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Johnny Carson Dies At 79

Aired January 23, 2005 - 15:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. Then entertainer world mourns the loss of an American Icon. Johnny Carson died this morning at the age of 79. He died of emphysema. In as statement released by his family members, his nephew Jeff Sotzing writes,
"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning. He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service."

Those simple words coming from the nephew of Johnny Carson who passed away earlier today. A look now at the life and the legacy of Johnny Carson. Here's CNN's Sibila Vargas.



SIBILA VARGAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For three full decades he was the reigning king of late night. His cool and understated attitude and his impeccable comic timing entertained audiences of all ages through both the good and bad times. Johnny Carson was a master at his craft and always showed a great respect for the thing that made him a household name.

JOHNNY CARSON, COMEDIAN: I am stick up for television because I think it's a marvelous, marvelous median and I'm optimistic. Of course, as you probably know, an optimist in the entertainment business is an accordion player with a beeper.


VARGAS: Johnny Carson was born October 23, 1925, in Kronig, Iowa. He moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, as a boy where he bought his first mail order magic set and began his career as an entertainer. He was known as the "Great Carsoni" and later performed in the Navy. And after graduated from the University of Nebraska, went to work at Omaha radio stations.

His first television showed "Carson Seller" debuted in 1952 and lead to a job as a staff writer on Red Skelton's variety show. In 1954, Carson got his big break when Skeleton was knock unconscious an hour before air time, and Carson was asked to step in. His natural ease in front of the camera lead a contract with CBS. After a short stint as an MC of "Earn Your Vacation," Carson got his own half hour comedy show called the "Johnny Carson Show." Carson moved to ABC for the game tie show "Who Do You Trust?" where in '58 he was joined by his sidekick Ed McMahon. In that same year, he was asked to sit in for Jack Paar on the "Tonight Show."

BETTE MIDLER, SINGER (SINGING): I guess I'm just another fan of yours and I thought I'd write and tell you so.

MCMAHON: I sit next to the quickest, the brightest, most well- read, most entertaining, most brilliant man, if television was ever invent for somebody, it was invented for him.

DAVID LETTERMAN, THE "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": I don't know a person in comedy or in television who didn't sort of grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model. And it was -- I think it's something everybody -- one of the reasons people leave home or come to new York or go to California to get in comic or show business.

CARSON: I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all of these years and entertain you.

VARGAS: Carson did come into the homes of as many fans throughout the years. But his constant need for privacy prevented the world from glimpsing into his home life. He was married four times: First to Jody, then it Joanne, and Joanna, and in 1987 to Alex Mass. He had three children from his first marriage: Chris, Cory, and Ricky. Rick was tragically killed in 1991 in a car accident. Though, his personal life was often rocky, his career seemed to grow quickly and effortlessly.

CARSON: I could never have imagined I would walk thought curtain almost 5,000 times in 30 years.

MCMAHON: And now ladies and gentlemen, here's Johnny!

VARGAS: Carson may have hosted just under 5,000 episodes of the "Tonight Show," but he continued to pursue opportunities outside of late night. He founded his own production company and created shows like "TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes." He hosted the Academy Awards five times and took home four Emmy Awards. We was also the recipient of the Communications Award and the Kennedy Center Honor. Perhaps more important than anything else to Carson was that he loved entertaining, as much as we loved being entertained by him.

CARSON: I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something I've always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.


WHITFIELD: And that was Sibila Vargas reporting. Dr. Joyce Brothers was a frequent guest on "Late Night with Carson." She joins us on the telephone from Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Dr. Brothers thanks so much for taking the time out. How does this news hit you?

DR. JOYCE BROTHERS, PSYCHOLOGISTS: Well, he was important to all of our lives, older people who we rember staying late at night to listen to him and going to bed feeling pleased and delighted and enjoying him. He's made late-night television something of importance to people to date, to young people as well, because of the shows that followed him. And very important in my life, in that when he retired, they made a -- the "Tonight Show," sent out a list of the guests who did it the most, and Bob Hope of course was at the top of the list, but I was number seven. I was the only one on the whole list that was a non-performer and I did it 90 times and I never -- they said, and I never counted because I was always superstitious and felt it was going to be the last time.

But the interesting thing to me was how private Johnny was. You never knew where he was republic nor democratic. You never spoke to him before or after the show. He had his own entrance into -- onto the stage. He had his own makeup room, he had his own makeup person and you just never spoke to him at all before the show and he felt it was because he didn't want the guests to say something funny, and then feel that they were too embarrassed to stay on air.

WHITFIELD: Oh, that's so interesting!

BROTHERS: So, he would show up on air. He would immediately disappear after air. And the only time I saw him in person, other than on the air, was when he asked me to do a roast for Don Rickles, and I was scared to death about it, because I was out of my field writing comedy, but I did it and the audience laughed and he came over and he kissed me and he said, "that was wonderful." But that's -- you could not have a more private man than Johnny Carson or one that really fashioned our lives in ways that we don't even know today. And the wonderful part, to me, was that he wrote in his head. Guests, as all guests are, you get pre-interviewed, but he never stayed to the script of the pre-interview and I would bring up things that I had no intention of bringing up. And he would just write the jokes in his head, in his mind -- in his head, and be so funny and so clever. And apparently, of what I had heard, he was even writhe jokes of the last couple of weeks of his life giving it to another comedian, which was part of his kindness. He...

WHITFIELD: For David Letterman, apparent apparently.


WHITFIELD: Was that a real surprise to you or did you feel like, you know, this is typical of the man that I knew?

BROTHERS: It's typical of the man that I knew, but also a surprise to me that he felt no competition. That he -- it was amazing to me that he was able to stay off of the air from the time he retired and not have this terrible itch to perform. But that his in writing and being funny, taking the headlines, he did not want to lose and continued to write to the very end which was a very, very surprising sadness to all of us.

WHITFIELD: So, in a way, you saw that he really did miss that part of show biz, of creating, if not performing, then at least creating some of the laughter that he helped do for 30 years while he was a host of the late-night show? BROTHERS: You are absolutely right. You're right. You hit the nail on the head. There was a desire to please and a desire to entertain that stayed with him forever.

WHITFIELD: You mentioned he was very private person. That's something that's so remarkable to hear about this very public person or at least television viewers felt like they knew him well because they watched him for 30 years and saw him in other arenas. We talked to comedian Joan Rivers, just a moment ago, and she spoke about the same thing, about what a private individual he was. It's interested to hear how you interpreted a lot of that as he really didn't want anybody to say anything too funny before they went on the air. But then, how do you explain his privacy once he got off of the air?

BROTHERS: Well, I guess too many people wanted so much of him and pieces of him because he could make anyone a star. I remember Joan Rivers, the first time she -- Johnny Carson asked her to substitute, host for her -- for him. And she took her little baby, who was a couple of months old, wrapped it up, put a note on it and gave it to Johnny, saying, "Thank you very much for what you've done for me. This is Melissa. Bring her up Jewish."

WHITFIELD: Oh! Well here, really did bring up a lot of people and Joan Rivers helped us remember that, some of the comedians, such as Bill Cosby, George Carlen, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, of course, who is now hosting late-night, Garry Shandling. Is there something, you think, about Johnny Carson that perhaps was misunderstood or overlooked about his generosity, how he wanted to bring up other comedians, other talents?

BROTHERS: When -- always thought that maybe he felt a little competitive with the guests because he made them overnight stars. And the biggest award you could have was if you started as a stand-up comedian, to be asked to sit down at the desk, but that didn't happen all the time. And I think it was because he really recognized extraordinary talent. And he was not -- he was generous about it. He wasn't keeping people with extraordinary talent from eclipsing him.

WHITFIELD: Did he ever speak, in the time that you knew him and appeared on his show, those some 90 times on the "Tonight Show," did he ever talk about being nervous about taking over after Jack Paar?

BROTHERS: No, no, really and truly, he only stayed to the show itself, and tried very hard to make people, who are his guests, as comfortable as possible. But, if you made Johnny Carson laugh, the sun shone, it was such a triumph for you and he was always, always kind, never cut anybody off, never said anything nasty to the person, never said a cutting remark in all of the years that I watched the show and I watched it for years and years because it was fun to go to bed feeling happy and pleased.

WHITFIELD: He announced some three years ago, roughly, that he had emphysema. Did you know, in recent weeks perhaps, or even months, that it was really taking a toll on him?

BROTHERS: You could see pictures of him. Every once in awhile one of the fashion -- magazines would show a picture of him and -- when he put on weight and when he took off weight because he needed to, having a heart problem. But every time we had commercial on the show, that I was on, he smoked during the commercial time. Part of it was, of course, was that he didn't want to interview and spoil the interview. But smoking was what he did. He hid it from a lot of people, but he didn't hide it during commercial.

WHITFIELD: And Dr. Joyce Brothers, before we let you go, if you can, perhaps, just in part sum up a particular moment or perhaps one your fondest memories of your chance to get to know Johnny Carson.

BROTHERS: Well, the nicest thing is when I wrote the script on myself because I'd never written a funny thing, at all, for the roast he asked me to do for Don Rickles and I did that in person. And I had a little, sort of, an off-colored joke in which I said, I made it up, in which I said that I'd met an old flame of Don Rickles and she confided in me that Don Rickles was built like a male animal. I think her exact word were "hung like a hamster" and I wiped out everybody in the audience, and I was so embarrassed having given the first -- sexy joke of my whole life and he came over and hugged me and kissed me and made me feel good and he said, "gee, you were great." So he was kindness personified.

WHITFIELD: Dr. Joyce Brothers, thanks so much for helping us rember a -- an American icon, the late Johnny Carson dead at the age of 79. Thanks, Dr. Brothers from joing us from Fort Lee, New Jersey.

BROTHERS: Thank you, we'll all miss him very, very much.

WHITFIELD: Well, as Dr. Joyce Brothers was talking, but lots of hugs and kisses, well, lots of hugs and kisses on the last night of the "Tonight Show," that Johnny Carson hosted and that was May 22, 1992. Another look now, at the final serenade from Bette Midler to Johnny Carson.



MIDLER: Right now. When he asked me to come on, I can't believe it! The last guest, the last guest. The last fool Mr. Carson will have to offer gladly. You are the wind beneath my wings. Oh, well, he is!

(SIGNING): Quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me. So set him up Joe got a little story I think you should know. We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a sweet episode. Make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

Got the routine so drop another nickel in the machine. Oh gee, I'm feeling so bad wish you'd make the music so dreamy and sad. You could tell me a lot, but it's not in a gentle men's code. Let's make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

You may not know it, but buddy you're a kind of poet and you had a lot of things to say and when I'm gloomy you always listened to me until it's talked away. Well that's how it goes and John I know you're getting anxious to close, so thanks for the cheer I hope you didn't mind me bending your ear. For all of the years for the laughs for the tears, for the class that you showed, make it one for my baby and one more for the road that long that long road, the long, the long road.


CARSON: Thank you, Bette.


WHITFIELD: And that was the televised is farewell of Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Show" back in 1992. This morning, his family announced that he passed away along with family at his side at the age of 79, this morning, of emphysema.

Well, lots of folks can talk about the pleasure of working with the late Johnny Carson, but few can really professed of having got to know him. Lawrence Leamer, who is an author, he was the biographer of the Johnny Carson in the book the "King of the Night." He joins us on the telephone from Palm Beach, Florida. Perhaps Lawrence Leamer is one of those who actually got to really get to know Johnny Carson because, as we've talked to Dr. Joyce Brothers earlier today and comedienne Joan Rivers, all who have said that this was a very private man.

Lawrence, thanks so much for joining us. What was it about Johnny Carson that kind of made him tick?

LAWRENCE LEAMER, AUTHOR, "KING OF THE NIGHT": Well, you know, just listening to that clip and in that last night performance after 30 years. That the way he went out was with such grace and dignity, I mean, how few athletes knowing when to hang up their cleats. How many movie stars go own and play romantic roles when they shouldn't? But this man, he went out at the peak. He said he didn't want to end up like Bob Hope and just sort of hauled -- called over for -- brought back for all of these tributes. He didn't want that. He didn't need that. He left. He left in a field -- again, if we were talking about a movie star, we'd show the clipse of the star, a great athlete, we showed the performances, but this is a television performer, something that is so transcent. So it's really our memories of the greatness of this man for all of those years that he has managed to entertain us and to -- through three generations of Americans to stay with us and to stayed meaningful and in his humor and in his commentary. He was -- he's not -- there's not going to be another Johnny Carson. There's not going to be anybody else who's able to stay on top for 30 years.

WHITFIELD: And let's backtrack with your relationship. How you were able to build a trusting relationship with this very private man, as most are describing him, in order to really get close into his world, to be able to write a biography about him. How did it begin?

LEAMER: Well, you know, he's not -- he wasn't really very trusting. And the strange thing, I remember, you know, I talked to his sons and he wasn't (UNINTELLIGIBLE) close. I remember at the 25th anniversary of the show, there was a party on the Queen Mary that I went to, and these were the 400 people that he worked with on that show. I mean, these are the close people. And he wasn't comfortable with this.

WHITFIELD: Why is that?

LEAMER: It was the strangest thing. Because, you know, he did magic tricks and there was a kind of like a casino room where there, you know, sort of pretending roulette wheels, those kind of thing. He'd come up to each group and he'd do a little card trick and they really weren't -- the really weren't that great. You could tell they were tricks, but he felt -- but even then he just -- he wasn't comfortable. He was comfortable that one hour, when he played Johnny Carson, he was magnificent and comparable. But the rest of his life he wasn't comfortable with it at all.

WHITFIELD: Was it as simple as he was just a shy man?

LEAMER: No. I think, he poured -- you know, a lot of performers, we think of them as being extraverts, but they're sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) introverts. I mean, if he'd been a -- basically he wasn't a very happy person, but everything was poured into that hour on the stage. He was just was magnificent in that hour, and he understood that his competence as a performer was that you make your guests look good. Let them get the best laugh. Because you're going to get the ratings and you're going to be back. And he just understood how to make his -- each evening be magical.

WHITFIELD: So how involved was he on a night to night basis with his show on, you know, crafting, where the interview would go, or whatever little funny shticks he would come up with, how involved was he, Johnny Carson, in putting his stamp of approval on all of that?

LEAMER: Oh, he was very -- he was very instrumental there, but what's interesting, as you see, these shows, they're not true interviews, I mean, whether it's Jay Leno or Letterman, whatever, they're not -- these things are sort of quasi scripted beforehand, all the jokes and everything. Johnny kind of invented that, I mean, he wasn't going to let the air -- to come on and not be funny, so it was all -- this was -- things were set up beforehand. It was a show.

WHITFIELD: And was it really an -- his technique was really just very conversational, you know, with his guests. Like you said, it wasn't necessarily delving into the private lives of his guests, but a way to make theme laugh.

LEAMER: Right. Right. And you know, it's like -- it's in writing or anything else, the best writing, to make something look simple is nothing more complicated and to make it look so simple and artless as he did was an immense accomplishment.

WHITFIELD: And we just saw, a moment ago, a picture of he and his sidekick, Ed McMahon.

LEAMER: Right.

WHITFIELD: Talk about that relationship. A long relationship though, wasn't it?

LEAMER: It went on and on, but they weren't close friends. Again, it was that hour that they came together and they were great on that and maybe it was better that way. You know, they didn't hang out together, but Johnny really didn't have many close friends. That's the way he was. Across if his house in Malibu, he had what was then, the 20 years ago anyway, would have been the most expensive private tennis court in the world. It was a mini stadium. He'd go over there and play every day, and if you wanted to be invited back you give him a great game and you lost. He loved tennis, that was one of the things he loved, but he just -- he'll be rembered just for the greatness in the American popular culture. I mean, 100 years from now, when we look at our period, that'll be one of the cultural, popular artifacts of popular cultural that will be talked -- still be talked and written about.

WHITFIELD: So, if the two of them, Ed and Johnny were not necessarily close friends, or weren't considered close friends, what do you describe that relationship, that dated as far back as when they hosted a game show together, "Who Do You Trust" on ABC, before ending up on the "Tonight Show" together?

LEAMER: Well, I mean, they clicked professionally. I mean that was it. I mean, and probably if they had been hanging out, there wouldn't be the magic on the air that there was, but they were by no means close friends.

WHITFIELD: Was there something that you discovered about Johnny Carson in doing your research, getting to write about him, to write this book "King of the Night" that floored you about him?

LEAMER: I just think, you know, frankly, you learn right about people, not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) somebody. He was a magnificent talent, he paid a price for that. He wasn't a happy person, but just what it takes to succeed. I mean, I'm -- my new book is on Schwarzenegger and I just -- the comparison is just -- what it takes to succeed in American life and in our competitive society. The price that's paid -- has to be paid and Carson paid that and he was a magnificent achievement. And another thing that's an anomaly, is he was, probably the most famous person in America, but when he went to Europe, imagine, when he went anywhere else in the world, nobody knew he was.

WHITFIELD: Hmm. And he liked that I guess, huh?

LEAMER: He liked it for a few days. Then he didn't like it at all.

WHITFIELD: You described that he really wasn't a happy man. It's so hard to believe that. What do you suppose was missing? Did you ever get to discover that or...?

LEAMER: If you anyone comedians, you show me a happy comedian. I've yet to meet one. That's nature of the beast. And you think about the language of humor, "I killed" or "I died out there." There's no form, there's no more difficult form of public -- public form than comedy. Get up night after night to make people laugh. Imagine how difficult that is. Imagine the feeling when they aren't laughing.

WHITFIELD: Do you suppose in part why, in part, he took so much on joy in helping other young talents come up with the ranks?

LEAMER: It was great about him, because again, so many entertainers are just petty and jealous. And he just appreciated humor. He appreciated when people were funny on his show and, you know, he just -- that meant so much to him. He did help so many entertainers. There's no better, bigger break, nothing meant more for a young comedian than to have to come out at the end of the "Tonight Show."

WHITFIELD: I've asked everybody I've interviewed, so far now, on Johnny Carson about how surprised they were, and now I'm asking how surprised you were to hear, reportedly, that he was still writing jokes, this time for CBS for David letterman?

LEAMER: I just think that was wonderful and he didn't have to be acknowledged. He didn't want to come on there himself. He just loved the form and he appreciated it. You know, it's like any profession. People on television when they get together, writers, I mean, within the profession, you know who is good and what works about he loved the profession of comedians.

WHITFIELD: So, even though he was ill or at least had announced a few years ago that he was battling emphysema.

LEAMER: Right.

WHITFIELD: There was something still about being or having his hand in the entertainment industry. If he wasn't going to be a performer, then somehow he was still going to be a creator.

LEAMER: And just to make people laugh. I mean there are few better things in life than to say that you've made people laugh for all of those years.

WHITFIELD: Have you had a chance to talk to any of his family members?

LEAMER: I haven't. I just, you know, I just learned of this. I haven't talked to anyone.

WHITFIELD: In a statement that the family has revealed that there will be no memorial service.

LEAMER: Right. But that figures, that -- the way he left. He left television, he was gone. He had his privacy. I mean, that was -- that was him.

WHITFIELD: That seemed very much to parallel his life, the way he lived his life, right?

LEAMER: Right.

WHITFIELD: All right, Lawrence Leamer, thank you so much for joining us from Palm Beach, Florida. The author of "King of the Night," a biography about Johnny Carson. Thanks for sharing your memories...

LEAMER: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: ...about the late Johnny Carson died at the age of 79. And on "Larry King," tonight, "Larry King Live," a look back at relationship between Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon in the best of Ed McMahon, and that's at 9:00 Eastern.

We're going to continue our coverage on a look at the life and legacy of the late Johnny Carson when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: Hello again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield. More now on the late Johnny Carson who passed away earlier today at the age of 79 of emphysema. His family has released a statement. It comes from Jeff Sotzing, Johnny Carson's nephew and it says, "Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning. He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service."

Which comes to no surprise from a lot of people who know him saying he lived his life, Johnny Carson did, as a very private man. And it's to no surprise that he would not want a whole lot of fan fare now on his passing. Carson took a lot of pride in helping along young talent and bringing along other comedians, and we've been joined all afternoon by a number of folks who worked very closely with Johnny Carson on his show. The "Tonight Show." comedienne Jackie Mason joins us now on the telephone from Newport Richie, Florida, and you've got a chance to be on his show quite a bit. Jackie, give us an idea of what some of your fondest memories are of Johnny Carson.

JACKIE MASON, COMEDIAN (via telephone): My fondest memory of him was just his humanity, his quality as a character. This is not something that I am saying now because of how unfortunate the horrible story of him passing away. But I was one among hundreds who all said the same thing whenever they met him. The same thing they're saving now when he was alive, that he was the most it's sweetest, most charming man. He always looked to go out of his way as you said before to help other comedians. He was never competitive with other comedians. He just wanted to help people.

WHITFIELD: And how refreshing was that for you as a comedian to see that?

MASON: That was good not only refreshing but so rare in this business. Most of the time when you want to watch a talk show, you will see the host is competing with the guests. He's always afraid of being topped, as the expression in show business among comedians. For you too funny, and they forget their role as a talk show host to bring out the power, the glory, the character, the personality of the other person.

WHITFIELD: So describe what that was like when you got an invitation to be on his show? Did you feel like, great, I know it'll be like experiencing --

MASON: Your exactly right. Everybody in show business mean to be on his show, because not only was his show so powerful in terms of the influence, but you knew you would do better on his show than any other show because he had this exceptional extreme sensitivity with the personality of his guests and he used every mechanism to make you shine.

To make you into a star. And all of a sudden, you looked ten times as good on his show than you looked on any other show because nobody else would manipulate the conversation to make you, the celebrity.

WHITFIELD: Did your relationship with Johnny Carson begin by being a guest on his show? Or did you get a chance to know him before?

MASON: No, I met them a couple of times here and there in New York before he became a major star and then I met him in California a couple times. We had a couple of lunches and a couple of dinners. I was so delighted that he was a fantastic fan of mine. When my show opened on Broadway. On the very opening night he came as a guest three, four times to see the show. Always sent me a touching note about how much he loved my work and I was very touched by his warmth, the way he extended to make you feel like there was no more loyal friend or bigger fan.

WHITFIELD: So you said he was very generous while on his show. But what was it all like when you went out to lunch, two funny guys out to lunch. How competitive perhaps did it become? Who can be the funniest at lunch? Or what else do you talk about that's not funny stuff?

MASON: You know they say that about comedian, they're always trying to be funny. He was funny without trying. He never tried to be funny. He never felt he had to prove anything about his talent. He was so secure and comfortable about himself that he never had any of that nervous intense fearful energy that comes from people every time they prove to yourself when they say hello to you.

He was always inquisitive about you and happy to hear you be funny and he was the best audience for comedians that probably ever lived. When you see a comedian on the stage, if you watch the comedians off of the stage, watching the comedian, all you see is people analyzing. They look like psychiatrists. Because they feel a competitive problem about why the guys are getting so many laughs and what right does he have to be that funny? It disturbs them or get nauseous a little because they're all frightened of somebody else having more talent or more humor but he was just the opposite. He laughs like he was a tourist from Arizona.

WHITFIELD: You describe him as a nice guy. Others that we have talked to have described him as a real gentleman. Was there ever a moment where you felt like people were intimidated by him?

MASON: I am sure people were intimidated by him. You can't help feeling like that when you talk to the guy who is the king who is the business. The average person who is not that the secure that they feel not to have the right to be in his company. Just like people feel intimidated when you meet the president of the United States. Even if you disagree with him, you don't like him, but when you are confronted by him, you can't help getting nervous by the immensity of the (INAUDIBLE) and all struck by his position. And people always got to look a little nervous to me when they were talking to him but the nervousness never lasted more than the second.

Because he was so congenial and comfortable, you never felt that he was more important than you because (INAUDIBLE) in second by just being so humble about and he was always catering to you. He always loved to cater to people. He made more stars with his show probably than anybody in the whole history show business, because he loved making somebody else into a star.

Joan Rivers, she was on the show. He would be telling you how he made her a star. Johnny Carson made people like Buddy Hackett into a much bigger that are than he ever was before and every time I was on his show and it help me tremendously because the national (INAUDIBLE) was about my performance on the show. And it is all because he said you would sway and how you try to approach the subject, where your comedy lies and he would do everything possible to bring you up and to move into the direction that would make you shine as much as possible.

Love make you a hit. You would never know he was a comedian. He was just asking questions, making faces and make you look like a sensation.

WHITFIELD: What a generous man. Can you think of anybody else who perhaps would sink so much more energy into helping others come along? Helping others find celebrity like he did?

MASON: I don't find anybody except maybe Mother Teresa. It would take a boat or the rabbi of Israel or Mother Theresa to be that generous in trying to help others. He loved just helping people and the ironic thing is that when he was alone at a party or a crowd off the stage, he was the most shyest guy in the world. He once told me on one of my CBS shows that I did during the break, to did a commercial, he confided in me that he still doesn't know why but he is uncomfortable when he's at a private party and he has to talk to strangers.

You would never know and the same guy. You would think it is a Jekyl and Hyde personality. All of a sudden he's a natural personality of the greatest of all time and as soon as the light goes out, he has to be himself, he was like a nervous person sweating without knowing why and couldn't talk to you without being uncomfortable. He would avoid public appearances and public places all of the time because he was never comfortable in any public atmosphere.

WHITFIELD: Knowing that he was still very involved in the entertainment industry, perhaps not as publicly as everyone was used to for the 30 years that he was in charge of the "Tonight Show," but now that he has passed away, what kind of void do you suppose there is in the entertainment world with his passing? MASON: Well, everybody's going to feel this void for years and years to come. Just like we still feel the void of Bob Hope's passing. Every time I talk to people, there are different memories we have of Bob Hope and we can't forget the immensity of his talent and the charm of his personality. And he was the only guy besides Bob Hope whoever achieved that phenomenal degree of popularity in this country, and he'll be an institution to be remembered as long as Bob Hope is remembered and Will Rogers, there are only three, four, five people in all of the generations that ever achieved this kind of level of popularity.

WHITFIELD: With his passing, Johnny Carson's passing, do you see anyone else out there who can really hold a candle to the kind of success that he garnered as an entertainer, as a comedian, as an all- around likable, funny, entertaining guy?

MASON: Well there, are some wonderful likable sensational performers right now. I don't put them in the same class as Johnny Carson because he was in a class by himself but there are some brilliantly funny comedians now and there is no doubts of talent in the comedy world, because more people are becoming comedians than ever before. Up to 15, 20 years ago, everybody was starting to be a lawyer, or doctor. Now we have, after they graduate, to become doctors and lawyer business they all go into comedy clubs and become comedians.

So it is thousands of comedians that when he started out and he became a star, there was only a few -- a couple of hundred and now are there hundreds and thousands. You see more comedians than you see plumbers or deejays. Every second I, go I meat a comedian. Every third black guy is a comedian. Every fourth Puerto Rican is a comedian. They all have comedy clubs in every city now and everybody in every denomination is now becoming a comedian.

WHITFIELD: Describe this huge field of talent. If you were to put a finger on what's missing in this huge field of talent, what would that be?

MASON: Well, I think this kind of congeniality and ease and sweetness and softness, most people get involved in the competitive nature in this kind of business and there is a turbulent intensity in most people. That was always liking in him. He had that relaxed, joyous comfortable attitude. Like he was an observer of the business instead of being a competitor.

He was just enjoying the view and the style and the character of the situation and just never felt threatened or disturbed by anybody. And that's very hard to find in this kind of a business that depends so much on ego mania.

WHITFIELD: Comedian Jackie Mason, thank you so much for helping us to remember the late Johnny Carson.

MSON: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Thank you for joining us from Newport Richie, Florida, on the telephone. Johnny Carson dead at the age of 79 this morning, passing away, according to his family members of emphysema.

And later on this evening at 9:00 Eastern Time, "Larry King Live" and the best of Ed McMahon. You of course recall Ed McMahon being the long time sidekick of the late Johnny Carson. We'll have more right after this.


WHITFIELD: Johnny Carson on his final farewell on the "Tonight Show" back in 1992. Today on his passing at the age of 79, he is remembered as the "Tonight Show" host of 30 years. A real gentleman and a generous man at that, who is a real advocate for other talents and bringing along other talents throughout the business.

Earlier I talked to a frequent sub-host of the "Tonight Show," Joan Rivers, the comedian, and this is what she had to say about her memories of the late Johnny Carson.


JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIAN: He was a very private man. And I don't think anybody would have given privy to that outside of his family how ill he was.

WHITFIELD: Well, give me an idea what was it like to work with him, to know him as a friend, as a colleague?

RIVERS: Well, nobody knew him. He was very private. Truly, I was on the show for 17 years, and he was brilliant when the lights were on. And when the lights would go off he would become very quiet. The best straight man in the business. Nobody in the world like him. Nobody knew when the comedy was coming and let you do it. He was absolutely best to ever work with.

WHITFIELD: Well, what an incredible career, he had starting a show business career as a teenaged magician and ventriloquist before eventually serving in the navy during World War II. But was this his dream to be a host of a television kind of variety show?

RIVERS: I don't think anybody knows in our business where you're going. He was a young man, a comedian. It's like Seinfeld didn't know he would end where he ended up and Johnny went from a day time host, very charming, I think it was who do you trust into the "Tonight Show" and just took off. And such likeability there and smart, and as I said, a brilliant comic mind, comedic mind.

WHITFIELD: You said he was shy, a little bit too yourself. Did you feel like he was almost embarrassed at times about the kind of success that he garnered by being a comedian and being a talk show host?

RIVERS: Oh, not at all. I think he was very smart. And he deserved what he got and he lived well and had a very good life. But it was a very private person. Loved tennis, loved to go to Wimbledon. Had his own little circle. And again, so respected by everybody in the business. WHITFIELD: And at the same time, this seemed like a man who didn't have a problem sharing the spotlight, obviously with the side kick Ed McMahon and then bringing you along for 17 years as you say, working alongside with him in his show, and sometimes when he was there, and sometimes when he wasn't there explain to me the kind of generosity that Johnny Carson seemed to exhibit on so many levels.

RIVERS: You've got the wrong person darling, because he -- sorry, but he never forgave me for leaving the show. So it changed. But during our 17 years together which were wonderful years, and he was one who discovered me, and he was the one who said you're going to be a star the first night I worked, he was an amazing man. An amazing mentor. And then when I left the show to do my own show at Fox, he never forgave me and that made me terribly sad, we never spoke again.


RIVERS: I finally figured out years later I obviously hurt him more than a lot of other people who left the show to go on their own ways and that made me very sad because I adored him and as I said, nobody was like him.

WHITFIELD: So he took a lot of pride also in bringing other people up didn't he?


WHITFIELD: How did you see that? Other examples?

RIVERS: We all started on his show. I mean that was the era of Cosby -- Bill Cosby stared on his show and George Carlin started on his show and I started and David Brena, and Seinfeld and there is a whole group of us that came up first time ever out on the Carson show, and that was terrific. Jay Leno, Gary Shandly. I mean every solid comedian today, really just about started on the Carson show. Got their break on the Carson show.

WHITFIELD: How often in your career would you reflect on the kind of break that he gave you, and how much to credit him, you give for your career?

RIVERS: Everyday day. I mean, I still talk about it that he was the one. I was nowhere, seven years in the village, working at second city you know? And they put me on and he said on the air the first night you're going to be a star and your life changed. And that was due to him and truly, there was nobody that could feed your lines like he could.


RIVERS: Just amazing.

WHITFIELD: And as remarkable as it is to hear you describe how he gave why you a break and so many other comedians a break. At the same time I'm kind of still thinking about how sad it is that you lost contact with him after you left his show and how personally he seemed to take that. Over the years have, you tried to reflect on that or tried to reach out to him?

RIVERS: I did, when his son Ricky was killed in an automobile crash, I wrote him a note saying, I don't know why you're mad at me, what's going on, but this shouldn't happen to anybody, and I miss you and I love you. Because he had introduced me to my husband and I never heard back. I thought how sad is that that there are few and few us together that shares certain memories of the late '60s and in the '70s and that made me terribly sad and still has and I have always talked about it and still does. You don't want to see this end. It's truly the end of an era.

WHITFIELD: Yes, so what was it about him as you reflect now about Johnny Carson that there were something in his heart that made him want to reach out and help pull up so many other comedians and folks start out in the business and become great successes like the list of folks that you mentioned -- Bill Cosby George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld.

RIVERS: Well the "Late Show" is all about at that point it was about comedy and being a great show and he had a great eye for comics and they would bring up every great comic and he was smart enough to say, that one's good. He was very discerning. He was very smart at what he did.

WHITFIELD: Did he get to a point when he talked to other folks who were trying to break into the business perhaps, who felt like that's the entry. I want to get to know Johnny Carson because he seems to be able to identify those who haven't?

RIBERS: Well you didn't get to know him. Nobody got to know him but you wanted to get on the Carson show because that changed your life. Overnight. In those days, only maybe six stations you had a choice of. So if Carson liked you, you were set and that was so important and as I said, he got the bright comics. He was very smart. Picked the ones that were different and were smart.

WHITFIELD: Did you ever get a sense from anybody as to -- or from anyone as to whether anyone ever understood why he was such an enigma then?

RIVERS: Well, most comedians off stage are very quiet and very private. And you've got to remember he was a mid western boy. And he was a very good church-going boy, you know? And all of that is still in you. He's very much the man in the Grant Wood photographs over the painting rather. Farmer who stands there and he was very private. He was smart. He kept his private life totally to himself. And I have great respect for that. It wasn't blabbed all over the papers.

WHITFIELD: Does that kind of underscore where it was such a surprise even earlier this week when it was reported that he was writing for CBS, even though as you mentioned, he still had interest in CBS but for David Letterman in particular?

RIVERS: I just think that was wonderful. I just think because he was so smart. He must have gotten so damn bored, frankly. And all of this comedy challenge. How much can you look at a TV set and say I could do better than that? Sooner or later you have to say, I'm going to do better than that.

WHITFIELD: As you try to wrap up his legacy or try to encapsulate it in any way, how would you define the legacy of Johnny Carson?

RIVERS: Oh, I think he brought the "Tonight Show" into full flower. And nobody, nobody has stolen his shoes. It was a different time and a different era and he just -- he was amazing.


WHITFIELD: And that was comedienne Joan Rivers in a conversation a little bit earlier today. After 30 years as the host of the "Tonight Show," Johnny Carson has died at the age of 79. He died of emphysema this morning, according to family members. Carson succeeded Jack Parr as host back in 1962 before stepping down in 1992.

And we've been looking at some very emotional videotape throughout the afternoon of the serenades the long farewells of Johnny Carson back in 1992 and in his final shows, and just three years ago, however, Carson publicly announced that he had emphysema. And until recently, he was still writing in the business. We didn't see a lot of him publicly. But privately, he was still very much part of writing, comedic acts and jokes in particular for David Letterman and that was revealed just a few days ago and now we have learned that this very rich career has ended earlier this morning, after his long bout with emphysema at the age of 79, and listening to people who knew him, he was certainly a man with a very generous and giving heart as well.

We'll continue to reflect on Johnny Carson's legacy throughout the afternoon. And later on this evening, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on "Larry King Live," the best of Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson's long time side kick. And I am Fredricka Whitfield. We'll have more in a moment.



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