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Tonight Show Pays Loving Tribute to Johnny

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As fans of the late Johnny Carson placed flowers on his Hollywood Boulevard star and at a makeshift memorial in New York’s Times Square Monday, the home base of TV’s host of hosts, NBC’s Tonight Show, paid proper tribute with an affectionate, all-star retrospective in beautiful downtown Burbank.

On hand, with current host Jay Leno, were Carson stalwarts Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, Carson discovery Drew Carey, and Carson’s professional sidekick for three decades, Ed McMahon.

“As a performer, I never wanted to impress anyone more than Johnny Carson,” said Jay Leno, who took over for Carson in 1992. “Johnny had that special quality of grace, charm and dignity in the public arena. He was an incredibly polite man and when you were invited into his house, this show, you knew you were an honored guest.”

Carson, a longtime smoker, died in his Malibu home Sunday after battling emphysema. He was 79 and had been retired for 13 years. David Letterman, who, as several obituary writers noted was considered by Carson himself to be Johnny’s real successor, is expected to pay homage when Late Show resumes taping next Monday.

As for Monday night’s remembrance, McMahon painted Carson as a caring yet distant figure, saying: “He was great with 10 million people, lousy with 10.”

Oddly, Steve Martin, who catapulted to fame in large part thanks to appearances on Carson (as the Tonight Show was invariably called) in the ’70s, had been silent during the flood of tributes that started appearing immediately after the news of Carson’s death was announced.

That situation was rectified Tuesday, with Martin’s lengthy, loving article on the op-ed page of The New York Times, illustrated with a photo of Carson’s curtain – without Carson.

Written as a letter to “Dear Johnny,” Martin wishes to thank Carson “in death, for the things I couldn’t quite say to you in life. Thank you for the opportunity you gave me and the others – despite divisive wars and undulating political strife – for one hour a night across 30 years of American life when we were entertained purely, delightfully and wisely.”