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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Johnny Carson Dies
Aired January 23, 2005 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNNY CARSON, FORMER HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": And I hope that when I find something that I want to do and I think you will like and come back that you'll be as gracious in inviting into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, ANCHOR: That was Johnny Carson bidding America goodnight one last time back on his final show back in 1992.
And we begin with the breaking news about the death of the late TV late night legend, a man who entered American homes every night for 30 years, bringing his sense of humor and his heartland charm. And we never seem to get tired of him. Johnny Carson, he died today of emphysema. He was 79.
Our Miguel Marquez is in Hollywood, California, with more on his career and the reaction to Carson's death -- Miguel.
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Fredricka, this is the sort of news that sort of bolts through a newsroom, especially here in Hollywood.
And it's hard to even begin to talk about Johnny Carson, because he was such an icon of television. The guy just knew how to make people laugh. And even when he didn't make people laugh, he always had that little wry look, that smile that he would put on and he would get sort of the secondary laugh out of his audience or out of his guests.
It was -- he came to define late-night television. And certainly here in Hollywood, many people made their careers based on him: Jay Leno obviously. David Letterman was very close to him and many, many comics throughout Hollywood, many of them responding today.
Ed McMahon of course at his side for so many years, said that he was like a brother to him and they hope that -- he hopes to make a statement, possibly in the days to come.
It was 1972 when Mr. Carson brought his show out here to California. And that -- that humor certainly ingrained itself into the American psyche. And people went to bed with him every single night. The guy was in everyone's bedrooms. Certainly, I guess I mean that a little ironically. He certainly was a Midwestern guy, as you mentioned, born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in Norfolk, Nebraska, went on to television for most of all his professional life.
His show was amazing in the sense that it covered everything. It could do politics, as well as movie stars obviously. The Associated Press reports that he had 22,000 guests on his show in the 30 years that it ran, that they calculated it out. That would be a couch of about eight miles long for all of those guests. He was famous for that couch and sort of set the stage for every other talk show since he had his show there.
This is a guy who defined late-night television. And our CNN entertainment correspondents, Sibila Vargas, took a look at his life and his career.
ED MCMAHON, FORMER ANNOUNCER, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Here's Johnny!
SIBILA VARGAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For three full decades he was the reigning king of late night. His cool and understated attitude and his impeccable comic timing entertained audiences of all ages through both the good and bad times.
Johnny Carson was a master at his craft, and he always showed a great respect for the thing that made him a household name.
CARSON: I'm sticking up for television, because I think it's a marvelous, marvelous median and I'm optimistic about it. Of course, as you probably know, an optimist in the entertainment business is an accordion player with a beeper.
VARGAS: Johnny Carson was born October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa. He moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, as a boy, where he bought his first mail order magic set and began his career as an entertainer.
He was known as the Great Carsoni and later performed in the Navy. And after graduating from the University of Nebraska, went on to work at Omaha radio stations.
His first televised show, "Carson Cellar," debuted in 1952 and led to a job as a staff writer on Red Skelton's variety show. In 1954, Carson got his big break when Skelton was knocked unconscious an hour before airtime and Carson was asked to step in. His natural ease in front of the camera led to a contract with CBS.
After a short stint as an M.C. of "Earn Your Vacation," Carson got his own half hour comedy show called "The Johnny Carson Show." Carson moved to ABC for the daytime game show, "Who Do You Trust?" where in '58 he was joined by his sidekick, Ed McMahon.
In that same year, he was asked to sit in for Jack Paar on "The Tonight Show."
BETTE MIDLER, ENTERTAINER (singing): I guess I'm just another fan of yours, and I thought I'd write and tell you so.
MCMAHON: I sit next to the quickest, the brightest, most well read, most entertaining, most brilliant man. If television was ever invented for somebody, it was invented for him.
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": I don't know a person in comedy or in television who didn't sort of grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model. And it was -- I think it's something everybody -- it's one of the reasons people leave home and come to New York or go to California to get into comedy or show business.
CARSON: I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all of these years and entertain you.
VARGAS: Carson did come into the homes of as many fans throughout years, but his constant need for privacy prevented the world from glimpsing into his home life.
He was married four times. First to Jody, then Joanne, and Joanna. And in 1987, to Alex Mass. He had three children from his first marriage: Chris, Cory, and Ricky. Ricky was tragically killed in 1991 in a car accident.
Though his personal life was often rocky, his career seemed to grow quickly and effortlessly.
CARSON: I could have never imagine I would walk through that curtain almost 5,000 times in 30 years.
MCMAHON: And now, ladies and gentlemen here's Johnny!
VARGAS: Carson may have hosted just under 5,00 episodes of "The Tonight Show," but he continued to pursued opportunities outside of late night.
He founded his own production company and created shows like "TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes." He hosted the Academy Awards five times and took home four Emmy award. He was also the recipient of the communications award and the Kennedy Center honor.
Perhaps more important than anything else to Carson was that he loved entertaining, as much as we loved being entertained by him.
CARSON: I am one of the lucky people in the world. I have found something I have always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.
MARQUEZ: This is a guy who could interview Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan and do it with that sense of realism and immediacy that is so hard to find in people on TV, as we are right now. I want to bring in somebody who grew up watching Johnny Carson, this guy is Steve Surla (ph). He is a native of Los Angeles. You're here at farmer's market, which is a big happening here every Sunday here in Hollywood.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.
MARQUEZ: Steve, your reaction just to the fact that Mr. Carson's dead?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was crushed. I mean, I loved Johnny. To me, the images that came to my mind were what a great ad-libber he was. I mean, he was the king of ad-libbing, you know.
And it also kind of brings in a sharper focus, some of the other talk show hosts that have surfaced over the years. And you start to compare them to Johnny, and nobody comes close, you know. Jay Leno is a comic and he's not an ad-libber, you know, as I'm sure he probably knows. And you know, Letterman is good a doing that kind of thing. But nobody can do it like -- like Johnny.
MARQUEZ: Yes. Was there one show or one sketch or one thing that you like more than anything else?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was one show that always brought to mind, that I watched when I was a kid that was the funniest show I've ever seen in my life.
Back in the old days, excuse me -- back in the old days, Johnny was -- had a show based in New York, you know, before he moved out to Hollywood. So whenever he would come out to Hollywood to do some shows, every you know, two weeks a year or so, it was a big deal. And all the guests would come out in tuxedos and everything.
One night when Dean Martin and -- would come out and George Goalbo (ph) was there and a couple other -- Bob Hope. And all of the time when George Goalbo (ph) had a drink in his hand and then while he was talking to Johnny, Dean would reach over and kept flicking his cigarette out in George's drink, you know. And the audience is dying, and then Johnny played off them beautifully.
MARQUEZ: Those were, of course, the days when they could smoke on television.
Mr. Carson did admit in 2002 that he had -- or said in 2002 that he had emphysema and he eventually died of that disease. A nephew of the family, a guy by the name of Jeff Sotzing, he released a statement today regarding Mr. Carson's death and it says, "Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning. He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable. There will be no memorial service."
So the master of television dead at 79 -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right, Miguel Marquez, thanks so much for that report. Well, television viewers and people who knew Johnny Carson personally are all mourning the loss of the late funny man. Peter Lasally was a former executive producer of "The Tonight Show." He joins us on the telephone from Malibu, California.
And thanks so much, Peter, for joining us. This news struck you how?
PETER LASALLY, FORMER EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": This news struck me this morning when I got a call from Jeff Sotzing. And from Debbie Vickers, who's the current executive producer of "The Tonight Show." And it just saddens me as much as it saddens all Americans.
WHITFIELD: You knew and the public knew that he had been battling emphysema for a few years now, but did you have any inkling that his health had deteriorated this much?
LASALLY: Yes. I knew that this week he was having severe breathing problems.
WHITFIELD: And have you been in contact with his family? I know he lived a very private life as many of his family members have, but have you had a chance talk with any of his family members?
LASALLY: I have not.
WHITFIELD: They are not going to have a memorial service. Some who know or knew Johnny Carson have said that that's very fitting of him given that he lived a very private life. Does this come as much a surprise to you that there will be no public memorial ceremony?
LASALLY: No, not at all. NO, Johnny had always a very private life and always wanted it that way.
WHITFIELD: What was it about him that he led such a private life when so many folks felt they like knew him so well because of the public persona that they saw displayed on television for 30 years and here to come to find out that he was a bit of an enigma?
LASALLY: Well, what the public didn't know is that Johnny was a very shy man, which is hard for them to understand when he certainly didn't show that on the air. But in person, in real life, he was a very shy, private person and always wanted it that way.
WHITFIELD: What was it like working with him? The creative mind of a Johnny Carson?
LASALLY: It was a wonderful experience. I worked for him and with him for 23 years. And we became very good friends after he retired and until the end. And it was a wonderful experience working with him.
He was a very kind, understanding intelligent, witty man who was interested in the world outside of show business and loved to talk about politics and loved to read books. And he was just a very well rounded special person.
WHITFIELD: What was that decision-making process like with you being involved with him when he decided, after 30 years, "I'm about to call quits"? Did the majority of his staff wonder, "Why are you leaving at a peak?"
LASALLY: No. That was something that he was -- felt very strongly about. He wanted to leave at the top of his career. And he -- we often talked for many years that we didn't want to stay too long at the fair.
And he would say, "Don't let -- you know, if you feel we're -- we've peaked and we're going down, I want to quit. I didn't want to stay there too long. I don't want to make that mistake."
And the other thing he did, which was such a classy thing was when he retired, he really retired. He didn't want to go back on television. You know, he had all sorts of offers. NBC wanted him to do specials or anything he wanted to do. But he knew that once he retired he just would quit and not make the mistake of coming back.
WHITFIELD: Were you ever one of those who thought, "Oh, no, he'll definitely come back? He's just waiting for the right kind of offer"?
LASALLY: Yes, I was one of those, because you know, when you're used to having a standing ovation every day at 5:30 in the studio, it must be very hard when that's cut off. So I thought, yes, he might come back. But that was not what he wanted to do.
WHITFIELD: Did it seem, though, then he really did kind of revel in the more private life after stepping away?
LASALLY: Yes, because he -- unlike a lot of performers, he had a full private life in that he was, you know, interested in what was going on in the world outside of show business.
WHITFIELD: And then come to find out even this week, many of us have learned publicly that, while he may not have been publicly performing, he really did still, in a private way, have a hand in the entertainment industry by writing jokes for David Letterman and CBS.
Is that something that you already knew about, or did you learn like the rest of us?
LASALLY: No, I'm the one that revealed that. Because there were so many questions about his health. I didn't want to talk about that, so I revealed that information.
And yes, it gave him great pleasure. Because he would pick up the paper in the morning and could think of a dozen jokes and had no outlet for them. So I urged him to share them with America, by letting Letterman do them.
WHITFIELD: He's being credited with helping to launch so many careers, like, for comedians such as Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, who is the current "Tonight Show" host, Gary Shandling.
Do you feel that this was kind of his way of carrying on that legacy of helping other talents, not that David Letterman needed any help, his career already established, but this was sort of a continuation of helping to, you know, uphold and see the success of some other talent?
LASALLY: Well, he got great pleasure of the success of the people that started on "The Tonight Show." It meant a lot to him and made him proud of how successful they all became.
WHITFIELD: And I've heard others describe that being so rare, particularly in Hollywood, that so many who are in the spotlight are a lot more self-absorbed than he is.
WHITFIELD: And that's what made him so unique.
LASALLY: Yes. And that was done on a daily basis, in that he wanted the guests to shine rather than for him to get a little joke in and get a laugh. His purpose always was to make the guest look good. And that is not always true in this business.
WHITFIELD: So what do you see now in the void now with the loss of Johnny Carson, the void that there just may be in the entertainment or perhaps just the funny part of the entertainment industry? Among the comedians?
LASALLY: Well, I am sure that -- I mean, I've talked to Gary Shandling this morning, and he was just devastated. And I know that all performers who got their chances with Johnny will all be devastated, because he meant so much to them. I mean, he was like a god to them, and their goal to be on "The Tonight Show," you know, was true of every comic this country. And some of them made it. And they will all be very, very sad today.
WHITFIELD: As you reflect on the 23 years that you worked with him as the -- an executive producer for "The Tonight Show," do you ever think about how involved or you know, embrace how involved Johnny Carson was in the night-to-night, you know, skits or schticks or conversations that he would have with invited guests?
LASALLY: I don't understand the question. I'm sorry.
WHITFIELD: Can you describe how involved, perhaps, Johnny Carson was in the years that you worked with him, the 23 years that you worked with him as an executive producer for "The Tonight Show."
WHITFIELD: How involved was he in crafting the night-to-night skits or interviews or conversations?
LASALLY: Oh, he was -- he was -- he was very involved. He would -- you know, he would want background on all the guests. And he was very careful in checking comedy material. And if it was weak, we might go and do Stump the Band instead. But he was involved very closely every day.
WHITFIELD: Are most comedians or hosts of talk show, late-night shows like that? Or was that unique to Johnny Carson?
LASALLY: No, I believe they're -- I think that's -- that's very common. I think all hosts of late-night shows are deeply involved in every part of it.
WHITFIELD: Even though the family of Johnny Carson has said they don't want to have a public memorial service, do you suspect that there might be something assembled among those in the entertainment industry, just to pay homage to Johnny Carson?
LASALLY: It's -- I don't know how to answer that. I haven't even thought about it. But it's possible. I don't know. I know that Johnny, you know, is very private and probably doesn't want any public memorial. But I've not spoken with any members of the family. So it's hard for me to say.
WHITFIELD: Peter Lasally, former executive producer of the "Tonight Show," having worked with Johnny Carson for some 23 years. Thanks so much for joining us for joining us on the telephone from Malibu, California.
LASALLY: Thank you, Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: Just a moment ago, we talked about how Johnny Carson may have not publicly still been involved in the entertainment industry, but privately, he was still very much a creator by writing some of the content for David Letterman of CBS.
And in fact week, we now have a statement from David Letterman on the passing of Johnny Carson, and it says, "It's a sad day for his family and for the country. All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again. He gave me a shot on his show and in doing so, gave me a career. A night doesn't go by that I don't ask myself, 'What would Johnny have done?' He has been greatly missed since his retirement. Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around. He was the best. A star and a gentleman."
Those words from David Letterman on now the late Johnny Carson. More on our coverage of the passing of Johnny Carson right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARSON: I saw today that I have not seen in about 25 years? We have an anniversary show coming up for "The Tonight Show" on -- what's the date, do you know? October 1. And we've been trying to find some of early shows.
(END VIDEO CLIP) WHITFIELD: Remembering an American icon, the king of late-night television, Johnny Carson. He died today of emphysema at the age of 79.
All afternoon we've been talking to people who knew him personally, recalling their fondest memories of the late Johnny Carson. And here's a clip of an interview earlier with Jackie Mason, a comedian who reflects on his fondest memories.
JACKIE MASON, COMEDIAN: My fondest memory of him was just his humanity, just his quality as a character. This is not something that I'm seeing now because of, you know, the horrible story of him passing away. But I was one among hundreds who all said the same thing whenever they met him.
The same thing they're saying now they said when he was alive, that he was the most sweetest, most charming man, that he always looked to go out of his way, as you said before, to help other comedians. He was never competitive with other comedians. Just wanted to help other people.
WHITFIELD: And how refreshing was that for you as a comedian, to see that?
MASON: That was good. Not only refreshing, it was so rare in this business. Most of the time when you wanted to watch a talk show, you'll see that the host is competing with the guests. He's always afraid of being topped. The fear of being topped as the expression in show business among comedians that they always have to top the other guy.
So they feel competitive if you're too funny, and they forget that their role as a talk show host is to really bring out the power, the glory, the character, the personality of the other person.
WHITFIELD: So describe what was -- what that was like when you got an invitation to be on his show. Did you feel like, "Oh great, you know, I know it's going to be, like, an experience of a lifetime (ph)"?
MASON: You're exactly right. What everybody in show business's dream ambition was to be on his show. Because not only was his show so powerful in terms of its influence, but you knew that you would do better on his show than any other show, because he had this exceptional, extreme sensitivity to the personality of his guests.
And he used every artful mechanism to make you shine, to draw you out and make you into a star. And all of a sudden you looked 10 times as good on his show than you looked on any other show, because nobody else would manipulate the conversation so effortlessly to make you the celebrity.
WHITFIELD: Did your relationship with Johnny Carson begin by being a guest on the show or did you get a chance to get to know him before?
MASON: No, I met hem a couple of times here and there in New York before he became a major star. Then I met him in California a number of times. We had a couple of lunches, a couple of dinners.
I was very flattered by the fact that he was such a fantastic fan of mine. When my Broadway show started in L.A., on the very opening night, he came. Then he came with other guests three or four times more to see the show. Always sent me a touching note about how much he loved my work.
And I was -- I was very touched by -- by his warmth and the way he extended myself to make you feel, to make you feel like there was no more loyal friend and there was no bigger fan.
WHITFIELD: So you said he was very generous while on his show? But what was it like when you all went out to lunch, two funny guys out to lunch? How competitive, perhaps, did it become? Who can be the funniest at lunch? Or what else did you talk about, if not funny stuff?
MASON: You know, they say about that about comedians, that they're always trying to be funny.
MASON: He was funny without trying. He never tried to be funny. Never felt like he had to prove anything about his talent. He was so secure and comfortable with himself that he never had any of that nervous, intense, fearful energy that comes from people who have to prove themselves every time they say hello to you.
He was always inquisitive about you and happy to hear you be funny, and he was the best audience for a comedian that probably ever lived. Every comic knew that the guy you needed to make laugh was Johnny Carson.
When -- when you see a comedian on the stage, if you watch the comedians off the stage watching the comedian, all you see is people analyzing. They look like psychiatrists, not performers. Because they feel a competitive problem about why the guy is getting so many laughs and what right does he have to be that funny? And it either hurts them or disturbs them or get nauseous a little, because they're all frightened of someone else having more talent or more humor.
But he was just opposite. He watched like he was a tourist from Arizona.
WHITFIELD: You describe him as a nice guy. Others we've talked to have described him as a real gentleman. Was there ever a moment where you felt like people were intimidated by him?
MASON: I'm sure people were intimidated by him. You can't help but feeling intimidated when you're talking to the guy who's the king of the business. And the average person is not that secure that they feel that they even have a right to be in his company. Just like people feel intimidated if you meet the president of the United States. Even if you disagree with him, you don't like him, you can't stand him. But if you're all of a sudden confronted with him, you can't help getting nervous by the immensity of his stardom. But you're awestruck by his status and his position.
And people always got to look a little nervous to me when they were talking to him, but the nervousness never lasted more than a second because he was so congenial and comfortable. You never felt that he was more important than you, because he disarmed you in a second by just being so humble about it. And he was always catering to you.
He always looked to cater to people. He made more stars with his show probably than anybody in the whole history of show business, because he loved making somebody else into a star.
Joan Rivers and she was on the show. She would be telling you, though, how he made her a star. Johnny Carson made people like Buddy Hackett into a much bigger star than he ever was before.
And every time I was on the show, it helped me tremendously, because the national conversation the next day was all about my performance on his show.
And it's all because he said, he would sense when and how you're trying to approach a subject, where your comedy lies. And he would do everything possible to buoy you up and -- and to move into a direction that would make you shine as much as possible.
WHITFIELD: What a...
MASON: He loved making you a hit.
WHITFIELD: I'm sorry. Go ahead.
MASON: But he'd work with anybody. You would never know that he was a comedian. He was just asking questions, making faces and make you look like a sensation.
WHITFIELD: What a generous man. Can you think of anybody else who perhaps would sink so much more energy into helping others come along, helping others find celebrity like he did?
MASON: I don't find anybody except maybe Mother Teresa. It would take a pope or the chief rabbi of Israel or Mother Teresa to be that generous trying to help others. He loved just helping people. The ironic thing is that when he was alone at a party or a crowd off the stage, he was the most shiest guy in the world. He once told me during a break on one of the TV shows that I did as soon as the break to did a commercial, he confided in me that he still doesn't know why, but he still totally uncomfortable when he's at a private party and he has to talk to strangers.
You would never continue is the same guy as if it was a Jekyl and Hyde personality. The light is shining and all of a sudden, he's a natural personality of the greatest of all time. And as soon as the light goes out, then he has to be himself, he was like a nervous person sweating without knowing why, and he couldn't talk to you without being uncomfortable. He would avoid public appearances and public places all of the time because he was never comfortable in any public atmosphere.
WHITFIELD: Well, knowing that he was still very involved in the entertainment industry, perhaps not as publicly as everyone was used to for the 30 years that he was in charge of the "Tonight Show," but now that he has passed away, what kind of void do you suppose there is in the entertainment world with his passing?
MASON: Well, everybody's going to feel this void for years and years to come. Just like we still feel the void of Bob Hope's passing. Every time I talk to people there, are different memories we always have of Bob Hope and we can't forget the immensity of his talent and his personality. He'll be an institution to be remembered as long as Bob Hope is remembered. Will Rogers, there is only three, four, five people in all of the generations that have ever achieved this kind of level of popularity.
WHITFIELD: With his passing, Johnny Carson's passing do you see anyone else out there who can really hold a candle to the kind of success that he garnered as an entertainer, as a comedian, as an all around likable, funny, entertaining guy?
MASON: Well there, are some wonderful, likable sensational performers right now. I don't put them in the same class as Johnny Carson because he was in a class by himself. But there are some brilliantly funny comedians now and there is no depths of talent in the comedy world because more people are becoming comedians than ever before. Up to 15, 20 years ago, everybody was starting to be an accountant, lawyer, or doctor.
Now, after they graduate to become doctors and lawyers, they all go into comedy clubs and become comedians. So it's thousands of comedians that, as when he started out and he became a star, only a few, a couple of hundred. Now there are hundreds and thousands. You see more comedians then you see plumbers or deejays. Every second there is a comedian. Every third black guy is a comedian, every fifth Puerto Rican is a comedian. It's inter-denominational and it appeals to everybody in life. They have comedy clubs in every city now and everybody in every denomination is now becoming a comedian.
WHITFIELD: But then you describe this huge field of talent. If you were to put a finger on what's missing, in this huge field of talent, what would that be?
MASON: Well, I think this kind of congeniality and ease and sweetness and softness, most people get involved in the competitive nature of this kind of business and there is a turbulent intensity in most people. That was always liking in him. He had that relaxed, joyous comfortable attitude. Like he was an observer of the business instead of being a competitor.
He was just enjoying the view and the style and the character of the situation and just was never felt threatened or disturbed by anybody. And that's very hard to find in this kind of a business which depends so much on ego mania.
WHITFIELD: Comedian Jackie Mason. That was some of my conversation with comedian Jackie Mason a little bit earlier. More on the legacy of the late Johnny Carson when we come back. We're going to take you out to Hollywood to see how people there are honoring the late night show talk show host.
And a look back at the memorable good-bye, a fair well from singer Bette Midler. We'll be right back.
WHITFIELD: Saying good-bye to the king of late-night television, Johnny Carson. He passed away earlier today at the age of 79 of emphysema. Let's go out to Hollywood now where our Miguel Marquez is, where many people there are gathering to mark the memory of the late Johnny Carson -- Miguel.
MARQUEZ: Yes, we're in Hollywood right across the hills here from where Mr. Carson did his show in Burbank for so many years. Live from Burbank, and now we are live from Hollywood. He brought the show out here in 1972, and so many people grew up with him and certainly the reaction is starting, Ed McMahon who sat next to him for so many years, said he was like a brother to him. The nephew of the family said their loss will be immeasurable but his importance, his importance to the television world and to people in general can be gauged by people who just watch the show every night.
This is Martha Wilson, really her name, Martha Wilson, and you watched show for how many years and how do you react his death?
MARTHA WILSON: Well I watched the show many, many years as a young girl, hard to believe, and mostly with my family. It was a real family show and it's really sad to see somebody that was such a professional person that had really true family values pass away in this day.
MARQUEZ: We were talking earlier about his ability to go from serious to funny. Do you remember a moment or do you remember something? What about him that made him such a special entertainer?
WILSON: I think he had such a wide variety of things that he showed the public. You had the magnificent the great wit about him and then he also did a lot of things for especially the younger set, introducing animals that most of us had never seen and would only be seen in the zoos but he brought that to public life which I think is great.
MARQUEZ: The monkey show I think that you were telling me?
WILSON: Yes, yes, that was great.
MARQUEZ: What was that? WILSON: He brought in all sorts of monkeys and then also when he had the curator from the San Diego Zoo come in. We only dreamed when we were kids to go to that San Diego Zoo to see those animals that he brought on the show.
MARQUEZ: Thank you very much. And that animal thing has certainly become part of the rintu of late night television. It's pretty amazing and I also want to bring in Mark Noodleman, really his name Mark Noodleman, great name. You watched the show forever, how did you react to Mr. Carson's death?
MARK NOODLEMAN: I was surprised, actually. And just the love that people have for him is timeless. And what he established is still being built upon and used by many comedians. He had a unique blend. The ability to be a comedian and then be a serious interviewer in one go. He also made very personal to me his heroes that he emulated. Brought many anecdotes. I always loved that part plus his many characters.
MARQUEZ: It was really bringing all of Hollywood together, the past, the present and now the future with the comics who are here now. Now I asked you to think about some sthaik (ph) that you loved of Johnny Carson. Do you anything for us that you remember.
NOODLEMAN: Never say feeble to an old person.
MARQUEZ: Well here, hit me earlier much harder. What was that?
NOODLEMAN: That was Aunt Blaby (ph).
MARQUEZ: Aunt Blaby (ph). And your favorite skits of his?
NOODLEMAN: The one who was the blond actress that he did so many --
MARQUEZ: Teri Garr (ph)?
NOODLEMAN: No, where he would have the map in the back and he would go take the Cucamonga to the slough and cut off and so forth.
MARQUEZ: And you would end up at the fork in the road, right?
MARQUEZ: Always the fork in the road. And anything that you will remember about him most?
NOODLEMAN: His roast eye think that some of the traditions he established are still going to in the comedians today are still building on, from the legacy of Jack Parr and Steve Allen to Johnny Carson and now to Jay, who does the show down the street from where my wife and I live in Burbank.
MARQUEZ: You live a stone's throw away from the Burbank Studios. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. This guy's looking for a show as well I think these days. Mr. Carson, Johnny Carson, dead at 79. Certainly never to be replaced talking to people around here -- Fredricka.
WHITFIELD: All right Miguel Marquez in Hollywood, thanks so much for helping us to see how folks there are remembering the late, late- night talk show host. And we'll be right back with more of the memory of Johnny Carson.
WHITFIELD: Before his death today, Johnny Carson has been credited with helping to launch many careers from Bill Cosby to Jerry Seinfeld to Jay Leno. Well, earlier I talked to comedienne Joan Rivers who says she owes her success to Johnny Carson.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOAN RIVERS, COMEDIENNE: He was a very private man and don't think anybody would have given privy to that outside of his family how ill he was.
WHITFIELD: Give me an idea what was it like to work him, to know him as a friend, as a colleague.
RIVERS: Well, nobody knew him, he was very private. Truly, I was on the show for 17 years, and he was brilliant when the lights were on. 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 whether comedy was coming and let you do it. He was absolutely the best to ever work with.
WHITFIELD: Well, what an incredible career he had starting show business career as a teenaged 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: Oh, I don't think anybody knows in our business where you're going. He was a young man. He was a comedian. In fact, Seinfeld didn't know where he was going to end up. And Johnny went to day time host, very charming I think it is who you trust into the "Tonight Show." And just took off, such likeability there. And smart, and as I said, a brilliant comic mind.
WHITFIELD: You said he was very shy. Sometimes a little bit too himself. Did you feel like he was almost embarrassed at times about the kind of success that he garnered by being a comedian and a talk show host?
RIVERS: Not at all. He was very smart. And he deserved what he got and he lived well and had a very good life. But he was a very private person. Loved tennis, loved to go to Wimbledon. Had his own little circle. And again, so respected by everybody in the business.
WHITFIELD: And at the same time, it seemed like a man who didn't have a problem sharing the spotlight, obviously with the side kick 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 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 who discovered me and he was the one who said you'll be a star the first night I worked. He was an amazing man, an amazing mentor. And then when I left the show to do my own show at Fox, he never forgave me and that made me terribly sad. We never spoke again.
WHITFIELD: Oh, really?
RIVERS: I finally figured out years later, I obviously hurt him more than a lot of other people who left his show to go on their own ways and that made me very sad and I adored him and like I said, nobody was like him.
WHITFIELD: He took a lot of pride also in bringing other people up, didn't he?
WHITFIELD: How did you see that in other examples?
RIVERS: Well everybody, we all started on his show. That was the era of Cosby, Bill Cosby started on his show and George Carlin started on his show. And I started and David Brena and Seinfeld, a whole group of us that all came up first time ever out on the Carson show, and that was terrific and Jay Leno, Gary Shanley. 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 did you reflect on the kind of break that he gave you. And how much to credit him you give.
RIVERS: Everyday. I still talk about him. But he was the one -- I was nowhere seven years in the village working in second city you know? And they you put me on and he said on the air the first night you're going to be a star. And your life changed. And truly there was nobody that could read the lines like he could.
WHITFIELD: And as remarkable as it is to hear you to describe how he gave why you a break and so many other comedians a break, at the same kind I am 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 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 your mad at me or what is going on. But this shouldn't happen to anyone and I miss you and I love you. Because he had introduced me to my husband Edgar and I never heard back and I thought how sad is that? There are few and few of us together that shares certain memories of the late '60s and in the '70s and that made me terribly sad and still has and so I have 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: And what was it about as you reflect now about Johnny Carson that there was something is his heart that made him want to reach out and help pull up so many other comedians and folks start out in the business and become great successes, like the list of folks you mentioned, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld?
RIVERS: Well the "Late Show" is 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.
WHITFIELD: Did he get to a point where you talked to other folks who were trying to break into the business perhaps, who felt like that's the entree, I want to get to know Johnny Carson because he seems to identify those who haven't?
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 over night, 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 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 ever understood why he was such an enigma then?
RIVERS: Well, most comedians off stage are very quiet, very private. And you've got to remember he was a mid western 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 that stands there, and he was very private. 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: Well, I just think that was wonderful -- I just think because he's so smart. He just have gotten so damn bored frankly. And all of this comedy talent. How much can you look at a TV set and say, I could do better than that. Sooner or later you have to think, I will do better than that.
WHITFIELD: As you try to wrap up his legacy or try to encapsulate it in any way how would you define the legacy of Johnny Carson?
RIVERS: Oh, I think he brought the "Tonight Show" into full flower. And nobody, nobody has filled his shoes. It was a different time and different era and he was just amazing.
(END VIDEO CLIP) WHITFIELD: Comedienne Joan Rivers remembering her former colleague and former boss. Well, perhaps you were one of the 50 million television viewers who watched the many farewells. Johnny Carson on the "Tonight Show." Some almost 13 years ago. Well, perhaps you remember this moment with Bette Midler.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNNY CARSON: As you were saying.
BETTE MIDLER: I'm was so freaked-out they wasn't going to get everything out that I wanted to say to Mr. Carson on this most auspicious occasion. I sat down the other day and I tried to make some coherent sense out of my thoughts. This is important to me. And I have a lot to say and I know that most women in America wished they had this opportunity to tell you they feel about you, so I wrote a letter and would you mind dreadfully -- if I sang it to you?
CARSON: I think it would be really nice.
MIDLER: OK. They think I don't have it written. It is written. Dear Mr. Carson I am writing this for you and I hope that you will read it so that you will know my heart goes pitter patter and I studier 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.
I thought that was pretty sweet, guys. You made me watch you I didn't want to do it Jack Parr had put me through it. You made me watch you. I love the jokes you're flogging when you are monologue. I watched your hair turn slowly from dark to white. And when I can't sleep I count your wives at night. I love you, babe! I drop my drawers for the kind of bucks about you're making for simple double taking before you bid our dear don't be cheap put the jacquard back to sleep. Just the thought of you leaving me gives meet shivers Arsenal is at the gate and so is Joan Rivers you know they made me watch you
Mr. Carson I don't want to bother you it's just when I heard you were leaving well it kind of broke my heart thinking to myself, should I change the color of my toe nail polish you know, Johnny, I have got to tell you, you're the greatest straight man that I ever walked the earth and I've known my share of straight men. I have to ask you, though Johnny what are you going to with all of that free time, I mean Wimbledon only comes, it's only one week a year.
And did you ever really stop to consider what could 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 will I get by without you. You sexy thing, your charm your wit your talent your civility and all of your fabulous, fabulous guests. How I miss the social intercourse so buried now I have to have it with the guy I am married you know I'd rather watch you [ cheering and applause ].
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give it up, people! Give it up, people! (END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: One of the final farewells of Johnny Carson back in 1992 with Bette Midler and you recall there, and also seeing comedian Robin Williams. Well, tomorrow, here on CNN, a prime-time live exclusive with Ed McMahon, a longtime sidekick of Johnny Carson, that'll be on "Larry King Live" at 9:00 p.m. tomorrow night. A prime- time exclusive. We'll have more of our special coverage of the late Johnny Carson right after this.
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