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US Mourns Death of Late Night TV Comic


The U.S. entertainment world is remembering Johnny Carson, a talk-show host who dominated U.S. late-night television for 30 years. The former star of the Tonight Show died Sunday at age 79 at his home in Malibu, California. He is remembered as a man of wit, charm and talent.

The distinctive introduction from sidekick Ed McMahon was heard in American homes for three decades. "Ladies and Gentlemen, heeeee-re's Johnny."

Former co-host Ed McMahon says Johnny Carson was "like a brother."

For countless young performers, an appearance on the Tonight Show was a career breakthrough. Johnny Carson gave comedian Joan Rivers her start. Comics Woody Allen and Steve Martin also got a career boost by appearing on the show.

Comedian David Letterman now hosts his own late-night show, but first gained notice as a guest of Johnny Carson. The two became close friends and Letterman called his mentor "a star and a gentleman."

Comedian David Brenner said Johnny Carson was always generous and open, and made his guests look good. "He didn't try to top them. He didn't try to make them look dumb. He elevated them," he said.

As many as 15 million people watched the Tonight Show every weekday night. The program aired around the United States on the NBC network.

Johnny Carson's humor was topical and his opening monologues poked fun at successive presidents, celebrities and stars, and even his network's corporate owners. No one could ever tell what Mr. Carson's personal political leanings were, but politicians of all parties knew they were in trouble if they became the frequent target of his jokes.

A stable of characters came to life as he donned costumes for comedy skits: Art Fern, the shady car-salesman, the talkative Aunt Blabby, and Carnac the fortune teller. On the show, Ed McMahon introduced the character this way: "The great sage, seer, soothsayer, famous mystic, omniscient, and former tax advisor to Governor [Ronald] Reagan, Carnac the Magnificent."

Mr. Carson also appeared with chimps, chickens, and rodents. "I can't sit and talk to people with an animal on my head," he said on one show.

Johnny Carson was born in the Midwestern state of Iowa and raised in neighboring Nebraska. As a teenager, he staged magic shows, then after a stint in the US Navy during the Second World War, studied theater in college. He hosted a radio show in Omaha, Nebraska, and by the 1950s was making his mark in Los Angeles and New York.

In 1962, he took over the popular Tonight Show from host Jack Parr. Ten years later, he would move the production from its New York base to NBC's West Coast studios in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank.

One of Johnny Carson's gifts was to make millions of Americans feel he was the type of outgoing, friendly person they would enjoy inviting into their homes. Yet, in 1983, interviewed on NBC's Today Show, he said that despite his television persona, he was shy. "That may sound strange, but I am, inside. I find large groups of people difficult to deal with. If I go where there are 100 people in a room, I feel very uncomfortable. But I felt that before I was ever on television, so that's nothing new to me," he said.

In 1992, 50 million people watched Johnny Carson's next-to-last appearance on the Tonight Show, which featured a moving tribute from singer Bette Midler.

Because he was an intensely private man Johnny Carson mostly stayed out of the public eye after his retirement. But through generous acts of philanthropy, his presence continued to be felt in the small towns of the U.S. Midwest, where he grew up. Made wealthy by his successful entertainment career, he donated millions of dollars to build a cancer center and to fund projects at colleges, a library, a museum and other facilities.

Johnny Carson was married four times, and his expensive divorces provided humorous material for the Tonight Show. A longtime smoker, he died of emphysema.

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