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Johnny Carson, 79, Dies

Aired January 23, 2005 - 14:40   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. More on this breaking story.

After 30 years as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson has died. The 79-year-old died early this morning, according to family members, of emphysema.

Carson succeeded Jack Paar as the host of the late night back in 1962 before he finally stepped down back in 1992.

And someone who was a regular face on the late night show with Johnny Carson and sometimes when Johnny Carson wasn't there, was comedian Joan Rivers. She joins us on the telephone now from New York.

Joan, so glad you're able to be with us. Give us an idea of how you learned of the news?

JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIAN: Well, everybody started calling immediately because of my connection with the show. And I just walked in, and the phone was going off the hook.

WHITFIELD: And obviously, it was a few years ago, maybe three years ago when Johnny Carson announced publicly that he had emphysema, but still this comes as a great surprise for so many, particularly since it was just this week when he heard reportedly that he was still writing jokes, but this time for CBS, for David Letterman.

RIVERS: Well, he owned part of Letterman's show. So he was going to work, obviously, for fun. It would be something that he owned.

But he was a very private man, and I don't think anybody would have been given privy to that outside of his family, how ill he was.

WHITFIELD: Give me an idea of what it was like to work with him, to know him, as a friend, as a colleague.

RIVERS: Nobody knew him. He was very private. I mean, truly, I was on the show for 17 years, and he was brilliant when the lights were on, you know. And when the lights would go off, he would become very quiet.

The best straight man in the business. Nobody in the world like him. Nobody knew where the comedy was coming and let you do it. He was absolutely the best I've ever worked with.

WHITFIELD: Well, what an incredible career, you know, he had, starting show business career as a teenage magician and ventriloquist before eventually serving in the Navy during World War II.

But was this something that was his dream, to be a host of a television kind of variety show?

RIVERS: I don't think anybody knows in our business knows where you're going. He was a young man. He was a comedian. It's like Seinfeld didn't know he was going to end up where he ended up.

And Johnny went from a daytime host, very charming. I think it was "Who Do You Trust?" into "The Tonight Show" and just took off. And there was such likeability there and smart and, as I said, a brilliant comic mind, brilliant comedic mind.

WHITFIELD: You said he was very shy, sometimes, a little bit to himself. Did you feel like he was almost embarrassed, embarrassed at times about the kind of success that he garnered by being a comedian and being a talk show host?

RIVERS: Not at all. I think he was -- he was very smart, and he deserved what he got. And he lived well and had a very good life but was a very private person. Loved tennis, loved to go to Wimbledon, had his own little circle, again, so respected by everybody in the business.

WHITFIELD: And at the same time this seemed like a man who really didn't have a problem sharing the spotlight, obviously with his sidekick, Ed McMahon, and then bringing you along, for 17 years, as you say, working alongside him in his show, and sometimes when he was there, sometimes when he wasn't there.

Explain to me the kind of generosity that Johnny Carson seemed to exhibit on so many levels.

RIVERS: You've got the wrong person, darling, because he -- sorry, but he never forgave me for leaving the show, so it changed.

But during our 17 years together, which were wonderful years, and he was the one that discovered me and he was the one that said, "You're going to be a star" the first night I worked. He was an amazing man and an amazing mentor.

And then when I left the show to do my own show on FOX, he never forgave me, and that made me terribly sad. We never spoke again.

WHITFIELD: Oh, really?

RIVERS: And I finally figured out years later I obviously hurt him more than a lot of other people who left the show to on their own way. And that made me very sad, because I adored him and thought, as I said, nobody was like him.

WHITFIELD: So he took a lot of pride, also, in bringing other people up.

RIVERS: Oh, yes.

WHITFIELD: How did you see that? In examples?

RIVERS: In everybody, we all started on his show. I mean, that was the era of Cosby. Bill Cosby started on his show, and George Carlin started on his show. And I started and David Brenner and Seinfeld. I mean, there was a whole group of us that all came up, first time ever out on the Carson show. And that was terrific. And I mean, Jay Leno, Gary Shandling. I mean, every solid comedian today really just about started on the Carson show, got their break on the Carson show.

WHITFIELD: How often in your career would you reflect on the kind of break that he gave you and how much credit him -- you give to for your career?

RIVERS: Every day. I mean, I still talk about it, that he was the one. I was nowhere, seven years in the Village, working at Second City, you know, and he -- they put me on. And he said on the air the first night, "You're going to be a star" and your life changed. And that was due to him.

And truly, there was nobody that could feed you lines like he could. He was amazing.

WHITFIELD: And as remarkable as it is to hear you describe, you know, how he gave you a break and so many other comedians a break. At the same time, I'm kind of still thinking about how sad it is that you lost contact with him after you left his show and how personally he seemed to take that. Over the years have you, you know, tried to reflect on that or tried to reach out to him?

RIVERS: I did. When his son Ricky was killed in an automobile crash, I wrote him a note saying, "I don't know why you're mad at me or what's going on, but this shouldn't happen to anybody, and I miss you and I love you." He had introduced me to my husband Edgar. I never heard back.

And then I go, how sad is that that, you know, that there are fewer and fewer of us together that share certain memories of the late '60s and the '70s. And that made me terribly sad. And it still has. And still, I've always talked about it and still does. And to see him -- you don't want to see this end. It's truly the end of an era.

WHITFIELD: Yes. So what was it about him, as you reflect now, about Johnny Carson that there was something in his heart that made him want to reach out and help pull up so many other comedians. And, you know, folks start out in the business and become great successes like the list of folks you mentioned? Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld.

RIVERS: Well, the late show was all about, at that point, it was about comedy and being a great show. And he had a great eye for comics. And they would bring him every smart young comic. And he was smart enough to say, "That one's good." He was very discerning. He was very smart at what he did.

WHITFIELD: Did it get to a point when you talked to other folks who were trying to, you know, break into the business, perhaps, who felt like, you know, "That's the entree. I want to get to know Johnny Carson, because he seems to be able to identify those who have it"?

RIVERS: Well, you didn't get to know him. Nobody got to know him, but you wanted to get on the Carson show, because that changed your life overnight.

In those days, there were only maybe six stations you had a choice of. So if Carson liked you, you were set. And that was so important. And as I said, he got the bright comics. He was -- he was very smart to pick the ones that were different and were smart.

WHITFIELD: Did you ever get a sense from anybody as to -- or from anyone as to whether anyone understood why he was such an enigma then?

RIVERS: Well, you know, most comedians off stage are very quiet and very private. And you've got to remember he was a Midwestern boy, and he was a very good church-going boy, you know. And all of that is still in you.

He's very much the man in the Grant Wood photograph, the painting, rather the farmer, you know, that stands there. And he was very private. And he was smart. He kept his private life totally to himself. And I have great respect for that. It wasn't blabbed all over the papers.

WHITFIELD: And so does that kind of underscore why it was such a surprise, even earlier this week, when it was reported that he was writing for CBS, even though, as you mentioned, he still had interest in CBS, but for David Letterman in particular?

RIVERS: I just think that was wonderful. I just think he was so smart. He must have gotten so damn bored, frankly. And all this comedy talent. I mean, how much can you look at a TV set and say, "I can do better than that. I can do better than that." Sooner or later you've got to say, "I'm going to do better than that."

WHITFIELD: So as you try to wrap up, you know, his legacy or try to encapsulate it in any way, how would you define the legacy of Johnny Carson?

RIVERS: I think he brought "The Tonight Show" into full flower, and nobody -- nobody has filled his shoes. It was a different time and it was a different era, and he just -- he was amazing.

WHITFIELD: Well, Joan Rivers, thanks so much for taking the time to reflect and think about your good friend and former colleague, the late Johnny Carson, now dead at the age of 79. Thanks for joining us from New York.

RIVERS: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: It's most appreciated.

RIVERS: Bye-bye.

WHITFIELD: And if you were, perhaps, one of the 50 million television viewers who watched that last late night show with Johnny Carson back in May 22, 1992, perhaps you recall this most memorable moment when he was being serenaded by singer Bette Midler.



BETTE MIDLER, ENTERTAINER: I was so fatootsed (ph), I was so freaked out that I wasn't going to get everything out that I wanted to say to Mr. Carson on this most auspicious occasion, that I sat down the other day and I tried to make some coherent sense of my thoughts. Because this is important to me, and I have a lot to say. And I know that most women in America wish they had this opportunity to tell you how they feel about you, so I wrote a little letter.

And I -- would you mind dreadfully if I sang it to you?

CARSON: I think it would be very nice.

MIDLER: OK. They think I don't have it written. It is written.

(singing) Dear Mr. Carson I am writing this to you, and I hope that you will read it so you'll know my heart goes pitter-patter, and I stutter and I stammer every time I see you on your TV show.

I guess I'm just another fan of yours, and I thought I'd write and tell you so.

(talking) I thought that was pretty sweet, guys.

(singing) You made me watch you.

I didn't want to do it. Jack Paar had put me through it.

You made me watch you. I love the jokes you're flogging when you are monologueing.

I watched your hair turn slowly from dark to white. And when I can't sleep, I count your wives at night.

(talking) Love you, babe.

(singing) I'd drop my drawers for the kind of bucks you're making, for steaks for double taking (ph).

Before you bid adieu: don't be cheap, put the cord (ph) asleep.

The thought of you leaving me gives me the shivers. Arsenio is at the gate, and so is Joan Rivers. You know they made me watch you.

(talking) Mr. Carson, I don't want to bother you. It's just that when I heard you were leaving, well, it kind of broke my heart. I mean, I can't tell you how many nights I've laid in bed watching you, thinking to myself, should I change the color of my toenail polish?

You know, Johnny, I've got to tell you, you're the greatest straight man that ever walked the earth, and I've known my share of straight men.

I've got to ask you, though, Johnny, what are you going to do with all that free time? I mean, Wimbledon only comes only one week a year.

And did you ever really stop to consider what would become of Ed? Not to mention Doc and the band.

Well, maybe I'm just being selfish, because after all, my life is going to change the most. I mean, how am I going to get by without you, you sexy thing? Your charm, your wit, your talent, your civility and all your fabulous, fabulous guests.

(singing) How I'll miss the social intercourse so varied. Now I have to have it with the guy I married.

You know I'd rather watch you!

ROBIN WILLIAMS, COMEDIAN: Give it up, people! Get up, people! Get up! Take it in, honey, take it in! Take it in! Give it up, people! Give it up! Take it in! Take it in!

CARSON: Oh, my God! I booked -- I think I booked "Ozzie and Harriet: The Twilight Zone" tonight. That is marvelous.

MIDLER: Well, it's what you deserve. Actually, there's more. Actually, it's -- no. I'll tell you, you are really getting out just at the right time. You really are.


WHITFIELD: Johnny Carson along with Bette Midler and Robin Williams there back in May of 1992 on his last late night show, after a 30-year run with the late night show. And then he would enjoy more than 10 years of retirement before learning from his family members this morning that he passed away at the age of 79 of emphysema.

We're continuing to follow the story of the late Johnny Carson and his life. We'll be right back, right after this.



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