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Johnny Carson (1925)

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  Summary  

John William "Johnny" Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was an American television host and comedian, known as host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 years (1962–1992). Carson received six Emmy Awards including the Governor Award and a 1985 Peabody Award; he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1987. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and received Kennedy Center Honors in 1993.

Although his show was already hugely successful by the end of the 1960s, it was during the 1970s that he became an American icon and the "best guest" in American homes up until his retirement in 1992. Carson adopted a casual, conversational approach with extensive interaction with guests, an approach pioneered by Arthur Godfrey and previous Tonight Show hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Late night hosts David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon have all cited Carson's influence on their late-night talk shows, which greatly resemble his in format and tone.

  Biography  

 early life and career
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925 to Homer "Kit" Lloyd Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Hook Carson. He grew up in the nearby towns of Avoca, Clarinda and Red Oak in southwest Iowa, before moving to Norfolk, Nebraska at the age of eight. At the age of 12 Carson found a book on magic at a friend's house and immediately purchased a mail-order magician's kit. He debuted as "The Great Carsoni" at 14 and was paid $3; many other performances at local picnics and country fairs followed.


Carson joined the U.S. Navy on June 8, 1943, received V-12 officer training at Columbia University and Millsaps College, and continued to perform magic.

Carson then attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where he joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, continued performing magic (now paid $25 per appearance), wrote a thesis on the structure of Jack Benny's comedy routines, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in radio and speech with a minor in physics in 1949.

He began his broadcasting career in 1950 at WOW radio and television in Omaha, Nebraska. Carson soon hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel's Nest. One of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would allegedly report on the political corruption they had seen. Carson supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local church dinners, attended by some of the same politicians and civic leaders that he had lampooned on the radio.

In 1951 Carson visited California and unsuccessfully sought work. The wife of one of the political figures he spoofed owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles and referred Carson to her brother, who was influential in the emerging television market in Southern California, and later that year Carson went to work at CBS-owned Los Angeles television station KNXT. He would later joke that he owed his success to the birds of Omaha. In 1953 comic Red Skelton — a fan of Carson's "cult success" low-budget sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar on KNXT — asked Carson to join his show as a writer. In 1954 Skelton during rehearsal accidentally knocked himself unconscious an hour before his live show began, and Carson successfully filled in for him. In 1955 Jack Benny invited Carson to appear on one of his programs, during the opening and closing segments. Carson imitated Benny and claimed that Benny had copied his gestures. Benny, however, predicted that Carson would have a successful career as a comedian.

Carson hosted several shows besides Carson's Cellar, including the game show Earn Your Vacation and the variety show The Johnny Carson Show (1955–1956). He was a regular panelist on the original To Tell the Truth until 1962. After the prime time The Johnny Carson Show failed, he moved to New York City to host Who Do You Trust? (1957–1962), formerly known as Do You Trust Your Wife?. In 1958 he appeared as a guest star in an episode entitled "Do You Trust Your Wife" on NBC's short-lived variety show, The Polly Bergen Show. It was on Who Do You Trust? that Carson met his future sidekick, Ed McMahon. Although he saw moving to daytime as hurting his career, Who Do You Trust? was a success. It was the first show where he could ad lib and interview guests, and because of Carson's on-camera wit, the show became "the hottest item on daytime television" during his five years there.
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 personal life
Despite his on-camera demeanor, Carson was very shy off-camera, avoided most large parties, and was referred to as "the most private public man who ever lived". Dick Cavett recalled that "I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable. I've hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did." George Axelrod said of Carson: "Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little-red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on earth."

He normally refused to discuss politics, social controversies, his childhood, or private life with interviewers, and offered the following list of prewritten answers to journalists who wanted to ask him questions:

  1. Yes, I did.
  2. Not a bit of truth in that rumor.
  3. Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday.
  4. I can do either, but I prefer the first.
  5. No. Kumquats.
  6. I can’t answer that question.
  7. Toads and tarantulas.
  8. Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands.
  9. As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet. I need much more practice.
  10. It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget.

 Politics
Carson opposed capital punishment, favored racial equality, and was against crimininalizing extramarital sex and pornography. He avoided explicitly mentioning his views on Tonight, however, saying "I hate to be pinned down" as that would "hurt me as an entertainer, which is what I am".

 Marriages
In 1948, Carson married Jody Wolcott. The marriage was volatile, with infidelities by both parties, finally ending in divorce. In 1963, Carson got a "quickie" Mexican divorce from Wolcott and married Joanne Copeland on August 17, 1963. After a protracted divorce in 1972, Copeland received nearly half a million dollars in cash and art, and $100,000 a year in alimony for life.

At the Carson Tonight Show 10th anniversary party on September 30, 1972, Carson announced that he and former model Joanna Holland had been secretly married that afternoon, shocking his friends and associates. Carson kidded that he had married three similarly named women to avoid "having to change the monogram on the towels." A similar joke was made by Bob Newhart during Carson's roast by Dean Martin. On March 8, 1983, Holland filed for divorce. Under California's community property laws, she was entitled to 50 percent of all the assets accumulated during the marriage, even though Carson earned virtually 100 percent of the couple's income. During this period he joked on The Tonight Show, "My producer, Freddie de Cordova, really gave me something I needed for Christmas. He gave me a gift certificate to the Law Offices of Jacoby & Meyers." The divorce case finally ended in 1985 with an 80-page settlement, Holland receiving $20 million in cash and property.

On June 20, 1987, Carson married Alexis Maas. The marriage lasted until his death in 2005.

 Children

Carson had three sons. Richard Carson, his son from his first marriage, died on June 21, 1991, when his car plunged down a steep embankment along a paved service road off Highway 1 near Cayucos, a small town north of San Luis Obispo, California. Apparently, Richard had been taking photographs when the accident occurred. On the first Tonight Show after Ricky's death, Carson gave a tribute in the final minutes of his show as samples of his son's photographic work were displayed with the music accompaniment of Riviera Paradise by blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. In addition, the final image &mdash; as well as some "More to Come" bumpers &mdash; of Carson's last show that aired May 22, 1992 featured a photo Richard had taken.

 Charity
In 1981, Carson created the John W. Carson Foundation, dedicated to supporting children, education and health services. The Foundation continues to support charitable causes.

In November 2004, Carson announced a $5.3 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theatre Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death., while a $1 million donation was announced on November 4, 2011, creating the "Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund".

Carson also donated to causes in his hometown of Norfolk, including the Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services, the Elkhorn Valley Museum, and the Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk Senior High School.

In August 2010, the charitable foundation created by Johnny Carson reported receiving $156 million from a personal trust established by the entertainer years prior to his January 2005 death. Carson's foundation was now by far the biggest of Hollywood charities.

 Other events
Carson, an amateur astronomer, was close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan, who often appeared on The Tonight Show. The unique way Sagan had of saying certain words, like "billions" of galaxies, would lead to Carson ribbing his friend, imitating his voice and saying "BILL-ions and BILL-ions", a phrase attributed to Sagan. Carson was the first person to contact Sagan's wife Ann Druyan with condolences when the scientist died in 1996. He owned several telescopes, including a Questar, considered at the time a top-of-the line telescope.

Carson was shown on a segment of 60 Minutes practicing at home on a drum set given to him by close friend Buddy Rich, who was the jazz musician with the most appearances on The Tonight Show. Writer Gore Vidal, another frequent Tonight Show guest and friend, writes about Carson's personality in his 2006 memoirs.

In 1982, Carson was found to be driving his DeLorean while under the influence of alcohol. He pled nolo contendere to a misdemeanor charge and given three years of probation. Carson was required to attend an alcohol program for drivers and was permitted to use his car only to drive to work and back.

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Whole or part of the information contained in this card come from the Wikipedia article "Johnny Carson", licensed under CC-BY-SA full list of contributors here.