The King of Late Night, aka Johnny Carson is back as an American Masters documentary, and the timing is great. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over NBC’s The Tonight Show from Jack Paar. It’s also the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Time flies, but at least we can recall great memories as we watch American Masters’ Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, premiering Monday, May 14, at 9 p.m. on PBS.
There’s a great memory I have of one of my encounters with Carson. I had the pleasure of doing a one-on-one interview with Carson many years ago. At the time he was still working out of New York, but would come to L.A. to do a couple of weeks of shows and tap into the star power in Hollywood. An intensely private person, he wasn’t doing any interviews. But Hank Rieger, then head of NBC publicity, was a good friend and set up a date. So I found myself in Carson’s dressing room at NBC in Burbank, just an hour or so before doing the show.
The reason Carson had ordered “no interviews” was because he was getting unwanted attention in the tabloids about his current marital problems. So, naturally being a wise guy, my first line to him when Johnny sat down was, “Hey, if you don’t talk about your women problems, I won’t talk about mine.” I still remember the stunned look on Carson’s face, and then an approving grin before we started our interview about his show — not women.
Just prior to going on the air Ed McMahon dropped by the dressing room and Johnny asked him “How was your weekend?” Ed told him about a few things, and Johnny replied, “We can talk about that to open the show.” I learned there wasn’t a lot of pre-planning for the banter between Carson and McMahon. They were friends and the funny conversations came naturally.
So now everyone who tunes in American Masters will get a glimpse of what Johnny Carson was really like. A lot of celebrities and behind the scenes folks, and even an ex-wife will be talking about him. Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, revealed that Carson was “a famously private man, naturally funny and actually awkward when the cameras weren’t around. Over his career he spoke to over 22,000 guests, but didn’t quite know what to say when he was at a private party.”
On the show Angie Dickinson and Drew Carey will talk about their personal experiences of being guests playing off of Carson. At a PBS interview session Carey told us, “He seemed genuinely nice to everybody and interested in what they had to say. Always super polite, never went overboard. You never saw him be rude or flippant or just not care. He was more a kid from Nebraska than anything I saw on TV.”
Dickinson agreed with Carey and said, “That’s what most people pretty much thought of him. He wasn’t cocky at all. As a matter of fact, as one of the most recognizable men in the world, he was very shy about it. He was more of a simple and not complicated person. He was basically very much a Midwest man.”
A frequent guest on the show and a personal friend, Angie noted that Johnny enjoyed getting together with friends for dinner. “He enjoyed people in a small situation. And he’d rather go sailing on his boat, or play tennis, during his time off.”
She added, “I think we all agree that the last show that he did, that was pure Johnny, and that’s why he started to tear up. He had said it all, done it all, and he really was finished. You never heard from him professionally after that.”
That’s what Johnny wanted, explained Peter Jones, the Emmy-winning filmmaker who was dedicated to getting the documentary made. Jones reported, “Some people were saying, ‘Well, he’ll come back when he finds the right project.’ But he really was done after the last show. He didn’t need any more adulation. He was offered so many awards and only accepted a few. He didn’t cultivate any kind of a public image. He made one appearance on The David Letterman Show just a year after he retired. He just delivered a Top 10 list, received a standing ovation, walked off the stage, and that was the last time he was ever on television.”
Now all we have are the memories and this great documentary about a guy who really was an “American Master” of late night.