OTR Interviews

Remembering Ed McMahon

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," June 23, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: A TV legend has died and tonight we remember him. Ed McMahon, best known for being Johnny Carson's sidekick on the "Tonight" show for 30 years, died this morning at the age of 86. Joining us live is another TV legend, Dick Cavett, host of "The Dick Cavett Show." He was also a writer for the "Tonight" show and a frequent guest. Nice to see you, Dick.

DICK CAVETT, FRIEND OF ED MCMAHON: Greta, aren't you afraid to be on with a legend? You called me a legend!


CAVETT: Aren't you afraid I'll...

VAN SUSTEREN: I -- I -- afraid of what?

CAVETT: How do you know I won't rip the mask of hypocrisy from your face?


VAN SUSTEREN: I don't know. I mean, I'm -- I've been a big fan. I mean, you're a legend in my mind, so you know, I figure you were the same for everybody else.

CAVETT: I remember when we met. But we won't go into that.


VAN SUSTEREN: Anyway, let's -- let's go on to -- Ed McMahon...


VAN SUSTEREN: Your thoughts tonight? I mean, you know, we all watched him for many years. He -- you know, he's a legend. We're all legends, I guess.

CAVETT: Well, you know, I knew Ed in two ways because when I was a writer for Johnny, I saw him every day. And then later, when I was on the show -- Johnny did a nice thing. Every time a Cavett show was canceled, he would have me on the following Monday. So I was on a number of times. And he would say things like, We're fond of Richard and we hope that -- well, if the next show doesn't make it, it's Armed Forces Radio for Dick. We were -- we were very, very good friends. And I knew Ed there. He's an amiable guy, genial guy. Everybody would agree to that.

And I would like to make a point on your show, Greta. Ed got a bad rap. He was always called the "automatic laugher." The fact is Ed found Johnny hilariously funny. And when he did that laugh, that laugh was genuine.

And I remember when Groucho first came on "The Tonight Show." He turned to Ed and said "Well, laughing boy," referring to a novel at that time.

But Ed really, really found Johnny funny, and that chemistry between them was magical.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, people don't understand that being sort of the sidekick, and I don't mean that in a derogatory fashion, using that term, but being the other person in a show like that is profoundly important and incredibly difficult to do. It is such an important role, people don't realize that.

CAVETT: Sidekickery is a tricky art, and Ed just perfected it. You know, he managed the music of it. He knew when to lean in, when to lean out, when to talk, when not to talk. And it was a beautiful thing to watch.

He was a very lucky man, and he knew that. As an announcer, he wasn't any more skilled than maybe dozens of other announcers. But that magic simpatico, as everybody used that word, that he had with Johnny was a very, very fine thing to watch.

And I have a scoop for you, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. Love scoops.

CAVETT: I don't think I've ever seen this alluded or referred to.

NBC wanted somebody else when Johnny took over "The Tonight Show," and there was a particular vice president who came down to Johnny, suggested this man who shall be nameless here forevermore, and said, "What's wrong with him, Johnny?"

To his eternal credit, Johnny said, "The problem is that he has a personality like the wall of a handball court." That was the end of that man. It was a nice phrase.

VAN SUSTEREN: So Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson, were they friends off air? We saw the dynamics between them on air. Were they friends off-air?

CAVETT: I'm sorry, say that again?

VAN SUSTEREN: Were Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson friends off-air?

CAVETT: They were, yes.

When I first saw them together was in the in the Sardie's bar when I was a kid, and I used to sneak into the ungrammatical game show "Who do you trust?" They tried changing it to "Whom" once and it didn't work. And there would be Ed and Johnny, their private day, and they would hoist one between shows.

And you could see they were like two fraternity guys having a good time together, two guys out at the bar.

And I don't know if there was ever tension. Johnny was a complex man, the most socially uncomfortable man I think I ever met. I used to --

VAN SUSTEREN: Really, uncomfortable? That seems bizarre they'd say that about him. I never got the -- I'd never think he'd be uncomfortable.

CAVETT: Well, he was in life. And when I worked for him it was often a problem. And he had a drinking problem which he did not keep a secret. He had a wife on the ledge a couple of times. And he was really under a hell of a lot of pressure.

And yet when he got out there on the air, it all floated away, and he was delightful and glib and articulate and funny.

But if I caught him in the hall with two tourists who had caught him in the hall, I always rescued him from them because he couldn't handle it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Dick, thank you for joining us.

CAVETT: I have a lot more stuff.

VAN SUSTEREN: They are going to give me the hook, though.


VAN SUSTEREN: Thank you, Dick.

CAVETT: Have me back a lot.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, I will.

CAVETT: So long, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Wildlife expert Jim Fowler was on "The Tonight Show" about 100 times. He join us live -- 100 times. That put you like at the top of the most times on "The Tonight Show"?

JIM FOWLER, FRIEND OF ED MCMAHON: Yes. People used to ask me to come beyond that and said, by the way, bring your animals.

VAN SUSTEREN: Speaking of your animals, did you really put a cheetah in Ed McMahon's bed?

FOWLER: Oh, yes. But first, I just wanted to mention that I can tell you a few stories about Dick Cavett sometime too. But back to the cheetah, OK?

VAN SUSTEREN: We will have you back for those, but OK.

FOWLER: We had done -- we had been on "The Tonight Show," and Ed came up to me, and he had a pretty new wife. I remember she was quite attractive, and she loved all kinds of cats.

So Ed knew that, and he asked me if I would come to Los Angeles -- actually, it was San Francisco -- and bring a pet cheetah up to the room where his wife was going to be staying. And it would be a surprise. She wouldn't know it was there.

So sure enough, I got to the hotel. And we had a tough time getting it up the elevator. We lost several loads of people. In fact, Peter Gross, who was from Marine World Africa USA who trained this cat, we went into the room, put it in the bed. And then Ed escorted her in as a surprise.

And you know what? They really got along well together. It was quite a reunion. I was hiding in the back room when it happened because I wasn't too sure how comfortable that cheetah would be.

But the wife -- yes?

VAN SUSTEREN: And the wife liked the cheetah, that's the good news.


VAN SUSTEREN: Let me -- let me ask you something about Ed McMahon. You know, he was always so much fun to watch, years watching him. But the end was so painful to watch with all those financial problems, getting pushed out of his house. What happened?

FOWLER: I was so sad to hear all that. You know, Ed -- like you said, Ed was really a thoughtful person. He would know and talk to you backstage before and after the program. He still knew who you were and he was very thoughtful.

But I just don't have a clue. I knew he was giving to people, he had a giving attitude. But I am not sure what happened to him financially. I really feel sorry about that.

But I did see him not too long ago -- well, maybe a year ago I was with him. And he had -- we talked a lot. He liked the animals, and he really was much more aware of what was going on with the animals than you would guess.

By the way, my animals loved his coffee cup. They used to go over there and check it out pretty often.

But I could always tell if something was going well, because I could hear Ed laughing above the audience. I knew that we were doing pretty well.

One of the things --

VAN SUSTEREN: People don't realize -- go ahead.

FOWLER: I wanted to say one thing about the Carson show and Ed. They were two of a kind, but they knew the secret of television. I've done a lot of different talk shows, but, you know, neither one of them ever tried to be funny. They let things happen, and then they related to it, just like what you're seeing.

But there are some -- you know what, they never tried to make things happen or tried to be funny. They would let Don Rickles do his bit, and then they would relate to it, which is, I think, the key to good television.

VAN SUSTEREN: Imagine if there had been Internet shows when these guys were doing it. They could have had a lot of fun on the Internet --


VAN SUSTEREN: -- in which the rules are so loose.

Jim, thank you very much.

FOWLER: Thank you.

Content and Programming Copyright 2009 FOX News Network, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2009 CQ Transcriptions, LLC, which takes sole responsibility for the accuracy of the transcription. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material except for the user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon FOX News Network, LLC'S and CQ Transcriptions, LLC's copyrights or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.