"If he liked you, America liked you"

How his famous guests and peers -- some in awe, some in anger -- remembered Johnny Carson, including Cavett, Warhol, Cher, Gabor, Rivers, Reynolds and Leno.

By Dana Cook
January 24, 2005 3:46AM (UTC)
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Johnny Carson, who died Sunday at the age of 79, mingled with the biggest celebrities of the day for nearly 50 years. Some of the most fascinating encounters are recounted below.

Dick Cavett, TV talk show host. "Church basement magic"

When I was fourteen he was already a Famous Man, since he was on both radio and TV from Omaha.


I ... met Johnny when he was appearing in a church basement in Lincoln ... Two friends and I, all of us magic buffs, snuck backstage and accosted him as he was setting up. He looked slightly annoyed. People are always nosing around when a magician is setting up, and the magician rightly would like to catapult them through the nearest window. When we told Johnny we were amateur magicians, however, he became quite friendly and even showed us a few card fans. Then we went back out front, aglow from our contact with a star. The classy thing that Johnny did that evening was to introduce us, in the middle of his act, as three young magicians and ask us to take a bow from the audience. We were thrilled. (Lincoln, Neb., 1950)

From "Cavett," by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

Ed McMahon, TV personality. "Interviewed me."


I will never forget the very first time I met a young man named Johnny Carson. The producer of my good friend Dick Clark's famed "American Bandstand" had heard Johnny was looking for an announcer for his new afternoon quiz show, "Who Do You Trust?" and had recommended me. Johnny's office was in the Little Theatre, on West Forty-fourth Street, directly across from the Shubert Theatre. As I entered his office, Johnny was standing at a large window, watching as four huge cranes raised the Shubert's new marquee. I watched this from the other window as he interviewed me. "It's nice to meet you, Ed," he said. (New York, late 1950s)

From "For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times," by Ed McMahon with David Fisher (Warner Books, 1998)

Dick Clark, "American Bandstand" host. "Bandstand" interruptus


ABC had a game show called "Do You Trust Your Wife?" that they wanted to promote. They figured that if "[American] Bandstand" was doing well, why not stick this other show in the middle of it to boost its ratings.

So it was that at 3:30 every afternoon "Bandstand" left the network for half an hour to be replaced by "Do You Trust Your Wife?" It annoyed me to no end ...


The host of the game show was a young comic named Johnny Carson. I beat on his show's intrusion mercilessly. I never named the show, just said it would interrupt "Bandstand" for half an hour, hoping there would be enough mail to get it out of there. Apparently Johnny has never forgiven me -- I've never done the "Tonight" show when he's been the host. (late 1950s)

From "Rock, Roll & Remember," by Dick Clark with Richard Robinson (Crowell, 1976)

Hugh Downs, TV show host. "Cool personality."


NBC made a superb choice with Carson [for The Tonight Show]. But not because Carson was a great comedian. Johnny Carson just happens to be a great host.

Unlike Jack Paar, Johnny is a cool personality. And like most cool personalities, Johnny wears well on the tube. He has what we call "legs." It's hard for a hot personality not to wear out his welcome when invited into the nation's bedrooms five nights a week. Johnny also manages to do some things Paar preferred not to do. He happily wears funny hats and costumes, and plays silly roles in comic skits, while still sustaining an unflappable image as the consummate host. Johnny's genius lies in his ability to combine the roles of both comic and host, without losing the best of either world.

When NBC finally picked Carson, I couldn't help but be disappointed. But I can't say I was surprised. I wouldn't have seriously considered staying on as Johnny's second banana, and in fact was not offered the opportunity. Ed McMahon has been Johnny's announcer on both his daytime shows, and hiring Ed may even have been a condition set by Carson. (New York, 1962)


From "On Camera: My 10,000 Hours on Television," by Hugh Downs (G.P. Putnam's, 1986)

Zsa Zsa Gabor, actor. "His show forever."

Johnny Carson and I go back a long way -- in every sense of the word. Before Carson took over the Tonight show, I appeared many times when Steve Allen and then Jack Paar hosted the program. I remember when Johnny took over, thinking how brilliant he was and believing him when he confidently predicted, "I'm going to have this show forever. They'll have to carry me out on a stretcher." (New York, 1962)

From "One Lifetime Is Not Enough," by Zsa Zsa Gabor with Wendy Leigh (Delacorte, 1991)


Michael Caine, actor. "Stand by."

As far as "The Tonight Show" was concerned, I was informed I had a bit of bad luck. The star of the show, Jack Paar, had just walked off the set last week and I would have to put up with being interviewed by a standby -- one Johnny Carson. I did that show, and Johnny and I survived those testing times and are both still around today, although he just retired after thirty years on "The Tonight Show." (New York, 1962)

From "What's It All About?: An Autobiography," by Michael Caine (Turtle Bay Books/Random House, 1992)

Rocky Graziano, middleweight boxer. "Off the sauce."


... how you ever gonna top Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." These guys gotta be like musicians, to come up with those winners, night after night. Even the greatest fighters in the world ain't gonna come up with winners ever time out of the box. Sure they're raking in millions. More power to them. When a guy like Johnny Carson keeps climbing up that ladder, we all go up with him.

Johnny always liked to talk about how he hadda get off the sauce because it made him a little wild. All I say is it's too bad everybody couldn't see Johnny doing a show in Vegas with a little jug of sauce in him. The juice useta make him ten times funnier and with a wit could kill the worst heckler you could throw in against him. (New York, early 1960s)

From "Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too," by Rocky Graziano with Ralph Corsel (Stein & Day, 1981)

Dorothy Lamour, actor. On his secretary's bad side.


I could never seem to get on "The Tonight Show." I ... met Johnny Carson on one of my trips to New York. Totally charming, he said he was coming to Baltimore; and I promised that ... I would take him out for a real Maryland dinner. When I called his hotel, his secretary answered and was quite rude; I never heard from him again. His secretary is now a fixture on "The Tonight Show" staff, and I've heard quite frequently, whenever my name is brought up as a potential guest, her reply is always, "Don't mention that woman's name to me." (early 1960s)

From "My Side of the Road," by Dorothy Lamour with Dick McInnes (Prentice-Hall, 1980)

Roy Clark, country musician and host of "Hee Haw." "Natural rapport."

... my first appearance on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson in 1963.

I discovered I had a natural rapport that made it seem as if Johnny and I had been buddies forever. Johnny not only felt comfortable around me, he was the first guy who ever got me to really talk on television, rather than doing schtick or telling jokes. In the past, on every television show I was ever on, when in doubt, I always fell back on a funny face, or a clever line. When I watched the show that night on TV, I realized just how brilliant Johnny Carson was at what he did. After that first appearance, I was told by the producers that I had an open invitation, any time I wanted to be on the show. (New York)

From "My Life in Spite of Myself!" by Roy Clark with Marc Eliot (Simon & Schuster, 1994)

Joan Rivers, comedian. Instant empathy

I was startled to be actually on the set I had been watching for years with my mother and father. It was smaller than it looked on television and not as glamorous, and there was Johnny Carson, looking younger than he did on the screen and a lot thinner. I sat down and realized I was in the chair and it was gray, not the color I had thought on our black-and-white TV set. My hands went right up to my lap, clutching each other for comfort, and I pressed my ankles and knees together -- the way my mother had taught me they looked best. I focused all my attention on Johnny Carson, trying to block out the entire studio.

... the empathy that has always existed between Johnny Carson and me was there from the first second. He understood everything. He wanted it to work. He knew how to go with me and feed me and knew how to wait. I was very deliberate then, lots of shaking my head up and down and dropping in the punch lines almost as afterthoughts, lots of nervous gestures with the hands always ending up in my lap. He never cut off a punch line and when it came, he broke up. It was like telling it to your father -- and your father is laughing, leaning way back and laughing, this warm face laughing, and you know he is going to laugh at the next one. And he did and he did and he did. (New York, mid-1960s)

From "Enter Talking," by Joan Rivers with Richard Meryman (Delacorte Press, 1986)

Rona Barrett, gossip columnist and TV show host. Mutual knocks

... when Johnny Carson wanted somebody to pick on, he picked on me. The "Rona Barrett doesn't have to cut her steak with a knife" remark came one night after I ran the scoop item on his divorce-to-be. John was mad then, but the truth is that all the knocks he's put on me since (and me on him) are just the two of us knocking what's good for each other. When we meet in person, I like him very much and he always gives me a big, sincere kiss. On the mouth. (mid-1960s)

From "Miss Rona: An Autobiography," by Rona Barrett (Nash Publishing, 1974)

Cher, singer. "A big Nixon fan."

On election night in 1968, Son [Sonny Bono] and I were invited to Jack Benny's house. A bunch of people were sitting around the television as Nixon made his acceptance speech. Johnny Carson, who was a big Nixon fan I guess, was there ... But Lucy [Ball] thought that Nixon's speech was boring, and she started making these great, rude jokes and noises while he was speaking. You could tell that Johnny Carson wasn't happy -- actually, he was pissed off -- but he wasn't going to say anything to her, right? I didn't like Nixon, either, and I couldn't stop laughing, especially because I knew I wasn't supposed to. (Beverly Hills, Calif., 1968)

from "The First Time," by Cher with Jeff Coplon (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Marty Ingels, comedian. Mutual discomfort

"The Tonight Show" called. That was every comic's "big" shot. I had been on a few times before, usually when one of the regulars had to cancel out. But it never really happened there for me.

For all that the country loved him, Carson struck me as tied up and nervous inside, as I was. I was moving like mad with the other talk shows -- Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Les Crane, Virginia Graham, all pussycat people who dug my humor and whose shows, of course, would all hit the network skids. So I never felt really comfortable with Carson.

I know he felt that way with me. I didn't do his kind of comedy, and he seemed offended by my insecurity. The word was he thought I "spilled my guts too much." He actually ended up putting me on the show's "don't book" list. (New York, late 1960s)

From "Shirley & Marty: An Unlikely Love Story," by Shirley Jones & Marty Ingels with Mickey Herskowitz (William Morrow, 1990)

Isaac Asimov, science fiction writer. Here's JOE-NEE!

Johnny Carson, himself, however, I thought less of [than fellow guest Gore Vidal]. He ignored me completely when he arrived before the show. Then, on greeting me on the air, he pronounced my first name "I-ZAK," with equal emphasis on both syllables, instead of "I-zik," with the first syllable accented. A minor sin, surely, but I was on network television and I think the least a host can do for his guest is to ascertain the correct pronunciation of his name.

My impulse on being addressed, "How are you, I-ZAK?," was to answer, "Fine, and how are you, JOE-NEE?" I lacked the nerve, however, and have regretted that ever since. (New York, late 1960s)

From "In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978," by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 1980)

Richie Havens, folk musician. "Handsome Johnny."

I played "Handsome Johnny" in my first of more than a dozen appearances on The Tonight Show ...

The live audience was mostly made up of visiting tourists from the Midwest. I thought they might not like "Handsome Johnny" because it spoke sharply about the war [Vietnam] we were in. To my surprise, the audience understood perfectly what was being said about war in general. They stood and applauded until Johnny Carson went to commercials, and they stood and applauded through the commercial break. They were still applauding just as enthusiastically when we came back on the air. The moment was unmistakably powerful.

Most people watching at home had no idea that the applause never stopped, but Johnny saw firsthand what was happening and spontaneously walked over to where I was standing and invited me back to perform again the next night and to do another song right then and there. Later he told me that the only other performer he ever invited to play on consecutive nights was Barbra Streisand. But she had another concert and could not make it back. (New York, 1968)

From "They Can't Hide Us Anymore," by Richie Havens with Steve Davidowitz (Avon Books, 1999)

Burt Reynolds, actor. "Alter ego"

Johnny Carson, the High Lama of late-night television, asked me if I wanted to guest host the "Tonight Show" while he took a night off.

I would never have had the same career without Johnny. From my first appearance on the "Tonight Show" in the late sixties, we were captivated by each other. I was still pre-Dinah [Shore] then, and I think I was doing everything Johnny would've liked to be doing. I think he saw me as his alter ego.

I studied Johnny like a premed student taking basic anatomy. Damn, he was the best. If he laughed at you, America laughed, too. If he liked you, America liked you. You were a great guy. And Johnny liked me a lot. (New York, late 1960s)

From "My Life," by Burt Reynolds (Hyperion, 1994)

Beverly Sills, opera singer. "Humanizing opera"

Carson always encouraged me to try interesting things. For instance, he'd get a harpist for me and I'd sing something by Rachmaninoff or Rimsky-Korsakov. Or I'd do some Spanish songs with his guitarist ...

I began appearing on a lot of television talk shows, and I have Johnny Carson to thank for that. It was Carson who first told me: "If you come on 'The Tonight Show,' you'll humanize opera. Show 'em you look like everybody else, that you have kids, a life, that you have to diet." I thought: Smart man ! After going on with Johnny, I did my first 'Dick Cavett Show' that December and then appeared with Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. I intended to do just what Carson advised: I wanted to popularize opera and demonstrate to people that opera singers aren't unapproachable aliens. (New York, 1969)

From "Beverly: An Autobiography," by Beverly Sills with Lawrence Linderman (Bantam Books, 1987)

Robin Morgan, child actor, poet and feminist. "Walked off live."

A few weeks before [son] Blake's birth, I do "The Tonight Show," at that time still aired live. The staff promises not to raise "my past," but to treat seriously issues of the present. While on air, citing statistics on employment and education discrimination, I glance at a monitor and see that I'm really doing a voice-over, while clips from the network film morgue are being run: little Dagmar eating that eternal cookie, Alice arguing with the Cheshire cat. Mortified, I interrupt myself and call it. Carson puts on his quizzical, raised-eyebrows, whywhatssamater look. Big laugh from the audience. I explain courteously but firmly that I agreed to do the show in order to publicize issues that affect women's lives, and that his staff had sworn not to trivialize that by focusing on my having once been a kid actor. He manages to turn my indignation into a joke. This is no-win. I rise, politely wish him good evening, and walk off -- off camera, off stage. There is panic behind me as I leave the stage door. Nobody walks off "The Tonight Show," live, on air. (New York, 1969)

From "Saturday's Child: A Memoir," by Robin Morgan (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001)

Sammy Davis Jr., singer, actor and dancer. My wife's name.

I was on the Johnny Carson show and I mentioned "my wife Altovise ..."

He gave me a look. "Anchovies?"

"Get outta here, John. Alto-vise ... it means high view." (Los Angeles, early 1970s)

From "Why Me?" By Sammy Davis Jr. with Jane and Burt Boyar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989)

Jim Brown, football player. Gift of a girl

I went on ["The Tonight Show"]. Johnny and I started discussing younger women, the dating of them, a subject we both knew a little about. A few weeks later I was at The Candy Store, everyone said, Jim, Johnny Carson was looking for you. I received a few more messages saying Johnny needed to speak with me. I figured it must be important, finally got through to him. He was calling me about a girl. A freak. Johnny wanted to turn me on to her. I met her, she was wonderful, a wonderful freak. That was my gift from Johnny. (Los Angeles, early 1970s)

From "Out of Bounds," by Jim Brown with Steve Delsohn (Zebra Books/Kensington Publishing, 1989)

B.B. King, blues musician. "Time to warm up to you."

"The Tonight Show" ... I'd been bumped a couple of times because of overbooking. I didn't get mad; I figured it's just showbiz. I finally got on when Flip Wilson was substituting for Johnny Carson. Later Johnny had me on himself. At first, though, he didn't invite me over to the couch after I'd played. Friends wanted to know why he didn't talk to me. Well, maybe he didn't have anything to talk to me about. Was I angry? No, I was happy to get a national shot at selling my songs. I also saw Johnny as the kind of guy who needs time to warm up to you. After a year or two, he did invite me over to the couch and, from then on, we had nice chats. I liked Johnny's wit, and I appreciated that he had me on the show twenty-seven times. (Los Angeles, early 1970s)

From "Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King," by B.B. King with David Ritz (Avon, 1996)

Joe Garagiola, baseball player and broadcaster. "Naturally funny man."

"The Tonight Show" is Johnny Carson, the Babe Ruth of talk show hosts. Just like people always ask me "What's Barbara Walters like?" once I did "The Tonight Show," I'd always hear, "What's Johnny Carson like?"

I know him only from the show. We've been in makeup at the same time, and we've talked after the show, but we've never gone out for a couple of beers or anything like that. Yet I feel if I called him and told him I was in trouble, he'd help me. Sitting on the couch talking with him, you always feel he's listening, not trying to think up a funny line and waiting to drop it in. He wants the show to look good. And don't let the cue cards fool you. Johnny Carson is a naturally funny man. He thinks funny but doesn't mind letting the other guy get the laugh. He loves to laugh and to make people laugh, and he has great timing. If I'd had his timing while using a bat, I'd still be playing. To be able to do what he does, you have to be a big talent. (early 1970s)

From "It's Anybody's Ballgame," by Joe Garagiola (Contemporary Books, 1988)

Wayne Newton, singer. Nervous apology.

I decided I'd had it with being a sissy joke, and that's when I confronted Johnny Carson. Wherever I went, I used to hear that Carson was telling gay jokes about me. I sent him messages asking him to stop. Then, one night in 1973, I was watching his show and during his monologue he said, "I saw Wayne Newton and Liberace together in a pink bathtub. What do you think that meant?" I got so incensed that I decided to do something about it ...

Driving over, I hardly spoke a word. When I get angry I tend to be like the calm before the storm. And this thing had been building for a long time. When I walked into Carson's outer office, his secretary said, "Can I help you?" I said, "No, thank you. I think he can." I walked right past her and into Carson's office ... Carson just sat there ... shocked ... I remember every word I told Carson. I said, "I am here because I'm going through a personal dilemma in my life. I want to know what child of yours I've killed. I want to know what food of yours I've taken out of your mouth. I want to know what I've done that's so devastating to you that you persist in shooting at me with those persistent gay jokes." Carson's face went white. He said, "But Wayne, I don't write these things." I told him I'd feel better if he did and he asked me why. I said, "because at least it would mean that you're not a puppet, that you aren't just reading malicious lies written by some writer who crawled out from under a rock. It would be better if you did hate me. At least you'd have a reason for your lies. I'm telling you right now it had better stop or I'll knock you on your ass." Carson was shaken. He said, "I promise you nothing was ever intended in a malicious way. I've always been a big fan." And then he went through all this crap about how much he liked me. He just kept talking and it was obviously a nervous apology. But he never again told Wayne Newton jokes. In fact, I even did his show after that. (Burbank, Calif., 1973)

From "Once Before I Go," by Wayne Newton with Dick Maurice (William Morrow, 1989)

Maggie Kuhn, advocate for the elderly. Taking initiative.

I remember the first time I was on Johnny Carson in 1974. I think Carson probably intended to make fun of me -- you know, Grandma Moses takes on the world. But I have learned that on talk shows you have to take initiative. Before Johnny could question me, I leaned forward and said, in a beguiling tone, "Johnny, I'm so glad you don't dye your hair. Your gray hair is becoming." He was flustered and pleased. He smoothed his hair, straightened his tie, and smiled. (Los Angeles, 1974)

From "No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn," by Maggie Kuhn with Laura Quinn (Ballantine, 1990)

Suzanne Somers, actress. His "touching lady."

"And now," I heard Johnny say, "we have a beautiful young actress. She's just written a book of poems called 'Touch Me' (and I sure would like to! Ha! Ha! Ha!), but you are all going to know her as" (I wondered what he was going to say) "the beautiful blonde in the '57 white Thunderbird in American Graffiti. Would you welcome Suzanne Somers!"

Johnny asked me where I was from and how long I'd been in Los Angeles.

"One week," I told him honestly.

"Well, you sure don't waste any time," he said, laughing.

I was booked on "The Tonight Show" about every six weeks. It amazed me. Johnny really liked talking to me. I would read poetry and make him laugh. He told me I was "refreshing." We did touching demos, playing on the title of my book. We touched everything you could legally touch on television. I became known as the "touching lady." (Los Angeles, mid-1970s)

From "Keeping Secrets," by Suzanne Somers (Warner Books, 1988)

Jay Leno, TV talk show host. Advice.

One night, he [Harvey Korman] brought Johnny Carson into the L.A. Improv specifically to see me and a few other comedians he liked. Of course, this sent an electric current through the place. Johnny was in the house! The mountain had come to us! It was thrilling and also a bit intimidating. But we all went up and did our acts, trying not to be self-conscious or, at least, not to look like idiots. On my way out, I approached their table and said to Johnny, "Thank you for coming in, sir."

And he said very genuinely, "That was funny stuff, but you're not quite ready. Your jokes are too far apart and you don't have enough of them. You're getting good laughs, but you need more jokes." (Los Angeles, mid-1970s)

From "Leading With My Chin," by Jay Leno with Bill Zehme (HarperCollins, 1996)

Dolly Parton, country singer. "Great relationship."

... on "The Tonight Show" on my birthday in 1977. That was when I first became aware of the power of big-time television and what it could do for a person's career. It doesn't hurt your record sales any either. Johnny got a huge laugh when he pretended to be fixated by my bosoms for a while and finally said, "I'd give a week's pay to look under that shirt."

I always had a great relationship with Johnny Carson, although I never saw him except on the panel during the show. It became something of a tradition. He would always come to my dressing room and knock on the door before the show, but I would never come out. After a while, he knew I wasn't coming out, but he played along with the custom as if we were a bride and groom before a wedding. When we were on the set, we always talked and laughed and had a great time. People would think we had been friends forever. (Los Angeles, 1977)

From "Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business," by Dolly Parton (HarperCollins, 1994)

Kenneth Tynan, drama critic. "Midshipman."

... a dinner party tonight at the Beverly Hills home of Irving Lazar, doyen of agents and agent of doyens ... the male latecomer who now enters, lean and dapper in an indigo blazer, white slacks, and a pale-blue open-necked shirt ... he arrives alone (his wife, Joanna, has stopped off in New York for a few days' shopping), greets his host with the familiar smile, cordially wry, and scans the assembly, his eyes twinkling like icicles. Hard to believe, despite the pewter-colored hair, that he is fifty-one: he holds himself like the midshipman he once was, chin well tucked in, back as straight as a poker.

... thirty minutes later, Carson is sitting by the pool, where four or five people have joined him. He chats with impersonal affability, making no effort to dominate, charm, or amuse ...

Meeting him a few days afterward, I enquire what he thought of the party. He half grins, half winces. "Torturous?" he says. (Beverly Hills, Ca., 1977)

From "Show People: Profiles in Entertainment," by Kenneth Tynan (Simon and Schuster, 1979)

Barry Manilow, singer. "Gentleman."

Standing there in the wings waiting for Johnny Carson to introduce me for my first appearance on his show, I felt more nervous than I had ever felt in my life. "Pull yourself together," I kept telling myself, but my heart kept flopping around inside my chest ...

I had been making the One Voice album and had been off the road for about seven months. When it came time to start promoting it, "The Tonight Show" was suggested because of its huge audience and because I had never done it before ...

I hadn't slept at all the night before the show. I was working myself into a state of nerves that was way beyond the reality of the situation. I had rehearsed the few songs I was to sing and the band sounded fine. I knew what I was going to say to Johnny and I also knew that he was going to be gentle and easy to deal with. There really was no reason for this case of nerves, but it was there nevertheless ...

As I walked out to the greeting of the audience, I began to feel a little better. When I heard the familiar music we'd rehearsed, I felt stronger, and by the time I was halfway into the song, I was fine!

The interview was a breeze: Johnny was a gentleman and seemed glad to see me on his show. The last song was very strong, the band sounded fine, and when I waved good-bye, I felt good. (Los Angeles, 1978)

From "Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise," by Barry Manilow (McGraw-Hill, 1987)

Marilu Henner, actress. "Off our games."

I went out and gave Johnny a surprise ... unscripted and beyond my control. I was so nervous about making a good impression that by the time I walked onstage, my nipples were hard and practically poking through the sheer silk blouse I wore.

Johnny did not fail to notice.

"Oh," he said, "it must be cold backstage," nodding to my chest. I couldn't believe it. This was all I needed to ruin my big chance to shine with Johnny. I turned beet-red, clammed up, and froze. I struggled to gather my wits, but every time I opened my mouth I was afraid I was repeating myself and I wondered if I was at the beginning, middle, or end of my story. I was not in present time.

For no reason at all, I began speaking with a phony British accent. I was totally disoriented, and terrible.

The Tonight staff called my publicist the next day to apologize. Johnny, they said, had reviewed the show, and had asked, "How many shows have we done like that?" He too had felt skittish, off his game. (Los Angeles, 1979)

From "By All Means Keep On Moving," by Marilu Henner with Jim Jerome (Pocket Star Books, 1994)

Andy Warhol, pop artist. "Really exciting."

... a birthday dinner for Lynn Wyatt ... Johnny Carson was going to be there and I couldn't wait to meet him ...

Lynn took me around to introduce me to people. And the first person she introduced me to was Johnny Carson. That was really exciting. He's not short. He's tall. He has grey hair and he looks so healthy. I took lots of pictures of him. And his wife Joanna is beautiful, she used to be a model with Norell so we dished the dresses and fashion and junk like that and I didn't take any pictures. I was just too -- I thought it would be too much. Everybody was too scared to sit at the Johnny Carson table. (New York, 1980)

From "The Andy Warhol Diaries," edited by Pat Hackett (Warner Books, 1989)

Maureen Reagan, daughter of Ronald Reagan. "Puppy-dog eyes."

... on Tuesday, January 20, 1981 -- my father. . . was sworn in as the fortieth president of the United States ...

... the gala ... that evening at the Capital Center ...

Johnny Carson seemed a little tentative when he came out with his battery of jokes at the President's expense, though I'm sure his uncertainty was just part of his act. He kept looking up at Dad's box after each joke, as if to say, "Is that OK? Is that OK?" and each time he looked up with his sad puppy-dog eyes for some kind of presidential approval, Dad would just lose it all the more. All the news footage and photos from that evening show Dad, and the rest of us, just having a grand old time. (Washington, D.C.)

From "First Father, First Daughter: A Memoir," by Maureen Reagan (Little, Brown, 1989)

Reba McEntire, country singer. "Nice and gracious."

... my chance to meet the other Johnny [other than Cash], Johnny Carson, the late-night king himself and the host of the granddaddy of all the network television shows. On that first, 1983, "Tonight Show" date, for good luck -- and because I couldn't afford anything else -- I wore that same dress that Johnny Cash had given me for his TV special. Naturally, I was a bundle of nerves, but when I met Carson backstage before the show, he was very nice and gracious ...

Johnny questioned me about my background in rodeo, and I explained that I had been a barrel racer. He seemed fascinated by the way I said "barrel" and kept asking me to repeat it, impersonating me and making fun of how I said "barrel."

Well, Johnny's from Nebraska, and that's about as rural as Oklahoma. I guess he lost his Nebraska accent a long time ago. But, in hindsight, I can see that Johnny meant no harm -- he was just trying to break the ice. (Los Angeles, 1983)

From "Reba: My Story," by Reba McEntire with Tom Carter (Bantam, 1994)

Cybill Shepherd, actor. Horseplay.

Carson could really bring out the risqui in me: on one occasion, he put on a pair of horns, got down on his hands and knees, and let me lasso him. Another time he knocked a cup of coffee over on his desk, and [I] said, "If you'd spilled it in your lap, I could have cleaned it up." (Los Angeles, 1980s)

From "Cybill Disobedience," by Cybill Shepherd with Aime Lee Ball (HarperCollins, 2000)

Bob Woolf, lawyer and negotiator. "Eye contact."

No one makes eye contact better than Johnny Carson. Each night, he "negotiates" his guests through interviews. His goal isn't a contract, but simply good conversation. Appearing on "The Tonight Show" is an exciting but also nerve-wracking prospect ... you sit in the green room, watching the guest before you. The pressure builds. You're waiting to get on and you know millions of people are going to be watching ...

You're standing there, listening to Johnny Carson introduce you, and your heart is pounding. The last thing I thought of was my wife and kids, and I said to myself, "Here I go." It was the kind of feeling you must get before making a first parachute jump.

You step out and suddenly, there you are, sitting next to the most famous face on television. The point is that Carson knows how nervous his guests are, even if that guest is a big star. What separates Carson from anybody I have ever dealt with on television, and one of the things that makes him a great interviewer, is the simple fact that he gives you constant eye contact.

You are out there talking to him, still nervous, still unsure of yourself, when all of a sudden it seems like just the two of you having a friendly conversation. There may be twenty million people watching at home and a big audience just behind the cameras, but you don't even think of that. All you know is you're talking to Johnny Carson. He is looking directly at you, allowing you to shut out all the distractions and feel totally comfortable in what otherwise would remain a terrifying situation. Even during a break, he does all he can to put you at ease. During one commercial, he leaned over to me and joked that "alimony is the bounty after the mutiny" and "alimony is for services unrendered." (Los Angeles, mid-1980s)

From "Friendly Persuasion: My Life As a Negotiator," by Bob Woolf (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990)

Vanna White, game show doll. Liver, lamb and opera.

... the things I'd dreamed about for years. Being on Johnny Carson's Tonight show is right at the top of the list ... I agonized for days over what I would wear, what he would say, what I would say, and on and on ...

I waited in the wings for my introduction. I took a deep breath, and when I heard Johnny say my name, I walked out through the curtains, waved hello, walked toward him, and took my seat. This was really it. The only thing I remember is Johnny saying to me, "I hear you don't like three things -- liver, lamb, and opera." By the time he got to the word things, I knew exactly what was coming. This was one of those quotes I'd given to the press. But here I was sitting next to [Luciano] Pavarotti, probably the greatest living opera singer in the world. For a moment I froze, but then Mr. Pavarotti came to my rescue by saying, "I don't like liver or lamb, and perhaps tonight I don't like opera either." How sweet of him! I grabbed his hand and told him how wonderful he was, and the next day I bought some of his albums. And after listening to them, I've decided that I do like opera, after all. (Los Angeles, mid-1980s)

From "Vanna Speaks," by Vanna White with Patricia Romanowski (Warner Books, 1987)

Willie Nelson, country musician. Handling groupies.

... taping the Johnny Carson show ... we'd parked our bus convoy in the middle of the NBC lot at Universal, causing much comment. Johnny Carson had to work his way through the buses to slip his sports car into his own parking spot, which is right by the front door to the NBC studio.

So on the show, the first thing Johnny talked about was the buses. The day before, one of his producers had phoned me at L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills and drilled me on the questions Johnny would ask. I remember one question was how did I handle female groupies. The producer said, "I guess you just get rid of them, huh?"

I said, "Sure I can do that."

But on the show, Johnny kept talking about the buses being the center of attention in Burbank that day, and how he could barely squeeze his car into the lot, and what a wild, free, glamorous kind of life it must be out there on the road rolling on the bus.

I said, "Well, I try to give them whatever I can."

That broke up Johnny, because he was expecting the answer about getting rid of them. It got a real big laugh everywhere, in fact. But, shit, it's the answer I was going to give the producer, because it's the truth. (Burbank, Calif., 1987)

From "Willie: An Autobiography," by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake (Simon and Schuster, 1988)

Roseanne Arnold, comedian and actor. Biggest woman comic ever.

I do "The Tonight Show" and I'm just higher than hell, greatest night of my life ...

... in my dressing room, unwinding, coming back. Knock-knock. "Get out there. Johnny wants you."

Johnny knows his stuff. He still knows how to do it. And he made all of us comics ... imagine what I felt like when he came backstage, took my hand and said, "Do you write your own material?" (I told him I did.) "You have great timing." I thanked him effusively. He was patting my hand. "You're going to be a big star, maybe the biggest woman comic ever. I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE IT." (Los Angeles, late 1980s)

From "My Lives," by Roseanne Arnold (Ballantine Books, 1994)

Regis Philbin, TV show host. No way to return?

I visited Johnny one afternoon at his Santa Monica offices. It's as impressive a place as I had imagined it would be. Johnny presides, very casually, in a beautifully decorated suite overlooking the ocean, with a staff of three. I found him calm, relaxed, and funny as ever. We talked about what it would take to bring him back to television. I suggested the Academy Awards, but Johnny said no. In fact, he had no idea what would lure him. I got the feeling he wouldn't be back at all. After ending his long reign with such class and fanfare, maybe there's no way to return. We all wandered out to lunch and had lots of laughs. (Santa Monica, Calif., 1994)

From "I'm Only One Man," by Regis Philbin with Bill Zehme (Hyperion, 1995)

Dana Cook

Dana Cook is a Toronto freelance editor and literary ambulance chaser. His collage portraits of Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Saul Bellow and Hunter S. Thompson have appeared previously in Salon.


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