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Late night's Carson dead at 79

For decades, a fixture in nation's consciousness

Johnny Carson, whose three decades as host of "The Tonight Show" made him America's most-watched comedian and favorite excuse for staying up past its bedtime, died yesterday at his Malibu home. He was 79. The cause of death was emphysema.

A longtime smoker, Mr. Carson had revealed in 2002 that he suffered from the disease.

"This is the end of an era," comedian Joan Rivers, a frequent "Tonight" guest host and onetime competitor, told Reuters. "With Carson you went on once. You had his blessing, and the world knew you were funny."

Perhaps the only figures in network television history to rival Mr. Carson for combined longevity, popularity, and achievement are Lucille Ball and Walter Cronkite. Yet neither accounted for 17 percent of his or her network's profits, as Mr. Carson did in the late '70s. It was partly with those figures in mind that People magazine called him in 1979 "the most awesome figure in entertainment."

Elements of "The Tonight Show" during Mr. Carson's tenure became part of the fabric of American pop culture. Even people who'd never seen the program knew Mr. Carson mimed a golf swing to conclude his introductory monologue or that his sidekick, Ed McMahon, introduced him with a resounding, "Here's Johnny!" (The introduction became such a catchphrase that Jack Nicholson, as a homicidal maniac in the 1980 movie "The Shining," used the words to preface an ax-wielding assault.)

President Bush described Mr. Carson as "a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life."

. "All of us who came after are pretenders," David Letterman said. "We will not see the likes of him again. He gave me a shot on his show, and in doing so, he gave me a career. A night doesn't go by that I don't ask myself, 'What would Johnny have done?' "

Certainly, no editorial page or op-ed columnist rivaled Mr. Carson's monologue -- "a combination of journalism and ballet," the Washington Post's Tom Shales called it -- as a source of political commentary and index of public opinion. "Mr. Carson alone presides over our consciousness," John Leonard wrote in The New York Times in 1975. "When he began making Watergate jokes . . . Mr. Nixon was done for."

Mr. Carson's influence extended beyond politics. Were any proof required that the Sun Belt had arrived, it came with the 1972 relocation of "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank, Calif.

Mr. Carson became as much an exemplar for male conduct for his generation as, say, Frank Sinatra had been for the one before. Cool, casual, cocksure: These were Mr. Carson's constants. But not relaxed: He was always fiddling with his cuffs, adjusting his tie, tapping a pencil.

Sexually alert (if never quite liberated), Mr. Carson delighted in racy banter while always shying from the truly risqué. In his blend of prurience and inhibition, he paid allegiance to both the Midwest, where he'd grown up, and Malibu, the wealthy seaside community where he came to live in the early 1980s.

Mr. Carson's appearance mirrored this duality. His roostery bearing and slightly furtive look made him appear perpetually on the verge of the salacious, as did his famous smirk. There was nothing dangerous about it -- or about Mr. Carson -- an interpretation underscored by his wholesomely upturned nose and goofily oversized ears.

Mr. Carson once described his "only absolute rule" for a broadcast as "Never lose control of the show." Indeed, whenever he got flustered or fluffed a line he would invariably turn it to his own advantage. As the comedian George Burns said, "When it comes to saving a bad line, he is the master." Mr. Carson remained in charge of every situation, even failure.

That abhorrence of abandon extended to himself. Unlike his "Tonight Show" predecessor Jack Paar, Mr. Carson was extremely reluctant to show any emotion, other than amusement (something borne out by the frequency with which his raspy chortle might be heard over the course of a broadcast). "He looks plastic," the writer Dorothy Parker complained in 1966. Certainly, no one ever lauded Mr. Carson for openness.

The self-possession Mr. Carson projected on the air (even doing the most knockabout slapstick in a skit, he never seemed in less than total command of the situation) did not necessarily translate well off air. According to Truman Capote, who was Mr. Carson's neighbor during much of the '60s, "nobody knows Johnny. . . . The only time he comes alive is on camera." McMahon once said. "He's great with ten million people; he's not great with ten." Mr. Carson's reputation for emotional distance became such that he quipped, "I will not even talk to myself without an appointment."

One sign of the tension between public and private in Mr. Carson was his having married four times. With characteristic aplomb, he made that fact grist for his comedic mill. His marital misfortunes (and ever-mounting alimony costs) became a "Tonight Show" staple, rivaling McMahon's supposed bibulousness and bandleader Doc Severinsen's over-the-top taste in clothes.

Yet Mr. Carson's inherent aloofness greatly contributed to his broadcast durability. Despite hosting some 4,530 "Tonight Show" telecasts, Mr. Carson never wore out his welcome, something he further ensured by his regular absences from the air. By the end of his tenure at "The Tonight Show," he was appearing only three nights a week and had almost a third of the year off in vacation time.

Being a "Tonight Show" guest host was very nearly a full-time job. The same could not be said of being host of a "Tonight Show" competitor. The names of those who tried to best Mr. Carson as "king of late night" -- Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Rivers, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, Arsenio Hall -- are both many and now mostly forgotten. "By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best," the film director Billy Wilder once said. "He is the Valium and Nembutal of a nation."

The second of three children, John William Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa. His father, Homer Carson, was a utility company lineman and, later, manager; his mother, Ruth (Hook) Carson, was a housewife. The elder Carson's work meant the family relocated several times when Mr. Carson was a boy, finally settling in Norfolk, Neb.

At 12, Mr. Carson came across a copy of "Hoffmann's Book of Magic." Styling himself The Great Carsoni, he took to performing card and magic tricks. As a young naval officer, he found the tables turned on himself at a USO show, where Orson Welles sawed him in half. Mr. Carson, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school, served as an ensign on the USS Pennsylvania in the Pacific.

Even as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Mr. Carson had his sights set on show business: The title of his senior thesis was "How to Write Comedy Jokes." He moved to Los Angeles in 1950, where he quickly got a television announcing job. He soon had his own local comedy show, "Carson's Cellar," and worked as a writer on "The Red Skelton Show." After briefly hosting a quiz show, "Earn Your Vacation," he moved up to his own network comedy show. "CBS wanted to call a new series 'The Johnny Carson Show,' so they had to hire me," Mr. Carson deadpanned.

The show failed, and Mr. Carson moved to New York. He became host of another daytime quiz show, "Who Do You Trust?" (the announcer was McMahon). The show's success led to Mr. Carson's tapping as Paar's "Tonight Show" successor, in 1962.

Reviewing Mr. Carson's debut, The New York Herald Tribune wrote, "There was none of the free-wheeling frivolity, the titillatingly suggestive humor . . . that so often sparked Paar's show. He is not the showman his predecessor was. But perhaps he will come along."

Come along Mr. Carson did. He immediately put his stamp upon the show, and his ratings soon bettered Paar's. Where under Paar "Tonight" had been very much a talk show, under Mr. Carson it was much more a comedy show. Besides the monologue, recurring elements included skits featuring The Mighty Carson Art Players and "Art Fern's Tea-Time Movie," and Mr. Carson portraying such characters as Carnac the Magnificent, a psychic, and Aunt Blabby, an elderly busybody.

Mr. Carson's crack timing and agile ad libbing earned widespread praise. Often overlooked, though, was what might have been an even more important ingredient in his "Tonight Show" success: an acute attentiveness.

What McMahon was for Mr. Carson, a combination safety net/laugh track, he was for his guests. No one appreciated the success of other comedians more, and no one furthered the careers of more comedians. Among them were Letterman, Jay Leno, Rivers, Garry Shandling, David Brenner, and Freddie Prinze.

"He never cut off a punch line and when it came, he broke up," Rivers said. "It was like telling it to your father -- and your father is laughing, leaning way back and laughing, and you know he is going to laugh at the next one."

"The Tonight Show" schedule was a grind. Originally, each program lasted 115 minutes. In 1967, that was reduced to 90 minutes, and in 1980, to an hour. For relaxation, Mr. Carson turned to a wide range of pastimes: astronomy, sailing, playing the drums, flying. He was so serious about tennis that when John McEnroe bought his house, the purchase-and-sale agreement stipulated the buyer's giving the seller six lessons.

Mr. Carson, who had acted in a 1957 TV version of the play "Three Men on a Horse" and appeared as himself in a 1964 feature film "Looking for Love," did not lack for other entertainment opportunities. Offered the title role in the original "Thomas Crown Affair," he turned it down. He also turned down the Gene Wilder part in "Blazing Saddles." Instead, he seemed content to restrict his extra-"Tonight" work to appearances in Las Vegas and hosting the Academy Awards show, which he did five times.

The original plan had been for Mr. Carson to retire after 30 years as "Tonight Show" host. Wanting to leave at the top of his game, he moved up his departure date (his official tenure was 29 years, six months, three weeks). "My God, the Soviet Union's end didn't get this kind of publicity!" he quipped of the countdown to his retirement on May 22, 1992.

The recipient of six Emmys and a Peabody Award, Mr. Carson was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992. A year later, he was a Kennedy Center honoree.

Mr. Carson was adamant about keeping a low profile after leaving "The Tonight Show," though he published a pair of humor pieces in The New Yorker in 2000. "We did a little show," he said in retrospect, "and it was fine and we helped some people with their careers, but it was no big deal."

In addition to his wife, Alexis, Mr. Carson leaves two sons, Chris and Cory. Another son, Rick, died in a 1991 auto accident.

No memorial service is planned.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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