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December 19, 2013

Bushkin offers window into Carson's life

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — For most people Henry Bushkin is not a household name. Even many of those who have heard of him may not be aware of who he is. 

Bushkin was Johnny Carson’s lawyer and business manager for 18 years and the butt of many of his jokes during his monologues on The Tonight Show. Carson always referred to him as “Bombastic Bushkin” and enjoyed revealing the latest investment scheme his manager had conjured up. 

My favorite was getting Carson exclusive rights to Weight Watchers in Bangladesh.

Whatever jokes Carson made about him it was clear that the two were close. Bushkin was Carson’s “fix-it” man who was supposed to handle any problem that arose, from divorces to business contracts to making sure that public and private appearances went smoothly. Bushkin was even Carson’s tennis partner the entire time they worked together.

Bushkin was employed by Carson from 1970 to 1988. He was eventually fired for what Carson considered an act of disloyalty, imagined or not. In all the years since, Bushkin has been repeatedly asked what Carson was really like. He finally decided to write a book about their experiences together simply titled “Johnny Carson.”

When a relationship ends badly it’s natural to be a little suspicious of a retrospective biography. These “tell all” books tend to be a method of payback. It doesn’t appear so in this case because many of Bushkin’s recollections are quite praiseworthy and much of the negative stuff was already public knowledge. In fact, the biggest surprise was discovering the number of reputable celebrities that were either cheapskates or drunks.

Bushkin met Carson in the most unusual way when he was a young lawyer just starting out in practice. A mutual friend recommended him when Carson wanted a lawyer to accompany him and his buddies when they broke into his second wife’s apartment to find evidence that she was cheating on him. Never mind what she was even doing with a separate apartment or that he was also cheating on her, the importance of this escapade is that was how Bushkin and Carson met.

Carson often made decisions based on gut feeling and their first encounter made him believe he could trust Bushkin. That started their 18 year personal and business relationship. The only real friction was that Carson emphasized no matter how many clients Bushkin had he always came first. It crimped Bushkin’s style and damaged his marriage but who would want to give up being the agent to TV’s biggest celebrity?

On the plus side we learn that Carson is a natural-born comedian. He is flat-out funny. There were numerous occasions in the book where he would ad-lib lines in conversation that leave you laughing until you cry. This was especially true when he was irritated or felt double-crossed by someone. He was also generous to a fault. Money was never important to him and he never short-changed anyone with his tipping or gift-giving.

On the other hand he could be rude and belligerent and change moods at the drop of a hat. If he suspected you of disloyalty he would never speak to you again. He was also an unfaithful husband, a neglectful father, and had difficulty maintaining close relationships.

Much of his troubles can be attributed to his mother who sounded like a cross between the devil and Attila-the-Hun. She never showed him any love growing up and never had a word of praise despite all his success. He constantly tried to win her affection but to no avail. 

When she finally died all he could say was, “the Wicked Witch is dead.”

One issue that Bushkin addresses is the Joan Rivers episode where she figuratively stabbed Johnny Carson in the back by taking a talk show gig opposite him without asking him first. Carson discovered Rivers, promoted her act, and eventually gave her the job of permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. For her to turn around and repay his kindness with callous disregard was the ultimate act of disloyalty. When she eventually called Carson to apologize he hung up and never spoke to her again.

Bushkin himself was furious at the time and didn’t want to hear any explanation. In retrospect he wished he had listened to her reasoning because he could see how Rivers could have been in an awkward spot. Still, what she did was unforgivable.

As for Bushkin himself, it’s tough to know what to make of him. He clearly is a sharp lawyer and businessman and did a lot for Carson. But he sacrificed his marriage and his own moral compass to dedicate his life to Carson and his well-being. It’s easy to get caught up in all the perks of life in the fast lane and Bushkin experienced them all. Whether he’s a good person who got the shaft or ultimately took advantage of Carson is for the reader to decide.

For those of us that are part of the baby boomer or World War II generation Johnny Carson will always remain a cultural icon. For 30 years he was the king of late-night television and set the standard that the current crop of late-night talent tries to emulate. Carson was a friend to his millions of viewers and it’s only natural to want to find out more about him.

Between this memoir and the previous works I’ve written about, the PBS documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” and Ed McMahon’s heartfelt biography, “Here’s Johnny,” we have a pretty fair idea of what made Johnny Carson tick. He was basically a good guy with some personal failings that we’re willing to overlook. After all, he was a loyal friend to us for so many years.