By J.D. Reed
March 15, 1999 12:00 PM

Doc Severinsen, the former bandleader of NBC’s The Tonight Show, recalls talking to a flight attendant shortly after his boss signed off for good on May 22, 1992. “She was visibly upset,” says Severinsen. “She said, ‘Whenever I would go to a strange city, a strange hotel room, I’d turn on The Tonight Show, and it was a little bit like being home.’ ”

Johnny Carson was to TV entertainment what Walter Cronkite was to TV news: reliable, respected, reassuring. (And, okay, a lot funnier.) Whether he was schmoozing with George Burns, interviewing a woman who collected potato chips that looked like celebrities, or trying to get a marmoset out of his hair, the Nebraska-raised Carson transformed the talk show into silky, engaging theater. Even when—with sidekick Ed McMahon guffawing in the wings—his nightly monologue flopped it was a hit. “People waited for him to die,” says Peter Lassally, who produced the show with Fred de Cordova. “Some people thought he did it intentionally because he did it so well. But he did not. Everything he did was effortless. He never looked like he was trying to be funny.”

Carson didn’t need overnight polls to stay in touch with the common pulse. “We’d go over jokes together,” recalls de Cordova. “And some of them would be very, very funny. But he’d say, ‘I think people might be hurt,’ or ‘He’s not doing well. Why step on him?’ ” Says Carson’s replacement, Jay Leno: “He has a great sense of Everyman. He knew when to raise an eyebrow, when to be naughty and when to be respectful. That’s what always made him great.”

In 30 years behind the desk, Carson brought out the best in others too. Many of today’s headliners have him to thank for jump-starting their careers. Quips Leno: “Your first Tonight Show is kind of like your first girlfriend—you’re not very good, it’s over real quick, but you know you want to do it again real soon.” Adds buddy Carl Reiner: “He was a starmaker. When he gave you that okay sign, or nodded, or winked, or asked you to sit on the couch after your performance, it was like the Pope blessing you.”

Throughout it all, Carson, who brought in 17 percent of NBC’s earnings in 1979 (the first of four years he served as host of the Academy Awards), remained one of the most even-tempered powerhouses in entertainment. The closest he came to showing his true emotions on the air was when he quietly spoke of his photographer son Rick, and showed some of his pictures, following his 1991 death in a car accident. Otherwise, Carson never lost his cool nor missed a beat. And, as longtime pal Bob Newhart points out, “he always made the guest look good.” In the end, say his friends, Carson followed comedy’s first rule: Always leave ’em wanting more. “He came in one time and said, ‘Let’s call it a day. I’ll say goodbye on the air,’ ” recalls de Cordova. “It took me and the network by total surprise.”

In retirement, Carson, 73, has stuck to his guns. His only TV appearances have been on a Bob Hope special and the Late Show with his friend David Letterman, who was widely presumed to be his first choice to replace him. These days, at his enormous house in Malibu (on his first visit, New-hart asked jokingly, “Where’s the gift shop?”), Carson plays tennis and reads voraciously. He learned some Swahili before a 1993 vacation to Africa. With fourth wife Alexis, he often takes whale-watching trips on his power boat Serengeti. And he plays cards with longtime friends including Reiner, Steve Martin and Neil Simon. Carson has never come seriously close to returning full-time to TV. “He weighed that against what The Tonight Show was,” says his nephew and former producer Jeff Sotzing, “and he said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can top that.’ ”

J.D. Reed

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles