Johnny Carson: 'King Of Late Night,' A Man Unknown

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962 - 1992 NBC) c. 1970's

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962 - 1992 NBC) c. 1970's NBC/Photofest hide caption

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Fifty years ago, Johnny Carson became the host of The Tonight Show. During his 30 years as host, he reached a nightly audience of 15 million people and became one of the most trusted and famous men in America.

But Carson was intensely private off-screen, and very few people — including members of his own family—really knew him. Documentary filmmaker Peter Jones wanted to try and change that. Once a year, for 15 years, Jones sent Carson a letter, begging him for permission to make a documentary on his life.

His appeals went unanswered until 2003, when he received a telephone call from Carson himself: "You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don't have anything more to say." Following Carson's death in 2005, Jones directed his letters to Johnny's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle's archives.

Finally, in 2010, Sotzing agreed to cooperate and the Carson Entertainment Group granted unprecedented access to Johnny's personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia and all existing episodes of The Tonight Show from 1962 until his retirement in 1992.

Speaking with weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, Jones says the simple reason he did the documentary was becayse he, "didn't want people to forget Johnny Carson."


Interview Highlights

On why Johnny Carson didn't want to cooperate:

"He did not want to cooperate. Over and over again he said, 'I'm going to let the Tonight Show speak for itself. All I wanna say is on that show, and I'm not going to talk to anybody about my life, thank you very much. I appreciate your letters and I enjoy the documentaries you've sent over the years, but I'm not going to do it.

Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson PBS hide caption

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"I think he had deep regrets especially about his personal life. He loved all the wives he was married to, there were four of them, and they genuinely loved him, too. But he had deep regrets that that did not work out because he had this problem with philandering. And also he deeply regretted his relationship to his three sons or, frankly, his lack of relationship with his three sons."

On why we didn't really know Johnny Carson:

"I think there was Johnny Carson that America saw and then there was John William Carson that he kept to himself. John ... was most content playing in the autumn leaves in Nebraska or playing solitaire or playing the drums. He was really content to just be with himself. Johnny Carson did not really exist anywhere else except in front of the camera. Privately, he was John William Carson.

On why he didn't interview all of his wives and children:

Joanne and Johnny Carson / Las Vegas rehearsal, 1967

Joanne and Johnny Carson / Las Vegas rehearsal, 1967 PBS hide caption

itoggle caption PBS

"I did talk off the record to two other wives, Joanna and Alex Carson. I did not talk to the boys. There was and remains a veil of secrecy surrounding Johnny Carson. They chose not to talk to me on the record. They felt they were honoring posthumously his wishes to not have them talk about anything regarding his personal life or even his career. They just felt Johnny never wanted them to speak publicly about anything, and they were honoring that."

On Carson and Joan Rivers:

"Joan Rivers broke Johnny's heart in a way I don't think even any of the failed marriages did because this was someone he genuinely appreciated as a funny person, but also really liked. He felt so betrayed and broken hearted when she called to tell him about her show well after he had found out about it.

"He found out about it, and when she called him, he hung up on her and famously never spoke to her again. And in the film for the first time she acknowledges, 'Perhaps I should have called him sooner.'"

What surprised Jones while making the film:

"What surprised me was how deeply private and circumspect Johnny Carson truly was. I thought that after having access to all this material, I would be able to pull the curtain a little bit further and see the man. We do to an extent, but what surprised me was how little we could find about his interior life. I think we find as much as anyone has to date, but what was remarkable to me was how protective he was of this impenetrable part of this persona. I hope we suggest clues, but I don't know if we really got him.

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