Johnny Carson warts and all

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“If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.” – Johnny Carson

There were many amazing things about the late, iconic Johnny Carson, the host of the popular “Tonight Show” on NBC-TV for thirty years (1962 to 1992.) One was that despite smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, he lived to be 79-years-old! What?

The famous comedian, who was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925, of humble origins, but raised in Nebraska, died in Los Angeles, on January 23, 2005 – a multimillionaire. The cause of death – no surprise here –  was emphysema.

Carson’s attorney, Henry Bushkin, also a very close confidante of his for about three decades, said of the legend: “He was endlessly witty and enormously funny to be around and he could also be the nastiest son of a bitch on earth.”

Bushkin penned a tell-all book about Carson in 2014. It was titled simply: “Johnny Carson.” He described him as “a self-made Midwesterner – a habitual loner brought up to guard his emotional privacy.”

Ed McMahon, Carson’s longtime sidekick on the “Tonight Show,” and often a drinking partner, was quoted by Bushkin as saying of him: “He was comfortable in front of twenty million but just as uncomfortable in a gathering of twenty.”

Carson wasn’t NBC’s first choice to succeed Jack Parr, but after rejections from entertainment heavy hitters such as Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason and Joey Bishop, Bushkin explained, “Carson got the gig and debuted on October 1962.”

Sonny Werblin, a Hollywood wheeler-dealer, was one of Carson’s early managers. Bushkin quoted him as saying: “Jack Benny was the unhappiest man I have ever known. And, Carson was the second unhappiest man.” Werblin cautioned Bushkin about his client: “His mood can go up to down in milliseconds.”

Carson was married four times. He had three children with his first wife, Jody Morrill Walcott. She was his college sweetheart. Their marriage produced three sons: Chris, Rick and Cory. Sadly, Rick took to the booze early and died in a tragic automobile accident on June 21, 1991.

Two of his divorces with wife No. 2, Joanne Copeland; and wife No. 3, Joanna Holland, ended in very expensive settlements. His fourth wife, Alexis Maas, whom he married in 1987, outlived him. Bushkin underscored the obvious: “Carson wasn’t any good at marriage.”


Ensign John Carson” (Courtesy U.S. Navy)


During WWII, (1943-45), Carson saw service in the U.S. Navy as an Ensign, which he enjoyed and where he learned to perfect his magic tricks. Later, in 1949, he graduated from the U. of Nebraska (Lincoln) with a BA Degree. While he was in the Navy, Carson picked up a liking for the West Coast. He moved his show from New York to LA, in 1972.

When Carson got hooked up with Bushkin, in 1969, he was broke. A lot of people were taking advantage of him. Bushkin couldn’t help but notice how his “manager is screwing him and his agents are exploiting him.” His new attorney helped to turn all of that around so much so that by the time Carson died he left an estate estimated at $450 million.

One of the ongoing problems in Carson’s life was his mother – Ruth. Bushkin wrote that she was “impossible to impress and impossible to please. She took no pride in her son’s accomplishments.” When she died in 1989, Carson called Bushkin and barked: “The wicked witch is dead!” Carson didn’t attend the funeral. Bushkin is convinced: “She really did damage him. He was the child of an emotionally abusive mother.”

Everybody, I’m sure, recalls the 1980 murder of the Beatles’ John Lennon by that head case, Mark David Chapman. Well, it turned out that Carson was “second on his hit list.” There was a suggestion that “he hires a bodyguard.” Carson declined, but every time he was in his car, “he carried a gun.”

Along the way, Carson got interested in Las Vegas and especially the Aladdin Hotel. It turned out that the singer Wayne Newton prevailed in that bidding war. As a result, Carson started doing “lame, stupid Wayne Newton jokes.” Newton was pissed. He went to Burbank, CA, and charged into Carson’s office and shouted at him: the jokes will stop or “I will kick your ass.” The confrontation worked. The jokes stopped. Carson never did “work in Las Vegas again.”

One of Carson’s main outlets was tennis. On the court, however, Bushkin continued, “he had no sense of humor. He could become quite testy when he lost.” Bushkin was often his partner in team matches.

With respect to marriage No. 3 to Joanna Holland, Bushkin had strongly urged Carson to get a prenup. He refused. It turned out that divorce ended up costing him $35 million! So when it came to marriage No. 4 to Alexis, Carson confessed to Bushkin: “Look, I’m not going through this bullshit again. If I don’t get a prenup, put a .38 to my head and pull the damn trigger.”

Carson in 2005” (Courtesy Shane Beavers)
Carson in 2005 (Courtesy Shane Beavers)

When Fox posted a program, in 1986, opposite “The Tonight Show,” no one was surprised. But, when it turned out the host was going to be the comedian Joan Rivers, Carson tossed a hissy fit. He felt “blindsided and betrayed.” Not only did she get her first big break on his program, but she had guest-hosted the show “ninety-one times!” Rivers’ husband Edgar, who probably hatched the plot, was fired as his wife’s program producer and later committed suicide. Rivers’ show lasted only one season.

There is much more in this entertaining book on Carson. There are many women, who came in and out of his life on a regular basis. There are also details on his investments that brought him considerable wealth. There are his four marriages, too, along with his career’s countless emotional highs and lows.

In any event, Bushkin’s book captures Carson — Warts and All!

Top photo is a YouTube screenshot