When legendary “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson signed off as the king of late-night TV in 1992 after 30 years, he had three ex-wives, two estranged sons and millions of adoring fans. What Carson, who died of respiratory failure in 2005, did not have was lawyer Henry Bushkin, whom he fired in 1988 for alleged financial chicanery and insufficient loyalty after 18 years of beck-and-call service. It is now payback time for Bushkin, whose book “Johnny Carson” offers a fallen insider’s look at the high-maintenance superstar who dominated the small screen with brilliant monologues, famous guests and headline-driven, headline-making jokes that remain the gold standard of the genre.
Bushkin is hoping that two decades after Carson’s “Tonight” exit, and with several books about his former boss already in print, Johnny junkies remain insatiable. He dishes freely about life in the cutthroat world of network television, including his tense, highly successful contract negotiations with NBC brass and his secret talks with ABC execs eager for Carson to jump ship. He rehashes the comedian’s well-known feuds with Joan Rivers and Wayne Newton, describes Carson’s insistence that a drunk Dean Martin not perform at Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural gala and provides copious details about the high life the duo shared — usually without their wives — in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Europe.
“Bombastic Bushkin,” as Carson dubbed him on the show, is a facile writer, by turns funny, dark, gossipy, angry, morose and self-serving about their lucrative bromance gone wrong. He was just 27 when hired for what became the “most rewarding and the most disappointing” relationship of his life. The Bronx-born lawyer morphed into a minor Hollywood player as Carson’s “Swiss Army knife of a companion, attorney, manager, agent, henchman, crony, tennis pal and corkscrew, all in one.”
Bushkin glides through Carson’s early years — born in Iowa, reared in Nebraska by a passive father and a toxic mother — to focus on the man at the top of his game. Wildly successful on television and in clubs, Carson was, in private, a roiling mass of contradictions. He could be “endlessly witty and enormously fun,” but also “the nastiest son of a bitch on earth. The truth is that he was an incredibly complex man: one moment gracious, funny, and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted in the next. Never have I met a man possessed of a greater number of social gifts — intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor — and never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.”
For Carson, the phrase “family man” was an oxymoron and fidelity impossible to maintain. Though he and his college-sweetheart first wife, Jody, had three boys, active fatherhood was not part of his DNA. Indeed, when Ricky, their middle child, was committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psych unit for several months, Carson declined to visit on the grounds that his presence would “mortify” his son and create a media circus. That abdicated task fell to Bushkin. Carson was not close to the other children, either, although when Ricky died in a car crash in 1991, Carson paid him an emotional on-the-air tribute.
Being the comedian’s wife was no picnic. One of Bushkin’s early missions was a walk on the noir side, with a pistol-packing Carson leading “a squad of men with downturned mouths and upturned collars through a rain-swept Manhattan evening” into the secret love nest of his second wife, Joanne. He was furious and devastated to discover photos of Frank Gifford, the pro football great turned sportscaster, on a table and men’s clothing in the closet of an apartment he was paying for.
Carson walked out and soon married divorcee Joanna Holland, who persuaded him to move the show, and Bushkin, to Los Angeles. Within three years, that marriage was over, too, and because Carson had gallantly ignored entreaties to sign a pre-nup, the breakup cost him $35 million, Bushkin writes, although other accounts put the figure somewhat lower. Carson and his fourth wife, Alex, 30 years his junior, separated well before his death.
Bushkin, like many others, blames Carson’s icy mother for her son’s relationship woes, calling her the kind of parent “who inflicts consistent emotional pain” because she is “impossible to impress and impossible to please. She seemed to take no pride or pleasure in her son’s accomplishments.”
We’ll let legal ethicists decide whether Bushkin has violated attorney-client privilege in sharing Carson stories, licit and illicit, or whether he has merely exercised his First Amendment right to cash in and lash out after losing nearly everything after their acrimonious break. Bushkin was sued for malpractice and held liable for Carson’s failed business and real estate deals, and he spent four years litigating to clear his name, including a protracted trial. He just about broke even after recouping $17 million in a jury award and an insurance settlement.
He had already lost his wife, Judy. She left him in the early ’80s using celebrity divorce lawyer Arthur Crowley, who’d secured the aforementioned whopping settlement for her dear friend, Joanna Carson. Doing business deals from California to Kyrgyzstan, Bushkin insists he’s been happier since his firing than he ever was working for Carson.
Even from the grave, however, Carson remains a looming presence who “continues to provoke, irritate, delight, amuse and sadden me.” But if all goes according to plan, and the book is a big seller, the King of Late Night may once again line the pockets of Bombastic Bushkin.
By Henry Bushkin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 294 pp. $28