With Bette Midler serenading him during his final night on air as the host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson could be seen shedding a rare tear. Some three decades after he took the helm of the program that has defined late night television, Mr. Carson would be bidding farewell, taking Doc and Ed with him.
For the charismatic blonde humorist who had given so many comedians their big break, leaving The Tonight Show meant leaving public life just about altogether. Through his thirteen-year retirement, Mr. Carson was rarely heard from and almost never seen. In fact, being revealed in the New York tabloids last week as an occasional ghostwriter for David Letterman was just about the peak of the great entertainer’s post-retirement exposure.
That was until yesterday, when news broke that Mr. Carson has quietly succumbed to emphysema, passing away at the age of 79.
And it is symbolic of his astounding career — one that spanned Academy Awards, war-time entertainment and his signature Tonight Show — that Mr. Carson’s death could instantly capture lead-story status despite his having gone relatively unheard from for well over a decade.
But trade lure is that such was the quintessential life of Mr. Carson — an outgoing star of unmatched proportion while the cameras were rolling, and a quiet, relatively shy chain smoker when America tolerated a commercial interruption. But seemingly omnipresent in both sides of the Tonight Show host was a heart that thrived on the stuff of good entertainment and that remained fiercely loyal.
David Letterman, Jackie Gleason and Joan Rivers were just some of the many stars who caught their break when Mr. Carson happily offered to share his stage. He fawned at the opportunity to help create careers for such promising talents. And to the grateful Mr. Letterman he would remain eternally loyal — apparently lending a helping hand through his final days on earth; to Ms. Rivers, who chose to rival Mr. Carson with a late night show of her own, a cold shoulder was rumored to be extended. Her career would never recover, as evidenced by her Golden Globes red carpet coverage last week being limited to the TV Guide channel.
But through it all, the people who Mr. Carson touched most were his viewers. It became fashionable to stay in on a Friday night, because surely no date was more suave than Johnny himself. And with the alarm clock set on Monday through Thursday, the troubles of a day ahead could take sabbatical until he wished America goodnight.
With Mr. Carson’s passing, a country of grateful viewers may now return the favor.