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Johnny Carson Dies

Aired January 23, 2005 - 17:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that was Johnny Carson bidding America good night one last time on his final show back in 1992.
Johnny Carson dead today at the age of 79. His family says he died of emphysema and the family states in a written statement, that they will not have a public memorial for the late Johnny Carson.

Many people are remembering the late talk show host in many different ways. In Hollywood, our Miguel Marquez is there. He's been talking to a number of people there who have so many fond memories of seeing Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW and he's been talking with them still. Miguel.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's easy to get the memories flowing here. We're in Hollywood at the farmers' market and just over the Hollywood hills behind us is Burbank, the famous Burbank studios where Mr. Carson did his show since 1972. He moved it from New York to Burbank in 1972.

The governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, just released a statement. Obviously he knew him as well. In part it reads, Johnny was a great friend and always showed me profound respect. He welcomed me on his show when no one knew who I was and helped promote the image of body building. Johnny was a tenant of mine for years and it was always a highlight when we'd see each other in the building. He brought out the best in people. Hollywood has lost one of its most esteemed pioneers, but he leaves a proud legacy that will inspire generations to come. CNN's Sibila Vargas took a life at Mr. Carson's life and his career.


ED McMAHON: Here's Johnny!

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 he always showed a great respect for the thing that made him a household name.

JOHNNY CARSON: I'm sticking up for television because I think it's a marvelous, marvelous medium and I'm optimistic about it. 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 23rd, 1925 in Corning, 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 graduating from the University of Nebraska, went on to work at Omaha radio stations.

His first televised show, CARSON SELLER (ph) debuted in 1952. It led to a job as a staff writer on Red Skelton's variety show. In 1954, Carson got his big break when Skelton was knocked unconscious an hour before air time and Carson was asked to step in. His natural ease in front of the camera led to 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 daytime game 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 Parr on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

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

DAVID LETTERMAN: I don't know of a person in comedy or 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 and come to New York or go to California to get into comedy or show business.

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

VARGAS: Carson did come into the homes of his 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 Joann (ph), and Joanna and 1987 to Alex Mass (ph). He had three children from his first marriage: Chris, Cory and Ricky. Ricky 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'd walk through that 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. He 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 always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.


MARQUEZ: That was CNN's Sibila Vargas on late night television's ultimate straight man. The Associated Press reports that Mr. Carson had, in his 30 years at THE TONIGHT SHOW, 20,000 guests. They calculated that out to a couch eight miles long. One person who watched Mr. Carson, maybe it's the best way to gauge the impact he had on everyone's life, Mark Newellman (ph), you live right down the street from where the show is taped or was taped and Jay Leno now does it. Your reaction to Mr. Carson's death?

MARK NEWELLMAN: Well, a little shocked. It just wonderful feeling, as always, for Johnny Carson. When you watched his show, I felt that -- see, he had -- you could feel that he had the respect of his peers and the people he interviewed, and therefore, he brought the best out of them. There were a lot of candid moments and when you were watching, and you were a buddy of Johnny's, anything went. If Don Rickles or Bob Hope walked in from back stage, that was a perk.

MARQUEZ: I was always amazed, even when his stuff bombed, that he could always still get a laugh. The guy was just - he was genius.

NEWELLMAN: He did. He bridged a lot of generations, and his own heroes, Groucho Marx that he would mention, W.C. Fields, he had a lot of great anecdotes, one of which I remember was when W.C. Fields was on set, he used to be known to pull from a flask that he kept there and when asked, he would always tell them, that's my pineapple juice. Well, one day they did a stunt on W.C. and filled his flask with booze, with real pineapple juice, rather, and he was known to say, "who's the dirty rotten so and so who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?" Johnny did it much better.

MARQUEZ: Your favorite shtick of Mr. Carson's?

NEWELLMAN: All of them. I can't think of any one.

MARQUEZ: Well, I did the favor of pulling a few of the Carnack the magnificents off the Internet tonight. One of them that I liked a lot was old wives tale.

NEWELLMAN: Old wives tale.

MARQUEZ: Which was of course the Ed McMahon thing, what do cannibals find hard to digest? And now all we need is a drum roll. Thank you very much. Very nice to meet you. Take care.

Johnny Carson, Mr. Newellman here worked in entertainment for many years and still works in entertainment and Carson certainly defined the entertainment world for a lot of people in this town and across the country. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: All right, Johnny Carson touching a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Miguel Marquez, thanks so much from Hollywood.

Not long ago a family statement was released. This by Jeff Sotzing (ph), Johnny Carson's nephew. It reads, 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.

Among those who have taken the time out to talk about their memories of Johnny Carson on the telephone with us now, Mickey Rooney. Mickey, thanks so much for joining us. Let's talk about your fondest memories of the late Johnny Carson and how this news came to you.

MICKEY ROONEY: Well, Fredricka, it was a sad thing to hear that my friend Johnny Carson had left us and of course, I don't think that there will ever be another one as great, that was as great as Johnny. He was exceptional.

WHITFIELD: For those who got a chance to know him, it really seems like it was a very special gift, because so many have described him as being such an incredibly private person, this very public persona, turning out to be a very shy, private person. How would you best describe him?

ROONEY: Yes, I would say that, that it's true. He was from Nebraska and I believe he went to the University of Nebraska and I'm sure everybody there was touched by it. But the fact is that I'm sure that nobody is ever going to be the equal of Johnny Carson.

WHITFIELD: In fact, he graduated from the University of Nebraska back in 1949, with a bachelor of arts degree.


WHITFIELD: He had a real, you know, hankering for being in show business, but I don't even think he knew that he would reach the heights that he did, that according to at least comedienne Joan Rivers, who said he never imagined he'd reach this kind of success, but clearly, there was something about him that was so magnetic. How do you explain it?

ROONEY: Well, he -- like it's been said, he let everyone be the star or the spokesman when we had them on. And I'll never forget, he was hosting the Academy Awards, and my wife was sitting in the front and I was rehearsing at the time and he had his arm around my wife, Jan, and he said, so you're going to marry Mickey. She said yes. Jan said yes and he said, well, can I give you a little advice? She said certainly, John what is it? And he said have separate bathrooms.

WHITFIELD: And that's the key to a lasting marriage, isn't it?

ROONEY: Well, it was the thing that John had said to my wife, Jan and we've never forgotten it.

WHITFIELD: Now, did you find that he was somebody who was difficult to get to know? How did your relationship start with him?

ROONEY: No, I mean, no one knew him except by going onto the show. He was a very private person. And once you were through with the show, you left and you never knew where he was going. He was like the phantom of the airwaves. But he was wonderful, in that he had a lot of friends. I mean, I don't know -- my wife Jan, and I, our hearts go out to his family. He was a great American. And when I was overseas, we had a chance to hear him on the radio, and it made a lot of difference to us.

WHITFIELD: So it almost seems rather fitting that his family would say there would be no memorial service for this very private man, right?

ROONEY: Right, exactly and everybody should honor that. And I think everybody should stay away. This is a very private moment for everybody.

WHITFIELD: How do you suppose his family will try to, you know, honor the legacy of Johnny Carson, obviously very differently than the public might want to do.

ROONEY: Well, he was a very -- you know, it's very tough. That's his family and his children who are going to miss, and as well as everybody else. There never will be another Johnny Carson.

WHITFIELD: Do you think a lot of the up and coming comedians now, you know, really take note of the kind of funny man that Johnny Carson was and you know, try to borrow a little bit from him as they try to craft their success?

ROONEY: Well, Jay Leno is doing a wonderful job, I think. But it's a very tough thing to follow anybody as great as Johnny. I mean, he was not just a late night host. He was a real person that everybody didn't want to miss. Jan and I watched him every night that we could, my wife, Jan and I.

WHITFIELD: When you learned that Johnny Carson was battling emphysema, the public learned about it --

ROONEY: I didn't know that.

WHITFIELD: Oh you didn't, OK. The public learned about it about three years ago. So this came as a great surprise to you even that his health was deteriorating?

ROONEY: Oh, yes, we were very stunned. My wife Jan and I were very stunned. I think like everybody, and Milton Berle he's had on. He's had Buddy Hackett. He's had Jane Fonda. He's had Henry Fonda. There wasn't anything, any time that somebody was in town that he didn't know, that he called and said, "can you come on?" You want us? He said, "Well I'll send a car." Of course, the comedians of today, like the great Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and everything else, they're wonderful, but this man was very special.

WHITFIELD: Was it just that informal that sometimes he would pick up the phone and say, hey, can you be on my show tonight?

ROOONEY: Yes, that's the way he was.

WHITFIELD: Really? ROONEY: That's right.

WHITFIELD: Describe what that was like.

ROONEY: (INAUDIBLE) was Steve Allen, you know, who was a comic genius and a wonderful person and we loved him, too.

WHITFIELD: And so it sounds like you feel really very privileged and honored to have gotten to know this man.

ROONEY: Oh, it was. It was a great honor, nobody like Johnny Carson.

WHITFIELD: It sounds like most people really loved Johnny Carson.

ROONEY: Yes again.

WHITFIELD: OK. Well, you are enlightening all of us then.

ROONEY: Well, Fredricka, we thank you and we hope that, you know, Johnny was a great American and I say God bless you, Johnny. Jan and I say God bless you and your family and God bless America.

WHITFIELD: Actor Mickey Rooney, thanks so much for taking the time to help us remember this late night talk show host and legend, Johnny Carson.

ROONEY: Good night.

WHITFIELD: Good night to you. And tomorrow night, an exclusive prime time interview with long time Johnny Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon on LARRY KING LIVE. And we'll be right back with more of our special coverage of the late Johnny Carson, dead at the age of 79.


WHITFIELD: Johnny Carson passing away earlier today. It was just this past week that we all learned that, while perhaps publicly we hadn't seen Johnny Carson very much, but apparently, very privately he was still creating entertainment in the form of writing jokes still, this time for CBS and for David Letterman. Well, tonight, we have a statement now from David Letterman on the passing of Johnny Carson. It reads: it's a sad day for his family and for the country. All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again. He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so, gave me a career. A night doesn't go by that I don't ask myself, what would Johnny have done? He has been greatly missed since his retirement. Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around. He was the best, a star and a gentleman. Those words from David Letterman over at CBS.

Well, Peter Lassally is a former executive producer of THE TONIGHT with Johnny Carson. He worked with Johnny Carson for more than 20 years, and earlier, I spoke with him on the phone from Malibu, and he talked about how the news struck him on the passing of Johnny Carson.

PETER LASSALLY, FMR EXEC PRODUCER, THE TONIGHT SHOW: This news struck me this morning, when I got a call from Jeff Satching (ph) and from Debby Vicars (ph), who is the current executive producer of THE TONIGHT SHOW and it just saddens me, as much as it saddens all Americans.

WHITFIELD: You knew, and the public knew that he been battling emphysema for a few years now, but did you have any inkling that his health had deteriorated this much?

LASSALLY: Yes, I knew that this week, he was having severe breathing problems.

WHITFIELD: And have you been in contact with his family? I know he lived a very private life, as many of his family members have, but have you had a chance to talk with any of his family members?

LASSALLY: I have not.

WHITFIELD: They are not going to have a memorial service. Some who know or knew Johnny Carson have said that that's very fitting of him, given that he lived a very private life. Does this come as much of a surprise to you, that there will be no public memorial ceremony?

LASSALLY: No, not at all, no. Johnny always had a very private life and always wanted it that way.

WHITFIELD: What was it about him that he led such a private life, when so many folks felt like they knew him so well because of the public persona that they saw displayed on television for 30 years, and here come to find out he was a bit of an enigma.

LASSALLY: Well, what the public didn't know is that Johnny was a very shy man, which is hard for them to understand, when he certainly didn't show that on the air. But in person, in real life, he was a very shy, private person, and always wanted it that way.

WHITFIELD: What was it like, working with him, the creative mind of a Johnny Carson?

LASSALLY: It was a wonderful experience. I worked for him and with him for 23 years, and we became very good friends after he retired and until the end and it was a wonderful experience working with him. He was a very kind, understanding, intelligent, witty man, who was interested in the world outside of show business and loved to talk about politics, and loved to read books, and he was just a very well-rounded, special person.

WHITFIELD: What was that decision-making process like, with you being involved with him, when he decided, after 30 years, I'm about to call it quits. Did the majority of his staff wonder, why are you leaving at a peak?

LASSALLY: No, that's, that was something that he felt very strongly about. He wanted to leave at the top of his career and we often talked many years that he didn't want to stay too long at the fair and he would say, don't let -- if you feel we've peaked and we're going down, I want to quit. I don't want to stay there too long. I don't want to make that mistake. And the other thing he did, which was such a classy thing, was when he retired, he really retired. He didn't want to go back on television. You know, he had all sorts of offers. NBC wanted him to do specials or anything he wanted to do, but he knew that once he retired, he just would quit and not make the mistake of coming back.

WHITFIELD: Were you ever one of those who thought, oh, no, he'll definitely come back. He's just waiting for the right kind of offer?

LASSALLY: Yes, I was one of those. Because you know, when you're used to having a standing ovation at every day at 5:30 in the studio, it must be very hard when that's cut off. So I thought yeah, he might come back. But that was not what he wanted to do.

WHITFIELD: Did it seem though, then he really did kind of revel in the more private life after stepping away?

LASSALLY: Yes, because he -- unlike a lot of performers, he had a full private life in that he was, you know, interested in what was going on in the world, outside of show business.

WHITFIELD: And then come to find out, even this week, many of us have learned publicly that, while he may not have been publicly performing, he really did still in a private way have a hand in the entertainment industry, by writing jokes for David Letterman and CBS. Is that something that you already knew about or did you learn like the rest of us?

LASSALLY: No, I'm the one that revealed that, actually. Because there's so many questions about his health that I didn't want to talk about that. So I revealed that information, and yes, it gave him great pleasure, because he would pick up the paper in the morning and could think of a dozen jokes, and had no outlet for them, so I urged him to share them with America by letting Letterman do them.

WHITFIELD: He's being credited with helping to launch so many careers, like for comedians such as Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, who is the current THE TONIGHT SHOW host, Gary Shandling. Do you feel that this was kind of his way of carrying on that legacy of helping other talents, not that David Letterman needed any help, his career already established, but this was sort of a continuation of helping to uphold and see the success of some other talent?

LASSALLY: Well, he got great pleasure of the success of the people that started on THE TONIGHT SHOW. It meant a lot to him and it made him proud of how successful they all became.

WHITFIELD: And I've heard others describe that being so rare, particularly in Hollywood, that so many who are in the spot light are a lot more self-absorbed than he is.

LASSALLY: Absolutely. WHITFIELD: And that's what made him so unique.

LASSALLY: Yes, and that was done on a daily basis, in that he wanted the guests to shine, rather than for him to get a little joke in and get a laugh. His purpose always was to make the guest look good and that is not always true in this business.

WHITFIELD: So what do you see now in the void now with the loss of Johnny Carson, the void that there just may be in the entertainment or perhaps just the funny part of the entertainment industry, among the comedians?

LASSALLY: Well, I am sure that -- I mean, I talked to Gary Shandling this morning and he was just devastated and I know that all performers who got their chances with Johnny will all be devastated, because he meant so much to them. I mean, he was like a God to them, and their goal to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW was true of every comic in this country. And some of them made it and they will all be very, very sad today.

WHITFIELD: As you reflect on the 23 years that you worked with him as an executive producer for THE TONIGHT SHOW, do you ever think about how involved or, you know, embrace how involved Johnny Carson was in the night-to-night, you know, skits or shticks or conversations that he would have with invited guests?

LASSALLY: I don't understand the question. I'm sorry.

WHITFIELD: Can you describe how involved perhaps Johnny Carson was in the years that you worked with him, the 23 years that you worked with him as an executive producer for THE TONIGHT SHOW, how involved was he in crafting the night-to-night skits or interviews or conversations?

LASSALLY: He was very involved. He would, you know, he want background on all the guests and he was very careful in checking comedy material and if it was weak, he might go and do stump the band instead, but he was involved very closely every day.

WHITFIELD: Are most comedians or, you know, hosts of talk shows, late night shows like that? Or was that unique to Johnny Carson?

LASSALLY: No, I believe they are, I think that's very common. I think all hosts of late night shows are deeply involved in every part of it.

WHITFIELD: Even though the family of Johnny Carson has said they don't want to have a public memorial service, do you suspect that there might be something assembled among those in the entertainment industry, just to pay homage to Johnny Carson?

LASSALLY: It's -- I don't know how to answer that. I haven't even thought about it. But it's possible. I don't know. I know that Johnny, you know, is very private and probably doesn't want any public memorial, but I've not spoke within any members of the family, so it's hard for me to say. WHITFIELD: That was a conversation I had with Peter Lassally, who is the former executive producer of THE TONIGHT SHOW. And he worked with Johnny Carson for more than 20 years. He joined us from Malibu earlier today.

CNN's Larry King will have a special tribute to Johnny Carson tonight. He'll talk to some of Carson's closest friends and confidantes about the passing of the legendary entertainer. That airs at 9:00 Eastern, 6:00 Pacific, tonight. And then tomorrow night, Johnny Carson's long-time sidekick, Ed McMahon will speak in a prime time live exclusive with Larry King about the passing of his friend and fellow comedian. That's on Monday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00 Pacific and we'll have more of the memory of Johnny Carson right after this.



CARSON: Before we bring out Bob Sang (ph), what I saw today that I have not seen in about 25 years.

We have an anniversary show coming up on "The Tonight Show" on - what's the date, do you know?


CARSON: October 1. And we've been trying to find some of the early shows. And NBC, as I've said on the air before, did away with about the first 10 years of "The Tonight Show." The tapes are no longer around.

And somebody sent us the other day, a show from 1962, 13 weeks after we'd been on the air.


WHITFIELD: All afternoon we've been talking to people who remember working alongside Johnny Carson when he was "The Tonight Show" host.

Well, comedian Jackie Mason appeared on the show no less than eight times. And earlier I spoke with him on the phone about his memory of Johnny Carson and learning about the news of his passing today.


JACKIE MASON, COMEDIAN: My fondest memory of him was just his humanity, just his quality as a character.

This is not something that I am saying now, because, unfortunately, 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 saying now, they said when he was alive. That he was the most - the sweetest, most charming man, that 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 great. Not only refreshing, it was so rare in this business.

Most of the time when you want to watch a talk show, you'll see that the host is competing with the guests. He's always afraid of being topped. The fear of being topped is the expression in show business among comedians, that you have to always top the other guy.

So, they feel competitive if you're too funny. And they forget that their role as a talk show host is to really 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, oh, great, you know. I know it's going to be like experience ...

MASON: I know what - you're exactly right.

What they would - everybody in show business's main ambition was to be on his show. Because not only was his show so powerful in terms of its influence, but you knew that you would do better on his show than any other show, because he had this exceptional, extreme sensitivity to the personality of his guest.

And he knew - and he used every artful mechanism to make you shine, to draw you out, to make you into a star.

And all of a sudden you looked 10 times as good on his show as you looked on any other show, because nobody else could manipulate the conversation so effectively (ph) 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 get to know him before?

MASON: No. I had met him a couple of times here and there in New York before he became a major star. Then I met him in California a number of times. We had a couple of lunches, a couple of dinners.

And I was very flattered by the fact that he was such a fantastic fan of mine.

When my Broadway show started in L.A., on the very opening night he came. And he came with other guests three or four times more 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 and the way he extended himself to make you feel like there was no more loyal friend and there was no bigger fan.

WHITFIELD: So you said he was very generous while on his show. But what was it like when you all 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 did you talk about, but not funny stuff?

MASON: Well, you know that they say that about comedians, that they're always trying to be funny.


MASON: He was funny without trying. He never tried to be funny. He never felt like he had to prove anything about his talent.

He was so secure and comfortable with himself that he never had any of that nervous, intense, fearful energy that comes when people who have to prove themselves every time 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 a comedian that probably ever lived.

Every comic knew that the easiest guy to make laugh was Johnny Carson.

When you see a comedian on the stage, if you watch the comedians off the stage watching the comedian, all you see is people analyzing.

They look like psychiatrists analyzing the performer, because they feel a competitive problem about why the guy is getting so many laughs, and what right does he have to be that funny? And it either hurts them or disturbs them or get nauseous a little.

It's because they're all frightened of somebody else having more talent or more humor.

But he was just the opposite. He watched like he was a tourist from Arizona.

WHITFIELD: Oh. You describe him as a nice guy. Others we've 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'm sure people were intimidated by him. You can't help feeling intimidated when you're talking to the guy who's the king of the business.

And the average person is not that secure that they feel that they even have a right to be in his company. Just like people feel intimidated if you meet the president of the United States, even if you disagree with him, you don't like him, you can't stand him.

But then, if you're all of a sudden confronted with him, you can't help getting nervous by the immensity of his stardom. By the awes - that you're awestruck by his status and his position.

And people always got, looked a little nervous, to me, when they were talking to him. But the nervousness never lasted more than a second, because he was so congenial and comfortable.

You never felt that he was more important than you, because he disarmed you in a second by just being so humble about it. 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 of show business, because he loved making somebody else into a star.

You know, Joan Rivers, if she was on the show, she would be telling you about how he made her a star. Johnny Carson made people like Buddy Hackett into a much bigger star than he ever was before.

And every time I was on his show it helped me tremendously, because the national conversation the next day was all about my performance on his show.

And it's all because he said - the way he would sense when and how you're trying to approach a subject, where you comedy lies. And he would do everything possible to buoy you up and to move in the direction that would make you shine as much as possible.

WHITFIELD: What a ...

MASON: He loved making you a hit.

WHITFIELD: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MASON: But he worked with anybody. You would never know that he was a comedian. He was just asking questions, making faces that make you look like a sensation.

WHITFIELD: What a generous man. You know, 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 Theresa.

It would take the pope or the chief 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 - the shiest guy in the world.

He once told me at a break in one of his TV shows that I did, when I - as soon as the break came to do a commercial, he confided in me that he still doesn't know why, but he's still totally uncomfortable when he's at a private party and he has to talk to strangers.

You would never know it was the same guy. It was as if it was a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.

The light is shining, and all of a sudden he's a natural personality, the greatest of all time. And as soon as the light goes out and he has to be himself, he was like a nervous person, sweating without knowing why.

And he couldn't talk to you without being uncomfortable. He would avoid public appearances in public places all the time, because he was never comfortable in any public atmosphere.

WHITFIELD: Well, 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 used to go out with people and talk to people, there's different memories we always 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 who ever 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's only three, four or five people in all 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, likeable, funny, entertaining guy?

MASON: Well, there are some wonderful, likeable, sensational performers right now. I don't put them in the same class with Johnny Carson, because he was in a class by himself.

But there are some brilliantly funny comedians now. And there's no dearth of talent in the comedy world, because there are - more people are becoming comedians than ever before.

Up to 15, 20 years ago, everybody was studying to be an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor. Now, after they graduate to become doctors or lawyers, they all go into comedy clubs and become comedians.

So, there's thousands of comedians today. Whereas, when he started out and he became a star, there was only a couple of hundred. Now there's hundreds of thousands. You see more comedians than you see plumbers or teachers.

Every second Jew I meet is a comedian. Every third black guy is a comedian. Every fifth Puerto Rican is a comedian.

It's interdenominational, and it appeals to everybody as a way of life. They all have comedy clubs in every city now. And everybody in every denomination is now becoming a comedian.

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

MASON: Well, I think that this kind of congeniality and ease and sweetness and softness. Most people get involved in the competitive nature of this kind of business, and there is a turbulent intensity in most people.

That was always lacking 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 was - never felt threatened or disturbed by anybody.

And that's very hard to find in this kind of a business, which depends so much on egomania.

WHITFIELD: Comedian Jackie Mason.


WHITFIELD: That was comedian Jackie Mason remembering Johnny Carson earlier today.

Well, among those who serenaded a farewell to Johnny Carson back in 1992, when he was signing off of "The Tonight Show," Bette Midler. Remember that?

Well, it brought Johnny Carson to tears.

Well, tonight, a statement from Bette Midler. She writes, "Johnny Carson was the public face of American comedy for decades. But anyone who knew him well knew he was an intensely private and yet deeply generous man.

"So many of us who are working in show business today owe our careers to him. I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

"He had it all. A bit of a devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class."

That statement coming from Bette Midler.

And comedian and former daytime talk show host, Rosie O'Donnell, had this to say on the passing of Johnny Carson today.

"He was the definition of class and dignity."

Lots of fond memories being expressed all day about the late king of late night television. Johnny Carson passed away earlier today of emphysema. He was 79.

We'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: Remembering Johnny Carson tonight. He died of emphysema earlier today at the age of 79.

His family, in a statement released earlier today, said he was surrounded by his family.

All day we've been talking to people who worked alongside Johnny Carson or remember him in various ways. Remembering the man known as the king of late night television.

Comedian Joan Rivers - we spoke with her earlier today. And she said she owes her success to Johnny Carson.

And she says - along with comedians like Bill Cosby, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, as well, and even Jerry Seinfeld - she says she and all of them may owe a lot of their success to him for giving them some of their first breaks on his television show.

And comedian Jackie Mason also said that Carson was very generous, making sure that - he wanted to make sure that the guests on his show were as funny, if not sometimes funnier, than him.

And we also heard from one of the former executive producers of "The Tonight Show," who worked with him for 20 years, who said it was always a real treat working with Johnny Carson on the show, because he would personally be so involved in the content of the show on a nightly basis.

And later on tonight, we're going to see Larry King, is going to be reminiscing with some of the confidants and many of the people who have known Johnny Carson over the years, on LARRY KING tonight, beginning at 7:00 Eastern.

And then tomorrow, an exclusive, primetime conversation with longtime Johnny Carson sidekick, Ed McMahon. That's at 9:00 p.m. for an exclusive primetime interview.

We'll have more on the memories and the legacy of Johnny Carson right after this.


WHITFIELD: It was May in 1992, that the stars came out to say goodbye to Johnny Carson, as he was hanging it up as host of "The Tonight Show" after 30 years.

And it was singer Bette Midler who serenaded him perhaps for the last time on that show, bringing him to tears. Let's take a look.


BETTE MIDLER, SINGER: I can't believe it. The last guest. The last fool Mr. Carson will have to suffer gladly.

You are the wind beneath my wings. Well, he is.


MIDLER (SINGING): Quarter to three. There's no one in the place except you and me. So, set 'em 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 gentleman'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've had a lot of things to say. And when I'm gloomy, you always listen 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, long road.



WHITFIELD: That was in 1992. More farewells to the now late Johnny Carson throughout the evening here on CNN.

He lost his battle with emphysema earlier today. He was 79.

More coverage of the late Johnny Carson later here on CNN.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Have a good night.


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