October 08, 1984 12:00 PM

Fred de Cordova’s job may look as simple as steering a train along a straight section of track. But just ask Amtrak: It’s not always easy. As executive producer of The Tonight Show, de Cordova oversees an operation that has not changed significantly since Johnny Carson’s reign began 22 years ago this week. The audience (some 15 million viewers nightly) is faithful; its profits (approximately 17 percent of NBC’s net) virtually guaranteed. One of de Cordova’s predecessors reportedly said of Tonight, “It’s a self-starter. Anybody can do it [be executive producer]. All you have to do is show up.”

Carson clearly disagrees. “I didn’t take on Freddie just to blow smoke,” says Johnny of his majordomo. What he did take on Freddie to do is everything Carson doesn’t want to do—and that’s a lot. “I’m chief traffic cop, talent scout, No. 1 fan and critic all rolled into one,” says de Cordova, 73. Although Carson has final approval, it is Fred who decides who will be on the show, and when, and what they will talk about. And at the taping, while Carson keeps the laughs going even during commercial breaks, Fred decides how long each guest will get to talk to Johnny. If The Tonight Show is, as observers often suggest, a sort of living room on the air, there’s no question that the living room isn’t Johnny’s alone.

To be sure, Carson keeps tabs on his executive producer. Most mornings at 10, Johnny, at home in Malibu, and Fred, in his office at NBC’s studios in Burbank, talk about that evening’s guests on the phone. They meet at least twice every afternoon, with Fred usually driving his golf cart the four blocks from his Burbank office to Carson’s, a cozy aerie tucked among the rafters of the studio where the show is taped every afternoon at 5:30.

Not surprisingly Fred is thinking about Johnny from the moment he wakes at 7 a.m. in his redwood-and-glass house in Beverly Hills’ exclusive Trousdale Estates. He begins by reading—the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the newsweeklies and any other magazine he didn’t finish before bedtime. The object: to keep up on potential Tonight Show guests. The secondary object: to keep up with Johnny, whom de Cordova describes as “the most well-read person I’ve ever known.” It is a mark of his calling that de Cordova isn’t particularly interested in reading novels—”they don’t have anything to do with the show.”

By 9:30, de Cordova, wearing coordinated golf slacks and shirt, has immersed himself in the minutiae of the program. His focus is a cork-covered wall on which he keeps track of guests for the next 90 days. During meetings with key personnel, including producer Peter Lassally and senior talent coordinator Shirley Wood, de Cordova does all he can to keep the wall crowded.

“Is there word yet on Elliott Gould? Johnny would like him. Jackie Bisset? She’s still in Europe. When she gets back, let’s check her schedule. Any idea when Jeremy Irons will be in town?” At one point de Cordova promises to talk to Bob Newhart at the Bel Air Country Club, where both men are members, about doing a guest spot. Usually, though, de Cordova avoids discussing The Tonight Show on the golf course because “some comics haven’t changed their material in 15 years, and it’s tough to tell a friend to get a new act.”

De Cordova has been criticized for filling his living room with guests who are aging, bland and overfamiliar. A disgruntled ex-staffer once observed, “He only books people who will receive the approval of his 70-year-old friends in Beverly Hills.” De Cordova countered that the public wasn’t interested in “hot shots with only one hit.”

But whatever he does seems to work. The crowd waiting to see the show begins forming at 7 a.m., long before de Cordova and Lassally repair to the NBC commissary for lunch. Afterward Fred has his first face-to-face meeting with Johnny. “I’ll say, ‘You have so-and-so doing the stand-up, and he has some good comedy material when he sits down. And we have this interesting character who’s 93 years old—or 4 years old—and I think there is six or seven minutes of good conversation there.” If Joan Rivers is hosting, de Cordova will preview her monologue, because “sometimes it’s too risqué, or it’s a little too in for some audiences in the Midwest, say. Joan also might show me her wardrobe and ask me which dress I prefer.” Hiring Rivers as Johnny’s sole replacement host last fall eliminated one of Fred’s biggest headaches—finding guest hosts. “She was available,” he says, “and we leapt.”

At 4:55, just before Johnny goes into makeup, Fred meets with him again. Then he grabs a sandwich from a backstage buffet, and changes into a suit. At 5:20 he picks up a microphone and begins to warm up the audience by introducing the band (“In my opinion, they’re the best band…in this studio tonight”). Next he introduces Doc Severinsen (“This is a man who does not fritter his money away—he is the owner of 16 of the slowest racehorses in the world”). Then he introduces Ed McMahon (“the baron of Budweiser and the duke of dog food”). Finally, as de Cordova takes his place just outside camera range—and a mere 12 feet from Johnny’s seat—Ed trumpets, “Heeerre’s Johnny!” Fred de Cordova is in business.

For 60 minutes he watches the clock, converses with director Bobby Quinn in the control booth by phone, and communicates with Johnny using the hand signals they have developed over the years. “We both sense at the same time if something is good,” says Fred. “Our eyes light up. There is a wedding between Johnny’s mind and mine, and it happens on the show.”

When Tonight is over—exactly 60 minutes after it begins—de Cordova heads for Johnny’s dressing room for a drink and a postmortem. Says Fred, “We don’t analyze, but we talk about what worked and what didn’t.” By 7 Fred is heading home for a night on the A-list party circuit with Janet, his wife of 20 years, and such friends as the Cary Grants, the Kirk Douglases and superagent Swifty Lazar. De Cordova, who is also a regular on the pro-celebrity golf circuit, rarely sees Johnny after hours. “We don’t socialize much,” says Janet. “He doesn’t enjoy going out as much as we do.”

De Cordova was born in New York City, the son of a Spanish-Portuguese businessman (“I think he sold oil stocks”) whom Fred describes as “shrewd, maybe a trifle shady.” The family’s periodic financial reversals, says Fred, “gave me a desire always to be on salary. The highs never made up for the lows.”

De Cordova graduated from Northwestern University and made it through Harvard Law School, but when classmate John Shubert of the famed theatrical family asked him to work in summer stock as a stage manager, Fred took the plunge into show business. First he tried acting, then moved to Hollywood in 1943 as a dialogue director. “I decided I could do less damage behind the camera,” he explains. Soon he graduated to directing a string of B pictures, of which the best known is Bedtime for Bonzo. “The chimpanzee,” he recalls, “was so smart, I swear he took direction.” No flies on Bonzo’s co-star either. Ronald Reagan remains a friend, and the de Cordovas have been guests at the White House.

Fred’s biggest successes, however, were social. A 1945 Warner Bros, press release described him as having more friends than anyone else in Hollywood. He dated Joan Crawford (“She was very considerate if you were working late and called”), Ava Gardner (who “wanted to stay home and listen to Artie Shaw records”) and Lana Turner(“but her interest waned”). Yet de Cordova stayed a bachelor until he reached 53. He had known Janet, a onetime starlet, all along, but she had three other husbands before they were married.

De Cordova quit directing movies, he says, because he realized he would never be another William Wyler. But in TV he shone, first as producer-director of The Burns and Allen Show, and then, on and off for nine years, running the Jack Benny Show. When he came to The Tonight Show in 1970, he was Carson’s fifth executive producer in eight years.

Now, he says, he has no plans to retire. His vacations leave ample time for playing golf, and besides, he says, “I still get a high at the end of a great show.” One indication of de Cordova’s contentment is that he has no desire to write a book. And even if he did, he once said, “It wouldn’t be a kiss and tell. It would be about all the charming and nice and wonderful people I’ve known over the years.” With a man like that, who wouldn’t feel comfortable in his living room?

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