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'Johnny Carson': New book paints fearless, tortured, gun-toting king of late night

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    Talk show host Johnny Carson, right, shakes hands with the show's announcer Ed McMahon during the final taping of "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, Ca., Friday, May 22, 1992. Carson is retiring after 30 years of hosting the late-night show. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

In 1970, when attorney Henry Bushkin was 27 years old, he became Johnny Carson's lawyer. But his job was just a sliver of his relationship with the King of Late Night. He also became his frequent tennis partner, confidant, fixer, and, according to Carson, his best friend. Their relationship ended abruptly after 18 years together. Now the Los Angeles based lawyer has written a fascinating memoir about his time with the "Tonight Show" host titled simply "Johnny Carson." It is a remarkably nuanced and intimate portrait of a man who let few people close to him. 

FOX411: How did this book come about?

Henry Bushkin: I never intended to write the book. I was writing a novel and a friend of mine said, 'Look don't write a novel. Write this book about Carson.' It happened to be told to me by the lawyer that superseded me in representing Carson, who did represent him for nine years and said that he never really knew him that well. That's actually what gave me the impetus. 

FOX411: He sounded like a very complex guy.

Bushkin: Very, and I'm glad that come across, because this is intended to be part of a renaissance for Carson so that the public can appreciate him. He was probably the greatest late night talk show host we're ever going to have.

FOX411: But a very difficult person offstage.

Bushkin: Yeah but look many, many superstars are like that. He's not alone. I just happened to be with him for 18 years and thought the public would like to hear about him and I'm gratified to see that the public is interested.

FOX411: Describe him.

Bushkin: Complex, complicated, difficult. Difficult like all difficult men are difficult. Take any superstar today, they're difficult if they don't get their way. If Howard Stern for example didn't get his way for something, he would be annoyed, maybe even really more than annoyed. Johnny was like that.

FOX411: He was a terrible husband?

Bushkin: Terrible in the sense that he was incapable of being a good husband, and all, from the lack of any sort of emotion that he could express brought about by his mother, who I would describe as an American Gothic sort of mother.

FOX411: And he wasn't by his own admission the greatest father.

Bushkin: One doesn't suffer only one which way. It permeates your whole being. If you can't express emotion, you can't to your kids, your wife, to anybody. It was very hard for him. That doesn't mean he wasn't capable of having great times because of course we did. He would tell you that his personality was basically that of an unhappy personality as opposed to a happy personality.

FOX411: You write that your marriage broke up partly due to your relationship with Carson.

Bushkin: I think so. Spending a great deal of time with him, devoting more time to him than to my family is the best way of putting what happened.

FOX411: Didn't he encourage you to carouse?

Bushkin: Sure, he was a smoker, I wasn't, so I became a smoker, just so he wouldn't feel bad smoking around a non-smoker. You did things like that and people still do things like that to make a client happy. He was more comfortable hanging with me if I was of the same mind as him particularly on the road.

FOX411: Where he would really screw around...

Bushkin: Let's put it this way. Out of sight, out of mind. That was his attitude. That was Frank Sinatra's attitude, that was Bob Hope's attitude. You name it they had the same attitude.

FOX411: One of the chapters made front page news last week. (Bushkin recounted how Carson broke into his second wife's secret apartment to find evidence of her having an affair with Frank Gifford. He did and broke down in tears). You say that Johnny was carrying a gun. Were you freaked out?

Bushkin: Well sure, because this was in the first two days of me meeting him. I didn't know about three guns being in the same room with me at the same time. But that was the case and its sort of fun to talk about it now because it's 43 years ago. Fun now, not fun then.

FOX411: Did he always carry a gun?

Bushkin: I met him in 1970 and he carried a gun and when I left in 1988/89 he carried a gun, so at least during those years he did.

There was an extortion attempt on his life and his family's life way back in the 70's and when the F.B.I were going to have a double drop off the money, Johnny insisted on doing it himself. There were no stand-ins for this guy because he was very tough and he wasn't afraid. Did he have a gun with him then? You bet he did.

FOX411: You paint a very sad picture of his death, separated from his fourth wife, dying alone in a hospital with no loved ones with him.

Bushkin: I didn't paint it, I think that's the reality, which is a sad picture. And there was no memorial for him which I think is even sadder, and there was no celebration of any sort.

FOX411: You were together for a long time. Why did he fire you?

Bushkin: When goals are the same, when partners have the same goals, things work well. When goals diverge, they don't work well. My interest was building a business way beyond "The Tonight Show" and his outlook was never broader than "The Tonight Show" so that's when we started the conflict. When we achieved ownership of "The Tonight Show," the more we got, the less he liked it.

FOX411: Did you know it was coming?

Bushkin: Oh sure, I think we both knew. He wanted to sell these companies and I wasn't prepared to do that so it was inevitable at some point and he was the boss. The companies were never sold and he just dissolved them. Sort of a sad ending actually.

FOX411: Was he fun to hang out with?

Bushkin: The best. When he was happy meaning when he was comfortable and hanging around there was nobody better because there was nobody funnier, nobody more powerful, he was the best dressed guy in the room and always had the best looking woman. He had his own plane, his own boat. What more could you ask for?

FOX411: He was uncomfortable in social settings.

Bushkin: He was very comfortable on stage with a lot of people, very uncomfortable in a room with a lot of people, if he didn't know them. If he knew them, fine. Friends ok, strangers not so good. 

FOX411: You were so young when you became his lawyer!

Bushkin: 27, cool right? He could have hired anybody he wanted to. Why he hired me, I think simply he had no one he could trust at that moment in time. I was in the right place at the right time.

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