Johnny Carson's near-comeback, and other stories from his friends
One of the lingering mysteries surrounding talk show legend Johnny Carson was why he walked away from "The Tonight Show" and never returned to the spotlight, despite numerous pleas and attempts from those who wanted to see him perform again. Carson achieved something nearly impossible for those who have reached such a high level of success: He walked away and didn't look back.
But David Steinberg, one of Carson's closest friends, recalled that Carson came very close to making at least one low-profile return. The story is one of several revealing tales shared by Steinberg and other dear friends, including Angie Dickinson and Dick Cavett.
Steinberg, a veteran comedian who in the last few decades has devoted his attention to directing television shows, remembered that when he was directing episodes of "Mad About You" during 1993 and 1994, the writing staff convinced him to do a stand-up gig. A reluctant Steinberg agreed only if he could perform in a small establishment and the act not be publicized in any way.
A date was set for Steinberg to perform at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks. But much to his dismay, word leaked out, and his show was listed in the Los Angeles Times. A furious Steinberg called the club and threatened to pull out, but the manager begged him not to and said he had learned that Carson would be coming to watch Steinberg perform.
"So Johnny comes to the show, and he's with [former "Tonight Show" executive producer] Peter Lassally and his wife, Alex," said Steinberg. "And it was the scariest evening. But I talked a lot about our relationship, and it turned out to be a great set because Johnny was in the room."
Soon afterward, Steinberg said, Carson said to Steinberg, " 'You know, seeing you up there made me think, maybe I should have a shot at doing something like that.' I said, 'You should absolutely do it.' And Johnny was actually considering it. We spent a week talking about it, saying he could do it at a small place with no publicity.
"But just as it seemed like the idea was really starting to get traction, he said to me, 'You know, I just don't have the desire to be out there.' He had gained a little bit of weight, he didn't like the way he looked. And now he was thinking about doing a show in front of a live audience. He finally decided not to, and that was it."
Dick Cavett, another close friend of Carson's, tells how Carson could be having a bad day, looking glum, but would almost magically transform into his charismatic persona around show time. "He was able to escape into appearing to be one of the chattiest guys in the world," Cavett recalled. "In his case, it was a lifesaving escape."
"I got on the show a lot that way," he quipped.
He rememberd one occasion when he was taping a show and Carson called him wanting to have dinner. Cavett said that he really wasn't dressed for a nice night out and that he was wearing dirty running shoes. Carson insisted. The taping ran late. When Cavett arrived at the restaurant, Carson was also wearing "dirty running shoes," he said. "That shows what kind of guy Johnny was."
Angie Dickinson, one of Carson's favorite guests, said she enjoyed how they used to flirt with each other durng the show. "There's no question there was chemistry," she said. "But there was always something in the way of us getter closer."
Dickinson said her appearances also helped to show audiences a different side of her: "It was a way for everyone to see me in other than an acting role. They saw my personality. No role had really displayed who I was as a person, and being on 'The Tonight Show' rounded me out for the audience."
Steinberg, Cavett and Dickinson are all featured in PBS' "American Masters" documentary "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," which premieres Monday. For more on Carson and the documentary, read this feature.
— Greg Braxton
Photo: Johnny Carson. Credit: NBC.