For 30 years his invitation to sit on the couch after a stand-up routine was a virtual ticket to stardom. Johnny Carson, the former "Tonight Show" host who became an icon for any aspiring late-night talker, died at age 79 on Sunday after a long struggle with emphysema.
"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning. He was surrounded by his family," Carson's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, said in a statement. NBC confirmed that the famously press-shy late-night legend died as a result of emphysema.
With his mix of irreverent characters, quick wit and easy banter with guests, Carson was the dominant force in late-night television from 1962 until his tearful retirement from "The Tonight Show" in 1992. Hip enough for a younger
generation, but mainstream enough for just about everyone else, Carson was the reigning "King of Late-Night TV" for 30 years, beating back all comers and setting the gold standard for the genre.
Though he was not the first host of "The Tonight Show" — the equally influential Steve Allen and Jack Paar came before him — Carson earned the title of late-night king by making it look easy, paving the way for an entire generation of talkers from his successor, Jay Leno, to David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.
The former stand-up comic also helped the careers of countless other comics, including Letterman and Leno, giving them a showcase on the program, and, on occasion, waving them over to the couch for a chat. Those few minutes of banter were considered gold among comedians, both for their rarity and for the more important stamp of approval from Carson. Among those boosted by their appearances on "The Tonight Show" were Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield.
"This is the end of an era," frequent "Tonight Show" guest host Joan Rivers told Reuters. "With Carson you went on once. You had his blessing, and the world knew you were funny."
From the signature nightly introduction from longtime sidekick Ed McMahon, "Heeeere's Johnny!," to the imaginary golf swing, topical monologue and long-running skits such as phony fortune teller "Carnac the Magnificent" and newscaster "Floyd R. Turbo," Carson's show ran like clockwork, but was never predictable. He rarely socialized with the celebrity guests he hosted, but had a way of making it seem as if their casual conversations were rooted in shared experiences.
Even when his monologue jokes bombed, the self-deprecating host unabashedly admitted it, a rare talent that David Letterman has turned into one of his ironic trademarks. Though he famously kept his personal life private, Carson frequently joked about the burden of the alimony payments from his three divorces.
Born John William Carson in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925 and raised in Norfolk, Nebraska, Carson's genial Midwestern charm was apparent early on, when he stared performing at local rotary clubs as a singer, ventriloquist and
magician at age 14 using the stage name "The Great Carsoni." He made his first mark on the radio in Lincoln, Nebraska, soon graduating to the Los Angeles-based TV sketch comedy show "Carson's Cellar" in 1951. After a five-year gig hosting the game show "Who Do You Trust?" beginning in 1956, Carson took over as the host of "The Tonight Show" on Oct. 1, 1962.
His laid-back style and knowing wink masked an astute observer of the political climate of the times. From his constant skewering of the Richard Nixon White House during the Watergate break-in scandal to the first George Bush's infamous pledge "Read my lips, no new taxes," (which Carson joked might soon morph into "Read my lips, no new promises"), Carson never backed down from poking fun at whoever was in the White House. Over the years, he hosted more than 24,000 guests, and, according to NBC, was watched by more than 83 billion people.
He garnered his highest-ever ratings with one of the most bizarre stunts in the history of late-night TV, the December 17, 1969 on-air wedding of eccentric, ukulele-playing singer Tiny Tim to Miss Vicki, which drew more than 45 million viewers, a record at the time for the show. The program was nominated for 42 Emmys during Carson's tenure, winning seven.
He also hosted the Academy Awards five times during the 1970s and '80s.
"It's a sad day for his family and his country," David Letterman said in a statement. "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again ... He was the best, a star and a gentleman."
When Carson announced his retirement, longtime admirer Letterman — who used to occupy the time slot behind "The Tonight Show" — endured an ugly battle with Leno to take over as host of "The Tonight Show," chronicled in the book and HBO movie "The Late Shift." Carson's low-key, final broadcast on May 22, 1992 — which followed a program in which he famously shed a tear while Bette Midler serenaded him with "One More for the Road" — drew more than 50 million viewers.
"And so it has come to this," Carson said before finally signing off and retiring to a life of playing tennis and avoiding the limelight. "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. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."
A producer revealed that Letterman, who remained in awe of Carson even as he went up against his idol's successor, continued to receive the occasional monologue joke from Carson until recently, proving that despite walking away on top, the late-night master couldn't resist commenting on the news of the day.
Carson won the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1992, and received a Kennedy Center Honor the following year. He once joked that his epitaph should be the line he used before going to commercial: "I'll be right back."