Boy, isn’t Queen Elizabeth something?” Johnny Carson monologued recently on The Tonight Show. “She’s only 53, works when she wants to, is worth millions, and now she wants to retire…Some people don’t know when they have it made.” The lese majesté was, of course, aimed at himself, though the Great Carsoni, 54, might more aptly be compared to the Great Abdicator, King Edward VIII. Carson’s announcement this year that he planned to give up his 17-year reign and walk out of his $2.5 million NBC contract was the showbiz bombshell of the year. The Wall Street Journal soberly assessed the defection as costing NBC some 10 percent of its pretax profits.
But, superb comedian that he is, Carson may once again be displaying his innate sense of timing. After all, Calvin Coolidge chose not to preside over the Depression, boxer Rocky Marciano counted himself out before a defeat, pitcher Sandy Koufax sent himself to the showers, and Beverly Sills’ voice cracked only when she announced her retirement. Yet Johnny’s decision to quit while he’s ahead (embarrassingly revealed on NBC rival CBS’ 60 Minutes) may have been inadvertently hastened by NBC’s other peacock, President Fred Silverman. Freddie had reportedly ruffled Johnny’s feathers by publicly nudging him to appear more than thrice-weekly; encroaching on his territory by guaranteeing guest gigs to NBC second-liners like Kelly Lange; and cutting back Carson’s perks of limos, flowers and champagne. Even when Johnny’s anniversary special this fall boosted NBC to a rare weekly ratings win, network execs irksomely (and vainly) asked him to host his regular show that same night.
The contract dispute—now in the hands of an impartial referee, retired L.A. Superior Court Judge Parks Stillwell—will determine when Carson can rightfully give up his Tonight grind. ABC has pointedly praised Johnny for his masterful hosting of this year’s Academy Awards show, given him an expensive ostrich-skin attaché case and signed him again for 1980’s Oscar telecast. Clearly, it doesn’t take Carnak the Magnificent to guess what might be in the envelope ABC proffered Carson: whatever he wants. Though flatly denying negotiations, top ABC execs splashily entertained Johnny on the French Riviera in July.
The attention must gratify someone whose enormous success is matched only by his bank account and unaccountably fragile ego. Carson’s shrewd business dealings, Vegas appearances (at some $225,000 weekly), clothing line and real estate holdings bring him an estimated $12 to $15 million annually. Though the parlor game of guessing Carson’s eventual Tonight Show replacement will surely intensify, nobody does it better than the perennially boyish Nebraskan. As Ed McMahon pronounced some months ago: “The last time I say ‘Heeeere’s Johnny’ is going to be a traumatic moment for America.”