THESE HAVE NOT BEEN THE MOST HAPPY several weeks now,” said Johnny Carson on returning to The Tonight Show July 17. His absence of more than a month was supposed to have been just another vacation, one in which he could ponder his looming retirement—a decision he’d announced on May 23. But swiftly the hiatus had turned into a nightmare. First, on June 21, Rick, the second of his three sons, a 39-year-old photographer, was killed in a freak accident when his Nissan Pathfinder rolled down a ravine in Cayucos, Calif. A mere 11 days later, close friend Michael Landon succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 54. Now Carson was back at his familiar desk, but as his longtime announcer Ed McMahon reported, “Johnny is still in shock.” And the unaccustomedly awkward opening monologue confirmed it. For perhaps the first time ever, Carson’s pain was visible. In a mere month the 65-year-old host seemed to have aged a decade.
Then, in the show’s final moments, Carson broke with years of deliberate silence about his family to present a touching tribute to his son. “He was an exuberant young man, fun to be around…. He tried so darn hard to please,” he said simply, his voice choking with emotion. He then closed the show with a series of Rick’s recent landscape photos.
“I think it took a lot of courage for Johnny to do that,” McMahon observes. “He’s such a private man, and his loss was so great.”
For Carson, Rick’s eulogy also meant revealing to approximately 12 million viewers a piece of his inner self—the sentimental side that even his close friends are rarely, if ever, permitted to glimpse. And, perhaps even worse, it meant stirring up unpleasant personal business for public consumption. Carson’s first wife, Jody, married to him from 1949 to 1963, was conspicuously absent from their son’s funeral; according to her lawyer Raoul Felder, she hadn’t been informed of Rick’s death until after his burial. “Johnny tried to notify her,” insists second wife Joanne, whose own nine-year marriage to him ended in 1972, and who remains in contact with her ex. “But Jody moves around a lot and doesn’t always tell anyone where she is.” Typically, the inscrutable Carson has remained silent on the matter. As his buddy Burt Reynolds says, “This is not a man who wears his feelings on his sleeve.”
Yet these days, as he has begun to sprinkle his opening monologues with wry references to his retirement (scheduled for next May 22), Johnny is definitely revealing more of himself on-camera than ever before. Nevertheless, America’s late-night pal is not exactly an open book. In fact, while Carson may be the man who has logged more hours in our bedrooms than many a lover, off-camera he has always been obsessed with avoiding the limelight. He gives few interviews and rarely attends even the A-list dinner parties. Despite the glare from coverage of his four marriages, three messy divorces and past troubles with alcohol (including a 1982 arrest for drunken driving), he lives deeper in the shadows than perhaps any other contemporary celebrity.
Friends describe him as generous, loyal but, above all, “private.” Yet others are less forgiving of the reclusive Carson nature. “He’s a totally isolated person, very dour,” says one. “If he’s at a party and feels comfortable, he’ll be very introverted. And if he’s not at ease, he’ll be doing card tricks. Like most comedians, he’s funny onstage. Offstage he’s very unhappy.”
“On the show, I’m in control,” Carson has said. “Socially, I’m not.”
Talk show host Dick Cavett, a fellow Nebraskan, onetime Tonight writer, and friend, sees Johnny’s remoteness differently: “I think he makes his small talk on TV, and to do it elsewhere is probably painful.”
For the late critic Kenneth Tynan, Carson’s manner was “impeccably diplomatic. Even so, you get the impression that you are addressing an elaborately wired security system.”
And very few penetrate the barriers. Two of Carson’s four wives make the case that he has had a spotty relationship with sons Chris, 40, a onetime golf pro in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Cory, 37, a sometime guitarist in Los Angeles; and of course Rick. “Why is that [the warmth he shows on stage]—which everybody in the nation loves and gets—not there for…his children?” third wife Joanna Carson has remarked about Johnny’s sparse attention to his family. And according to the boys’ mother, Jody, 64, Johnny not only had a drinking problem, but “he wasn’t around that much. He was always working.”
“Rick was brought up in boarding schools, and he was almost too nice,” says one of Rick’s friends. “He was very sensitive and had a hard time.”
While Johnny was concerned for his son, “His policy was mostly hands-off,” explains another buddy of Rick’s. “But Johnny was rooting for him. In fact, Rick called in late spring, very excited. For the first time Johnny had invited him over to play tennis. Imagine! And Johnny’s had a court for at least 20 years. I’m glad Ricky had that wish answered before he died.”
Johnny’s second wife, Joanne, 59, an actress who, after their divorce, earned a Ph.D. in nutrition, defends his offhand brand of parenting. “He loves his kids deeply, and he was especially close to Ricky. And Ricky adored his father,” she insists. As for Johnny himself, “I found him to be a very caring, sensitive, empathetic individual. You have to understand, he is shy, he has had a midwestern upbringing. It’s not his style to let it all hang out.”
Carson grew up in Norfolk, Nebr., the middle of three children born to the late Homer (Kit) Carson, a power-company manager, and his wife, Ruth, a housewife who died in 1985. The Carsons were a frugal and reserved lot. “Nobody in our family ever says what they really think or feel to anyone else,” his younger brother Dick, director of Wheel of Fortune, has observed.
However stingy with his emotions he may be in private, Johnny’s generosity toward other performers is legendary. He has not only given two generations of stand-up comics—from Robert Klein to Roseanne Barr—their starts by repeatedly inviting them to perform on his show, but as a straight man to funny guests, he’s a dream. “He could tell when you’d hit comic gold,” Mel Brooks has said, “and he’d help you mine it.”
But if the public Carson seems giving, affable and easy to read, the private man remains a puzzle. Even with his estimated fortune of more than $100 million, colleagues describe him as someone of simple tastes: He has a spartan dressing room, eats plain NBC commissary food and drives his own car, a white Corvette. On the other hand, his $8.9 million, 12,000-square-foot Point Dume home is lavish, and his art collection (including paintings by David Hockney) elaborate. He has three hobbies—drumming, astronomy and tennis. Like clockwork, he travels to Wimbledon every June (even following son Rick’s death) and the U.S. Open in New York City every September. Otherwise, he pretty much keeps to the familiar boundaries of home and his small circle of friendly advisers like producer Freddie deCordova and former NBC executive Dave Tebet. Genuinely shy, he has said that he avoids parties because “I get embarrassed by attention and adulation. I don’t know how to react to them in private.” But occasionally he and fourth wife Alexis Mass, 41, invite guests like Cavett, astronomer Carl Sagan and actor Sidney Poitier to dinner. Or they’ll enjoy a meal—linguine in clam sauce for him, stuffed peppers for her—at Monroe’s, a local Malibu beach restaurant.
Over the years Johnny has surprised many allies by abruptly severing relations with them—manager Al Bruno, who made Carson a star but, once fired (for the alleged crime of booking him into a nightclub with a poor sound system), was deserted by other clients as well and eventually retired to a farm in upstate New York; producer Art Stark, who set The Tonight Show on its smooth course but, once fired, was relegated to producing such shows as The Junior Miss Pageant and died in 1982; attorney and closest buddy Henry Bushkin, who after a few sour business deals, including a failed attempt to take over the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, was permanently banished from the kingdom; and, of course, onetime Tonight heiress apparent Joan Rivers.
Rivers herself describes two very different Johnnys. One was the nurturing mentor. “He believed in me more than I believed in me,” she says.
Yet the other Johnny, the one who she says didn’t even offer condolences in 1987 when her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, seems petty and vindictive. On first starting her ill-fated late-night talk show for Fox Broadcasting in 1986, Rivers says, “You’d be surprised at the number of good friends who didn’t come on because they were scared”—afraid they’d never get on Tonight again.
Fear often crops up as a factor in the Carson equation—fear among Johnny’s colleagues that if they misstep, as Bruno and Stark were perceived to have done, they’ll be stricken from his life. And fear among his wives of his explosive temper. “John was violent, he drank. He was abusive both physically and emotionally,” says Jody. She recalls that when she asked for a separation, Johnny tore up their living room, then “started beating me all over my chest.”
The late writer Truman Capote, a UN Plaza neighbor and close pal of second wife Joanne, once recalled, “He was mean as hell to her. He’d get drunk and start beating her, and she would take refuge in my apartment.” Yet today Joanne denies it all. “As for talk about Johnny’s violence, I never saw any. He wasn’t difficult to live with at all,” she claims.
Still, he stormed through three marriages, piling up infidelities (singer Jill Corey was one), bouts with booze and an alimony tab estimated at $88,000 annually, but not including the $20-odd million in cash and property that third wife Joanna walked away with. Moreover, according to one reputable observer, his marriage to Mass, a former secretary who reportedly met him while strolling by his Malibu beach house in a bikini, is also rumored to be “wobbly.” But others claim that Carson has mellowed over the years, that these days he rarely drinks and doesn’t smoke. And pal Reynolds paints a different marital picture. “I see them as very happy. She thinks he’s very funny,” he says. “It helps when your wife thinks you’re funny.”
Reynolds regards Johnny as a thoughtful friend. A few years ago when he was ill with temporomandibular-joint disorder and battling unfounded AIDS rumors, “I heard from him every week,” he explains. “He’d say, ‘Get up and get out.’ He made the effort to call. Nobody else did.”
“People seems to have bought the image of Johnny as a cold, heartless man,” observes Cavett. “Or maybe this is a convenient mask for him because it keeps people away. But he’s very easily moved. I’ve always liked him. And I liked working for him. It will be odd to have him off the scene.”
How will Carson himself adjust? “He’ll miss doing what he does best,” predicts Burt Reynolds. “How many tennis matches can you play? I have a feeling that in a year or so he’ll want to do something. He’s full of surprises.”
True, as Carson’s tribute to his son revealed. After all, the man is difficult to second-guess. “Nobody knows Johnny. The only time he comes alive is on camera,” Truman Capote once remarked. Or as a former friend suggests, if he had to write an epitaph it would be: “I wonder who Johnny is?”
ELEANOR HOOVER and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles