Johnny Carson, host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” for nearly 30 years, died Sunday of emphysema.
“He passed away this morning,” Carson’s nephew, Jeffrey Sotzing, told CNN.
Carson, a longtime smoker, was 79 and had announced in 2002 that he was suffering from the disease.
Carson was host of the late-night talk show from October 1, 1962, to May 22, 1992, taking over from Jack Paar and handing off to Jay Leno after 4,531 episodes.
“It is a sad day for his family and for the country,” “Late Show” host David Letterman said in a statement Sunday. “He was the best — a star and a gentleman.”
Carson kept a low profile after leaving “The Tonight Show” in 1992.
“He has been greatly missed since his retirement” Letterman said. “Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around.”
Born John William Carson on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, he is survived by his fourth wife, Alexis, and sons Christopher and Cory from his first marriage, to Joan “Jody” Wolcott. Another son, Richard, died in a car accident in 1991.
Despite decades on television, Carson was never open publicly with the details of his personal life.
“Nobody got to know him,” said comedian Joan Rivers, who often substituted for Carson as a “Tonight Show” guest host. “He was very private.”
Carson began his show business career as a teenage magician and ventriloquist before serving in the Navy during World War II.
After the Navy, he attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts degree.
While still in college, Carson took a job as an announcer with KFAB in Lincoln, Nebraska, and two years later moved to Los Angeles, California, where he took an announcer’s job at KNXT-TV.
A year later, the boyish-looking budding comedian had his own show — “Carson’s Cellar” — 15 minutes of poking fun at the news, on which Carson persuaded stars of the 1940s and 1950s to appear for free.
In the midst of the show’s run, famed clown Red Skelton hired Carson as a writer — and even put him on as host on live television when Skelton was injured during a rehearsal.
“The Johnny Carson Show” spent 39 weeks on CBS in 1955 and 1956, then he moved to New York, where he was host of ABC’s quiz show “Who Do You Trust?” and met Ed McMahon, who became Carson’s sidekick until Carson retired from “The Tonight Show” 35 years later.
Under Carson, “The Tonight Show” earned 42 Emmy nominations and won seven trophies. Carson picked up a Golden Globe nomination in 1975, three years after moving the show from New York to Hollywood.
Carson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. An estimated 50 million people watched his final broadcast in 1992.
“And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it,” Carson said to close his final show. “I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”
President George H.W. Bush awarded Carson the Medal of Freedom on December 11, 1992, and the following year he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award.
Carson’s departure led to a bitter battle to replace him, between Letterman, whose “Late Night with David Letterman” followed “The Tonight Show” on NBC’s schedule, and frequent guest host Jay Leno. Leno won and remains the host; Letterman jumped to CBS, where he is host of “The Late Show.”
Who’s Who of top comedians
Carson is credited with boosting the careers of numerous young comedians.
“The Carson show changed your life,” Rivers said. “If Carson liked you, you were set. He got the bright comics. He picked the ones who were different, who were smart.”
The list of other Carson alumni reads like a Who’s Who of top comics — Bill Cosby, David Brenner, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin and Garry Shandling.
“He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so gave me a career,” Letterman said. “A night doesn’t go by that I don’t ask myself, ‘What would Johnny have done?'”
“All of us who came after are pretenders,” Letterman said. “We will not see the likes of him again.”
Rivers said she, too, owes her start — and her later introduction to the man who became her husband — to Carson.
“We all started on his show,” Rivers said. “Every solid comedian today really got their break on the Carson show.”
Carson had a special knack for putting people at ease, comedian Jackie Mason said.
“The nervousness never lasted more than a second because he was so congenial and comfortable,” Mason said. “He made more stars on his show, probably, than anybody in the whole history of show business.”
A guest’s ability to make the host laugh was the sign of a successful appearance, said Dr. Joyce Brothers, who appeared on Carson’s show about 90 times.
“If you made Johnny Carson laugh, the sun shone. It was such a triumph for you, and he was always, always kind,” Brothers said. “[He] 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.”
“He was kindness personified,” Brothers said.
Rivers called Carson “the best straight man in the business.”
“Nobody in the world was like him,” she said. “He was absolutely the best I’ve ever worked with.”
But Rivers said Carson never spoke to her again after she left to start her own late-night show — one of many challenges he fended off during his time on “The Tonight Show.”
And Carson worked hard to maintain his privacy, Brothers said.
“He had his own entrance onto the stage,” she said. “He had his own makeup room.
“You never spoke to him at all before the show. He didn’t want the guests to say something funny, and then feel that they were too embarrassed to say it on air.”
Peter Lassally, Carson’s executive producer for 23 years, took credit for Carson’s continuing to write jokes for Letterman until recently.
“It gave him great pleasure,” Lassally told CNN. “He’d 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.”