Johnny Carson, late-night TV legend, dies at 79
Sunday, January 23, 2005 Posted: 5:23 PM EST (2223 GMT)
An estimated 50 million people watched his final broadcast in 1992.
(CNN) -- Johnny Carson, host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" for nearly 30 years, died Sunday of emphysema.
"He passed away this morning," Carson's nephew, Jeffrey Sotzing, told CNN.
Carson, a longtime smoker, was 79 and had announced in 2002 that he was suffering from the disease.
Carson was host of the late-night talk show from October 1, 1962, to May 22, 1992, taking over from Jack Paar and handing off to Jay Leno.
"The Carson show changed your life," comedian Joan Rivers said. "If Carson liked you, you were set. He got the bright comics. He picked the ones who were different, who were smart."
Born John William Carson on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, he is survived by his fourth wife, Alexis, and sons Christopher and Cory from his first marriage, to Joan "Jody" Wolcott. Another son, Richard, died in a car accident in 1991.
Despite decades on television, Carson was never open publicly with the details of his personal life.
"Nobody knew him," said Rivers, who often substituted for Carson as a "Tonight Show" guest host. "He was very private."
Carson began his show business career as a teenage magician and ventriloquist before serving in the Navy during World War II.
After the Navy, he attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts degree.
While still in college, Carson took a job as an announcer with KFAB in Lincoln, Nebraska, and two years later moved to Los Angeles, California, where he took an announcer's job at KNXT-TV.
A year later, the boyish-looking budding comedian had his own show -- "Carson's Cellar" -- 15 minutes of poking fun at the news, on which Carson persuaded stars of the 1940s and 1950s to appear for free.
In the midst of the show's run, famed clown Red Skelton hired Carson as a writer -- and even put him on as host on live television when Skelton was injured during a rehearsal.
"The Johnny Carson Show" spent 39 weeks on CBS in 1955 and 1956, then he moved to New York, where he was host of ABC's quiz show "Who Do You Trust?" and met Ed McMahon, who became Carson's sidekick until Carson retired from "The Tonight Show" 35 years later.
Under Carson, "The Tonight Show" earned 42 Emmy nominations and won seven trophies. Carson picked up a Golden Globe nomination in 1975, three years after moving the show from New York to Hollywood.
Carson was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. An estimated 50 million people watched his final broadcast in 1992.
"And so it has come to this. I am one of the lucky people in the world. I found something that I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it," Carson said to close his final show. "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."
Carson's departure led to a bitter battle to replace him, between David Letterman, whose "Late Night with David Letterman" followed "The Tonight Show" on NBC's schedule, and frequent guest host Jay Leno. Leno won and remains the host; Letterman jumped to CBS, where he is host of "The Late Show."
President George H.W. Bush awarded Carson the Medal of Freedom on December 11, 1992, and the following year he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award.
"He was kindness personified," said Dr. Joyce Brothers, who said she appeared on Carson's show about 90 times.