He was TV’s most famous second banana, sitting alongside Johnny Carson during what was arguably the golden age of NBC’s Tonight Show, from 1962 to 1992, welcoming a nightly national audience with his opening cry of “Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny.”
But now that voice is stilled. NBC News announced Tuesday morning that Ed McMahon, 86, had died after a battle with cancer. He had been hospitalized for pneumonia in January.
According to a 1980 profile in PEOPLE, the future TV sidekick was born in Detroit but spent his early childhood sharing his parents’ life on the road. Ed Sr. was a pitchman – “to put it nicely, a promoter,” says McMahon – and was forever on the move. “I changed towns more often than a pickpocket,” McMahon recalled. “I went to some 15 schools before high school. Nobody ever knew my name, and I was painfully shy.”
While he would daydream of growing up to become a radio announcer, and fantasized that a flashlight was a make-believe microphone, the young Ed was finally left with his grandmother Katie Fitzgerald McMahon in Lowell, Mass., where he graduated from high school in 1939 and went on to Boston College.
Joining the Marines in 1941, he spent two years as a flight instructor in Jacksonville, Fla. In 1945 he married his first – of an eventual three – wives, Alyce Ferrell. Leaving the Marines in 1946, he enrolled as a drama and speech major at Washington’s Catholic University, still hoping to get into radio – and hawking pots and pans door to door and even pushing vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to make money.
Graduating in 1949, McMahon landed a job at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Nine years later, after a second tour with the Marines in Korea, he hosted his own local show when he was summoned to New York to meet Johnny Carson, then starring on ABC’s Who Do You Trust?
His first memory of Carson was not promising. “He was standing with his back to the door, staring at a couple of workmen putting letters on a theater marquee. I walked over and stood beside him. Finally the two guys finished, and Johnny asked, ‘What have you been doing?’ I told him. He said, ‘Good to meet you, Ed,’ shook my hand and I was out of the office. The whole meeting was about as exciting as watching a traffic light change,” McMahon remembered.
Still, the job of Carson’s foil became his, and four years later Carson assumed the Tonight throne after Jack Paar had retired. The rest was TV history.
In addition to his widow, Pamela, McMahon is survived by six adult children: three sons and three daughters – as well as legions of fans.
Besides setting up Carson’s jokes for 30 years, McMahon was also a familiar TV face as the emcee of Star Search. In 2008, he and wife Pamela also made news for a series of financial woes that resulted in the near-foreclosure of their Beverly Hills-area home.
See photos from McMahon’s life and career at LIFE.com.
• 1986: Ed says family gives him ‘a new lease on life’
• PEOPLE Covers: Paying tribute to the stars we’ve lost
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