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Johnny Carson

by Henry Bushkin

Hardcover, 294 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $28 |


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Johnny Carson
Henry Bushkin

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Book Summary

Johnny Carson is an account of the career and personal life of the "King of Late Night" at the height of his fame and influence, shared from the perspective of his lawyer, wingman, fixer and closest confidant.

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Excerpt: Johnny Carson

1979: The Star Among Stars

You would think that by now the questions would have stopped. After all, he went off the air in 1992, and he died in 2005—long enough ago for people to have lost their curiosity about Johnny Carson and to latch on to one of the many new stars, superstars, and pseudostars who have risen in the interim. But that really hasn't been the case. Indeed, in the years that he's been gone, Carson's status seems to have been reinforced. Talk-show stars have proliferated, but Johnny is now beyond a star: he is the Undisputed Champion, the Universal Standard. As talented and popular as all his putative successors might be, each of them is still doing a monologue about the day's events, still sitting at a desk making jokes with the band, still calling out tonight's first guest, still following in Carson's footsteps across a landscape that will be forever his.
People talk to me about Johnny because, sooner or later, it comes out that I worked for him for nearly two decades. I was his attorney, although that term hardly expresses all I did; more properly, I was his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dining companion, and foil. A good portion of my job entailed cleaning up his messes—business messes, personal messes, family messes. There are still a fair number of people around Los Angeles who had a business relationship with Carson that ended unhappily; they still love Johnny but hate that prick who was his attorney. Which was just the way Johnny wanted it. By any measure, this was the most complex and stimulating and challenging relationship of my life, the most rewarding and the most disappointing, the one that, a quarter century after its end, continues to provoke, irritate, delight, amuse, and sadden me. He and I were together longer than he was with three of his wives, and he and I were closer than he was with any of his friends, family, or professional colleagues. For all that, nothing shocked me more than the day, six years into our relationship, when I read a magazine article in which he said that I was his best friend. Friend? No, I don't think we were friends. The collar around my neck was usually quite loose and comfortable, but not always. There was never a question about who was in charge.
The question that people most frequently ask me is what was Johnny really like. They are usually happy to hear the first part of my answer: he was endlessly witty and enormously fun to be around. Their interest flags when I add that he could also be the nastiest son of a bitch on earth. The truth is that he was an incredibly complex man: one moment gracious, funny, and generous; and curt, aloof, and hard-hearted in the next. Never have I met a man possessed of a greater abundance of social gifts—intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor—and never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.
But to understand Johnny's complexity, one must first understand his artistry and the esteem in which he was held. This is not an easy thing to do. If we were to talk about a great movie actor, it would be simpler: his transformation into his character would be evident; the range of behavior he depicts would be obvious; the subtlety and nuance of the human experience that he illustrates would grab you by the throat. But what Johnny seemed to do was more commonplace. He came out and told a few jokes. He then kidded with Ed (McMahon) and Doc (Severinsen), played a game with the audience or performed in a ridiculous skit, and then made chitchat with celebrities. And it was the same thing every night. What was so damn special about that?
Perhaps I had begun to take him for granted, in the way New Yorkers can pass the Empire State Building every day without ever looking up. Then one night early in 1979, I recognized why Johnny was a star like no other. As it happened, I needed to be amidst a galaxy of stars in order to appreciate him.
By the start of 1979, I had been his lawyer for nearly one decade and had been watching him on television for almost two. I obviously knew he was a star—NBC paid him like a star, audiences applauded him like a star, and sponsors adored his stellar ratings—but I guess I had become used to him. It's true, I was more in awe of him when we first met in 1970, but that had a lot to do with the vast difference in our places in the world: I was a young attorney of no particular accomplishment, and he was the well-established host of the dominant program in the late-night time slot. But Johnny seldom played the star around me (whenever he called me, he'd begin every conversation by saying, "Hey, you got a minute?"), and we evolved a productive, low-key business relationship in which he always had the final say, but in which he almost always accepted my recommendations. We also had a personal relationship; we saw each other almost every day and commiserated about personal matters. I was privy to his finances, to the ups and downs of his marriages, to his concerns about his children, to all his interests and his moods, and I traveled with him every few weeks when he went on the road to play nightclubs. Maybe because I saw him at such close range, I lost sight of his immensity. But on that night in 1979—a night that fell about halfway through our long association, and one that followed many high points in our relationship—I finally experienced a moment in which I recognized his true stature.
And what's funny is that for most of the evening I was in no mood to appreciate anything good about Johnny.
"Where is he, Henry?" Ginny Mancini demanded when she greeted me at her door. "You told me he would be here by now."
And indeed I had, here being the beautiful Holmby Hills house of Ginny and Henry Mancini. It was an hour after the start time that appeared on the invitation celebrating yet another of the seemingly endless honors and awards Mancini had received during his peerless career (the most prominent of which, his twenty Grammys and three—at that point—Oscars displayed on shelves around a large-screen TV built into a wall unit in the den). Several hours before, Johnny had phoned Ginny to confirm that he'd be attending and to ask that I be allowed to join him. It was a somewhat odd request, this being a strictly A-list event, but every Hollywood hostess has at one time or another had to accommodate a guest with special needs far odder and potentially more explosive than the presence of his business lawyer.
Frankly, I was surprised Johnny wasn't there already. He'd been famous for his punctuality since his early days in radio (and undoubtedly before—it's impossible to imagine Ruth Carson tolerating tardiness in her son). To say Johnny was late was almost like saying Old Faithful was late; somebody should alert the media.
But late he was, and the clock ticked on. The white-jacketed waiters from Chasen's had long ago rolled out the chili and the hobo steak, and soon Ginny would have to call for dessert. Like most of the wives in her set, Ginny treated hostessing as something between an art and a sacred mission, and she approached it with a seriousness of purpose that would have made General Patton look like "The Dude" fromThe Big Lebowski. Ginny, moreover, had been in show business, singing with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and with Mel Tormé's Mel-Tones, where she had no doubt witnessed enough celebrity misbehavior to leave her little tolerance for any more. "You know, when he says he is going to come," she huffed, "he can't send you in his place."
"I quite agree," I murmured. Of course I agreed. How could I have disagreed? I was standing in the home of the great Henry Mancini, who happened to be sitting on the couch in front of me talking shop with Lalo Schifrin, the composer, most famously, of theMission: Impossible theme. (Throughout the evening, in what I assume to be Mancini's signature gag, whenever a new song would emanate from the speakers, he would lift his head and say, "What a great song! Did I write that one?") To their right was Jack Lemmon, straight off the set of The China Syndrome, sharing some story about Jane Fonda with his Odd Couple partner Walter Matthau, who was still dissecting how the Steelers topped the Cowboys in the Super Bowl a few weeks before, apparently costing him a sizable wager. Nearby was Gene Kelly, still lithe enough to look like he could do hisSingin' in the Rain routine on Ginny's new Provençal furniture, enthusing aboutXanadu, the musical he would soon appear in that would turn into such a bomb that Carlos the Jackal should have claimed credit for it. There were two Bonds on hand—the smooth incumbent, Roger Moore, who was shootingMoonraker, discussing European tax havens, and his charismatic predecessor, Sean Connery, who interrupted his sotto voce discussion with Michael Caine to ask a waiter to bring him a fresh Scotch. One Hollywood icon, Jimmy Stewart, had driven with his wife across town to attend the party, and now he was talking with another, Cary Grant, who had flown from London with his wife to be there. There were so many other guests—Tony Curtis, the composer Sammy Cahn, the director Richard Brooks, the producer Ray Stark, André Previn, George Shearing, Michel Legrand—talking about so many other topics, like the overthrow of the shah of Iran, Caine's new brasserie in London, Moore's impending vacation in the South of France, the flower arrangements that had been done by Fred Gibbons, whether The Deer Hunter was too intense to be nominated for an Oscar, and whether Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was ever going to take the Lakers to a championship.
My role—and it didn't have to be explained to me—was to stand back and smile and make small talk, although not much and only when spoken to. This was a Hollywood A-list party, and when Hollywood A-list celebrities go to a party, they expect to see the place full of other A-listers. If stars or studio heads or any other important show business personages find that they're sitting among a lot of nobodies, they get paranoid and begin to think that someone is trying to demote them. They don't mind a few unglamorous people like me because we usually listen well, but I didn't expect any of these people to chat me up (although Michael Caine, with whom Johnny and I had gone clubbing in London, genially tried to include me in conversations). But for at least some members of this group I was a functionary not much different from the waiters carrying trays around the living room—more useful if you needed a contract negotiated, less useful if you wanted another bacon-wrapped scallop.
And thus I was surprised to realize that so many of these people made it a point, when getting a drink or another canapé, to detour to my side of the room and quietly ask a variation of the question that had been posed by Ginny Mancini the minute she opened her door. "So where's Johnny?"
It was the only question some of them would have bothered to put to me, but what was fascinating was the eagerness with which they asked. "Where the hell is he, Henry?" "Is he still coming?" "He's not standing us up, is he?" A few of them, like Caine, had been out on the town with Carson. Some had seen him at benefits and similar occasions, and nearly all had been on the show. But none of them knew Johnny well. It struck me that most of them genuinely wanted him to come, were genuinely interested in meeting him, curious to see him up close, and hoping to get to know him better. You could see how Johnny's general aloofness from the Hollywood scene actually drew people to him, how his relative unavailability on the social circuit restored the mystique that his nightly presence on the tube corroded.
Virtually everyone in that room grasped the role scarcity played in maintaining celebrity; surely the performers did. They knew that they needed to keep hidden from public view until they were selling something. Then, when they had a new film or book or album to publicize, they would do the talk-show circuit, expose themselves to the crowd, and bare some part of their personality in the hope that this would help separate some portion of the audience from its money.
And that's when most of these people had met Carson, on the set of The Tonight Show, where they developed an incredible respect for what he did. Despite their enormous talents, none of these actors could do what Carson did. Lemmon could have played all of Matthau's characters and Matthau could have played Lemmon's, and Michael Caine could easily have been a Bond. That's what they did: they played characters, inhabited invented identities, brought to life a carefully constructed script. But Johnny took the stage just as himself, reliant mostly on his own native gifts. Night after night, he performed live to tape in a medium that permitted no rewrites if a line didn't work or no do overs if someone messed up. As the great director Billy Wilder toldThe New Yorker, "Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale," a circus term for a somersault performed on the high wire. "What's more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight." When guests like Stewart or Kelly or Lemmon came on The Tonight Show, they were naked—no lines, no characters, no costumes, no director—just themselves. Carson helped them by drawing out the qualities that made them seem interesting, glamorous, witty, and fun, frequently using self-deprecation to do this. He played the straight man to their jokester, the pupil to their master, the fan to their stardom. Only once or twice a year did they have to submit themselves to the talk-show grind, and even though most of them were veterans of multiple appearances, many still found it excruciating. (Some, like Rock Hudson, refused to appear on any talk shows at all, saying, "I can't order from a menu without two writers working up my lines.") But Johnny could just do it; and at that point in 1979, when he was hosting the program four nights a week for ninety minutes a night, he had been doing it for seventeen years, earning NBC $50 to $55 million per year. Perhaps only one other broadcaster in America could match that level of success, and just as Walter Cronkite set the gold standard for excellence and reliability in the news business, Carson's nightly exhibitions of wit, intelligence, grace, and sheer showmanship set that standard for entertainment. And on that night at the Mancinis, after hearing the eagerness and even tension in the voices of Hollywood's greatest luminaries as they asked for Carson, I saw the singular respect he'd earned among his peers. He was indeed a star among stars.
I told them all the truth: I didn't know why Johnny was late. But that didn't mean I didn't have a theory. Three weeks earlier, Johnny and his wife, Joanna, the beautiful, raven-haired, tempestuous third Mrs. Carson, had decided to split, and Johnny had packed his bags and moved out. This wasn't so unusual. He had walked out before, but what was different is that he usually checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel under my name or that of my loyal assistant, Carrie Becker. This time, however, he had me rent him a house, which Carsonologists like me took as a sign that the breach with Joanna was serious. You could tell the split was terribly distressing for Johnny; he was nastier and more abrupt than usual, and he had begun working jokes about marital strife and divorce into his monologues and comic bits. Earlier that week, in fact, he was rehearsing a skit in which he played Adam to Betty White's Eve. The preposterous sight of a nearly naked Johnny in a fig leaf and a thickly matted wig was very funny, but the stinging punch lines about withholding intimacy and the expense of alimony and the heartlessness of lawyers showed that this was a rare occasion when Johnny was just as interested in sending a message as getting a laugh.
But what was the message? Johnny wasn't head over heels in love with Joanna anymore, if he ever was. He probably loved Joanna as much as he could love anyone, but women had always come and gone in his world; I don't think he would have been too torn up if she had merely gone. What he hated was to have emotional turbulence invade his world, and this storm was huge. It forced him to react to someone, which he only felt comfortable doing at times and in ways that he chose. But now Joanna had forced him to react to her. It was all that I or his team at The Tonight Show could do to keep him calm and focused enough each day to do his show.
Suddenly it was a moot issue. That morning, almost as abruptly as they'd split, he and Joanna had decided to reconcile. As a public declaration of peace, they had decided that he would come to the Mancinis' party, with Joanna joining him as a happy surprise. This was surely a good thing, but the timing made me worried—it might have been better to give the Krazy Glue a little more time to set. "You know, feelings are still a little fragile," I advised him. "The possibility that the two of you might start up again at the party can't be dismissed." Just that fast, I realized that I should have kept my mouth shut.
"Well, Henry Kissinger," Johnny sneered, "why don't you come to the party in case you have to mediate a new treaty?"
Great, I thought to myself. He wants me there in case there's a mess that needs cleaning up. Now I had to go to a party where I really didn't belong in case I had to play a role I thought I had outgrown: Henry Bushkin, the quicker picker-upper.