His last show with guests (he had one more with highlights and reflections) featured Robin Williams and Bette Midler, and was rated the top TV show of the year by Time Magazine. Midler sang a tribute to Carson that brought tears to his eyes.
Once he retired, Carson did something rare in show business; he stayed retired. His only public appearance thereafter was a brief cameo in 1993 on “Late Night with David Letterman.” And that was only because he felt such a deep affection for Letterman, having been one of his mentors. It brought a 90-second standing ovation even though he didn’t say a word.
Carson died of emphysema in January of 2005. He always looked fit but never got over his addiction to smoking. His passing was felt by millions since he was such a part of the American landscape for so many years. It was like losing a member of the family.
I bring up Carson because the library just added a wonderful DVD to its collection, called “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.” It was produced by PBS and featured clips from his life and show, plus interviews with many of the heavyweights of show business, including Jerry Seinfeld, Letterman, Leno, O’Brien, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Doc Severinsen and Steve Martin. There are also interviews with his second wife, Joanne and several members of “The Tonight Show” staff.
One key person missing from the documentary is Ed McMahon, who died in 2009. McMahon was Carson’s longtime announcer, sidekick and close friend. He offers a lot of insights into Carson and “The Tonight Show” in his 1998 autobiography, “For Laughing Out Loud.” It’s a book I can highly recommend.
On the surface, Carson had the perfect Horatio Alger existence. He grew up on in the Midwest during the Depression, served in the Navy during World War II, went to college at the University of Nebraska, married his college sweetheart, had three sons, and eventually hit it big in television. But his life had its ups and downs like most people’s.