.

He does seem honestly touched when told how much he is missed. Letterman is hilarious, and Leno is very topical, and Arsenio Hall makes lots of racket, but put them all together and they still don’t add up to Johnny -- Johnny who was there for us, Johnny who saw us through 30 years, Johnny who lit up the tube when all else seemed to fail. Johnny, Johnny, Johnny.

“It’s a nice thing to hear when people come up and say, ‘We miss you,’ “ he says. “We get a lot of mail. People say, ‘We really miss “The Tonight Show,” we just don’t watch it anymore, we don’t find it interesting.’ It’s nothing against Jay or anyone else, but a lot of people grew up with us. It’s amazing. People who are now 50 were 20 when we started. That’s a long stretch of people.

“The greatest gratification I get is letters from people still saying, ‘You helped me through a bad time.’ They write letters saying, ‘Boy, my marriage was in trouble,’ or ‘My mother was sick,’ and so forth, ‘and we couldn’t wait to turn you on’ -- you know, that end-of-the-day type of thing. They say, ‘You were a part of my life for many years.’ “

He smiles. “It sounds corny, but that’s what it’s all about.”

The interview over, Johnny says goodbye and disappears back into the modern house on the cliff. The guard opens the electric gate to let you out. You look back, straining for one more glimpse. But Johnny has vanished. Again.