'Tonight Show' Announcer Ed McMahon Dies At 86

Ed McMahon died early Tuesday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was Johnny Carson's comedic partner on the Tonight Show for 30 years. A publicist said McMahon had a "multitude of health problems the last few months."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The TV personality who turned a simple introduction into a familiar catch phrase has died.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. ED McMAHON (TV Host): And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Johnny!

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: Ed McMahon was Johnny Carson's longtime sidekick on "The Tonight Show." He passed away early today at a hospital here in Los Angeles at the age of 86.

From the "Tonight Show" to ads for American Family Publishers sweepstakes, Ed McMahon was TV host, emcee, and charming huckster all in one.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Ed McMahon had a variety of odd jobs growing up. He called bingo games in traveling road shows with his dad. He sold vegetable slicers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. And he worked as a clown on "The Big Top" TV show. Ed McMahon was also a Marine Corps pilot in both World War II and Korea.

But it was as a foil to Johnny Carson that made him famous. In a 1998 interview with WAMU's Diane Rehm, Ed McMahon said that being Carson's loyal sidekick was one of the best jobs in show business.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. McMAHON: What a place to be, next to a guy as accomplished as he is. Here I am sitting next to him, doing counterpunching with him. You know, one-on-one, boom, boom. I love that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show")

Mr. McMAHON: Thursday.

Mr. JOHNNY CARSON (Entertainer): Tomorrow, Friday.

Mr. McMAHON: Friday.

Mr. CARSON: Who do we have tomorrow?

Mr. McMAHON: I don't know.

Mr. CARSON: Well, I…

Mr. McMAHON: I'm not going to be here. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARSON: Are you putting me on?

Mr. McMAHON: No, I'm off. I'm going to be out of town tomorrow. So…

Mr. CARSON: What do you mean you're going to be out of town?

Mr. McMAHON: I'm going to be…

Mr. CARSON: Tomorrow's Friday.

Mr. McMAHON: I know that, but I can take a day off once in a while. You certainly invented it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: In the 1980s and early '90s, Ed McMahon hosted "Star Search," the talent show that helped launch the careers of the comedian Sinbad and singer Christina Aguilera.

In recent years, Ed McMahon made headlines when he was about to lose his multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills home when he defaulted on his mortgage. Appearing on CNN's "Larry King Show," McMahon acknowledged spending more money than he made. But he did have a sense of humor about it.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. McMAHON: Here's money. With gold at an all-time high…

BLAIR: He and MC Hammer made an ad for cash4gold.com that ran during this year's Super Bowl.

(Soundbite of Cash4Gold ad)

MC HAMMER (Rapper): I can get cash for this gold medallion of me wearing a gold medallion.

Mr. McMAHON: This gold microphone.

MC HAMMER: My gold records.

Mr. McMAHON: My gold golf clubs.

MC HAMMER: My gold sledge hammer, baby.

Mr. McMAHON: Boom.

MC HAMMER: (Unintelligible)

Mr. McMAHON: My gold giraffe.

MC HAMMER: My gold pants.

Mr. McMAHON: My gold hip replacement.

BLAIR: It might not seem like the most honorable way to end a career that made Ed McMahon one of the most recognizable personalities on American television. But humility also seemed to be one of McMahon's traits. He said that on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson he tried to be like very good background music in a movie.

Mr. McMAHON: The great movies are the ones where you don't even know there's any background music at all. That's what I tried to be, the guy who was in when he was needed, but out of the way when he wasn't.

BLAIR: Which could also be said for a good salesman, which Ed McMahon always proudly considered himself. He once said, If I can hold it up and point to it, I can sell it.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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