Published January 24, 2005
LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the news that the king of late-night talk shows, Johnny Carson (search), had died of complications from emphysema at 79, it seemed that everyone who had ever met the man had something nice to say about him.
"Johnny Carson made an awful lot of people laugh and an awful lot of people happy. I always say that any time a man provides laughter to the masses, he should get eternal life," comedian Jerry Lewis (search) told FOX News. "His talent was exceptional ... I adored him and loved him as a friend."
Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning, surrounded by his family, his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. Sotzing also said there would be no memorial service.
Carson hosted NBC's "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" for 30 years before retiring in May 1992. Jay Leno (search) took his seat.
"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny," Leno said Sunday. "He was the gold standard."
Even after he left television, Carson still wrote jokes and reportedly on occasion sent them over to Leno's rival, David Letterman (search).
Carson, in fact, is responsible for launching Letterman's career as a comic, in spite of the fact that the "Late Show" host lost the battle to host "The Tonight Show."
"All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again," Letterman said Sunday.
Even the commander-in-chief mourned Carson's death.
"Laura and I are saddened by the death of Johnny Carson," President Bush said in a written statement. "His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment. He was a patriot who served in the United States Navy during World War II and always remembered his roots in the heartland of America."
Actor Chevy Chase, who played cards with Carson, told FOX News: "Being Johnny's friend was an honor for me. To hear of his sudden death [is] a great shock. He was so much more than just the 'king of late night.' He was a real intellect, with broad interests, thankfully many of which he was able to enjoy in the last decade. It's a terrible loss to his friends. I am deeply saddened."
John William Carson was born on Oct. 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa, but was raised in Nebraska, where he attended the University of Nebraska. He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946.
Carson got an early jump in the entertainment business as a magician at age 14. Back then, he was called "The Great Carsoni." Later, he popularized the character "Carnac the Magnificent."
He was in a number of radio and television shows throughout the years with stars such as Red Skelton. He also hosted a game show before taking the job that would become his legacy, replacing host Jack Paar (search) as host of "The Tonight Show" in 1962.
By his side from the start was Ed McMahon (search), who mastered the trademark introduction, "Heeere's Johnny."
On Sunday, McMahon said: "Johnny Carson was a man I considered like a brother to me."
Whenever he faced a major post-"Tonight" career decision, McMahon added, "I always got the OK from 'the boss.'"
As host of one of the most popular shows on television, Carson dominated the airwaves with big stars and big ratings, giving several stars their big breaks and welcoming the oddities, including the 1969 on-show marriage of eccentric singer Tiny Tim (search) to pretty teenager Miss Vicki (search).
In 1972, the show moved from New York to Burbank, Calif., a move whose wisdom was originally questioned.
Over the years, Carson hosted 4,531 episodes with more than 22,000 guests. At times, "The Tonight Show" accounted for 17 percent of NBC's total revenues.
Another one of Carson's colleagues, TV personality Dick Cavett (search), who wrote for "The Tonight Show," described Carson behind the scenes as "tense."
"He would walk around doing relaxing exercises," Cavett told FOX News. "I always wanted to say to him, 'Johnny, you don't have to be nervous.' He had a reputation for being frosty and cold, much of it wrong. I managed to see him many times warm, moved, crying."
Carson touched on politics frequently during his monologues, skewering lawmakers of every stripe and mirroring the mood of voters. His Watergate jabs at President Nixon were seen as cementing Nixon's fall from office in 1974.
In July 1988, he hosted then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on his show a few days after Clinton came under widespread ridicule for a boring speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton traded quips with Carson and played "Summertime" on the saxophone. Four years later, Clinton won the presidency.
After learning of Carson's death, Clinton said: "Those 20 minutes on 'The Tonight Show' did more for my career than speaking for two days at the Democratic National Convention."
During the 1980s, Carson was the highest paid performer on television, earning $5 million a year. He also had a production company, Carson Productions, that created and sold pilots to NBC, including "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes."
A Hollywood star with middle-America magic, Carson's private troubles often became public. His bouts with booze and his four marriages often made headlines. In 1991, one of his three sons, 39-year-old Ricky, was killed in a car accident.
When the ratings dropped and Leno was being primed to replace him, Carson stayed loyal to his network.
"I don't think they owe me anything. It's a business arrangement," he said at the time.
When he did call it quits, Carson was considered still to be on top. His last show with guests, May 21, 1992, featured singer/actress Bette Midler (search) and comedian Robin Williams (search). The next day, the show offered a poignant tribute of clips and sneak peeks behind the scenes.
"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," he said during his last appearance on the show.
After his retirement, Carson mainly stayed out of the public eye, occasionally being spotted at tennis matches. He spent much of his retirement sailing, traveling and socializing with a few close friends, including media mogul Barry Diller (search) and NBC executive Bob Wright (search). He simply refused to be wooed back on stage.
"The reason I really don't go back or do interviews is because I just let the work speak for itself," he told Esquire magazine in 2002 in a rare interview.
Carson told friends that he was willing to do another project after "The Tonight Show," but didn't feel any pressure since he had already conquered television, said his longtime producer, Fred de Cordova.
The former talk-show host did continue working in some venues. He wrote short humor pieces for The New Yorker magazine, including "Recently Discovered Childhood Letters to Santa," which purported to give the youthful wish lists of William F. Buckley, Don Rickles and others.
He won the George Foster Peabody award in 1986. He was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1992. President George H.W. Bush said of him: "With decency and style he's made America laugh and think."
In 1993, he was celebrated by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for career achievement.
In March 1999, Carson's health forced him back into the spotlight. He underwent quadruple heart-bypass surgery, but was believed to have made a complete recovery.
However, in the last several years, Carson, a habitual smoker throughout his life, suffered worsening health despite still being in the public eye.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Alexis, whom he met on a Malibu beach in the early 1980s. In June 1987, they married. He was 61; she was in her 30s.
FOX News' Bill McCuddy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.