Johnny Carson Gets the 'American Masters' treatment
Yet he was also an intensely private man who shunned the limelight off camera and was extremely protective of his personal life. And when he said goodbye to America on his final "Tonight Show," he declined to do interviews and rarely appeared again in public.
The complex personal and professional nature of Carson is the focus of a two-hour American Masters documentary, "Johnny Carson, King of Late Night," which premieres May 14 on PBS and was the subject of discussion at the Winter TV Press Tour being held in Pasadena this week. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over "The Tonight Show" and the 20th anniversary of his retirement.
Peter Jones, who directed the project, interviewed several member of Carson's family and inner circle in addition of several performers, including Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Don Rickles, Steve Martin and Conan O'Brien.
In a panel about the documentary, Jones said he wrote a letter every year for 15 years to Carson seeking his cooperation for the film. In 2003 he finally got a call from the enterainer, who said, "Peter, you write a damn fine letter, but I'm not going to participate in anything about my life because I don't give a (expletive). I've done everything I wanted to do. There may be something done on me, but it will never be while I'm alive."
Drew Carey, who hosts "The Price Is Right," recalled being awed by Carson when he was a stand-up comic who scored a spot on the show.
"He seemed genuine, he was really nice," said Carey, who added it was almost overwhelming when he looked over at Carson during his routine and saw the host laughing so hard he was holding on to his desk to keep from falling over.
Carey said he was thrilled when Carson summoned him to sit on the couch after his routine, a privilege granted to comedians only when he was extremely impressed: "It was like being in a dream. It was like being called over by Jesus."
Angie Dickinson, also a panelist Thursday and a frequent guest on the show, said that Carson wasn't cocky, "and he was extremely shy. That's sort of a Midwest trait."
She added that appearing on the show greatly boosted her popularity. "I had a great deal of success due just to that. It enhanced everything I did."
Dickenson also spoke about how Carson largely retreated from public view after he exited the late-night show in an emotional farewell.
"That final show was pure Johnny — he had said it all and done it all and he really was finished," said the actress.
-- Greg Braxton
Photo: David Steinberg, left, and Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show." Steinberg made 140 appearences of the show, second only to Bob Hope. Credit: NBC/Carson Entertainment Group.