The true story of The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson is known as one of the most legendary and rememberable television hosts of all time. His witty and charming personality on The Tonight Show was undeniable, and millions of fans adored him. By the 1970’s, Carson had already become a television icon, respected and admired by many and he was crowned the “King of Late Night TV.” Carson maintained a very successful and long career that lasted 30 years. Even well after his retirement, TV hosts and comedians from all around the world were influenced by Carson’s career and tried to live up to his greatness. Throughout all 30 years on The Tonight Show, Carson received a total of 6 Emmy Awards, a huge honor in the world of television. Carson, describing his success, once said “My success just evolved from working hard at the business at hand each day.”

However, the lovable TV host was not exactly like the persona he played on his show. He was actually quite the opposite, and had his fair share of problems in his personal life. Despite all his fame, respect and money, Carson struggled through four failed marriages, infidelity and a drinking problem. He had a side to him that he kept hidden from his fans. He held grudges with many people in his life, even his own mother and son. He often times let his anger get the best of him. When Carson passed away in 2005, from a respiratory failure at the age of 79, it is said that he was alone and had already pushed many of his old friends out of his life.

Although Carson’s story may come as a shocker to many, it is also a common one. Living constantly in the public eye is not easy, and sometimes we forget that even celebrities have a private life.

Unhappy marriage

The well-known talk show host had a reputation of being quite the lady’s man. So much so that he got married to 4 different women. It’s no surprise that he told wife number four, Alexis Maas, on their honeymoon, “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks!” It is safe to say that Carson did not hold the award for best husband of the year.


The rude sailor

Carson did not make the best impression during his honeymoon with Maas. Henry Bushkin, Carson’s lawyer, stated that Carson’s anger ruined a yacht trip. The captain was only late by 6 minutes, and that made Carson furious. He shouted at the captain, “I didn’t pay $150,000 to have you late in picking us up.” For the rest of the trip, which was supposed to be a relaxing and joyous outing, Carson continued to spout rude remarks at the captain.


Jealous friend

Carson stopped talking to his long-time friend and part-time lover Joan Rivers after she landed her own TV show in 1987 that happened to show on Fox at the same exact time as Carson’s late night show. Rivers appeared on Carson’s show several times, and was a large part of Carson’s success and contract with NBC. Instead of being happy for her and congratulating her, Carson took offense and stopped all communication with her. They never spoke again.


Momma problems

Not only was Carson not the best husband, he was not the most loving son either. He despised his mother a great deal and even referred to her as “Lady Macbeth.” When she passed away, he didn’t even go to her funeral, he only made a comment that “the wicked witch is dead.” It is unclear what exactly his mother did to make him hate her so much, but it must have been something pretty bad.


Negligent father

Carson had quite the long list of poor relationships. One of them being with his own son, Rick, who had a mental disability. Carson neglected his son, refusing to see him while he was in the hospital. The only time Carson showed grief was during an episode of The Tonight Show that aired after his son passed from a bad automobile accident in 1991. Carson showed some photographs of him and his son to the audience.

Party gone wrong

One thing Carson and his son did share was a bad drinking problem. In 1987, Rick showed up overly intoxicated to a party that was celebrating 25 years of The Tonight Show and shortly after a violent and loud fight with his father brewed in front of everyone. The fight became violent and ended with Carson’s fist in the air close to Rick’s face, a party guest had to intervene and separate father and son.


Not so faithful

Although Carson was not known for his faithfulness to his wives, his long-time attorney Henry Bushkin spoke about Carson’s jealousy with his second wife, Joanne. He accused her of having an affair with the football player Frank Gifford, who is now the husband of Kathy Lee Gifford. He went so far to hire a professional to investigate the affair. Joe Mullen, Carson’s investigator, remembered Carson crying hysterically when he found proof of Joanne’s affair.


Offensive humor

Carson was known for going over the top and hurting feelings when it came to his sense of humor. He would often tell distasteful jokes about others, for example the Perry Mason and Ironside actor Raymond Burr. Carson would constantly make fun of Burr’s weight, Burr was so insulted that he decided to end his appearances on The Tonight Show altogether instead of having a fight with Carson while on the show.


An angry drinker

In 1979, he announced to interviewer Mike Wallace on the TV show 60 Minutes that he had a bad drinking problem. He admittedly said, “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t.” He explained that when he drinks, instead of being friendly and fun to be around, he becomes mean, grumpy and unpleasant.” With all his personal issues he already had, drinking only seemed to make everything worse and was the root cause in the damage of many of his relationships.


Rivalry between shows

Tom Snyder, who was the host of The Tomorrow Show, which aired directly after The Tonight Show, was constantly bashed by Carson. He even went so far to call Snyder boring with no talent. One night Carson approached Snyder while dining in LA and grabbed Snyder’s throat aggressively. Carson’s wife had to get in the middle of it and physically stop Carson from hurting Snyder badly. Carson was pulled out of the restaurant shortly after.


Here’s Johnny!

In 1977, a portable toilet company used Carson’s phrase “Here’s Johnny”. Carson was not happy about that and decided to sue the company which ended in a very lengthy legal fight. The trials ended in Carson’s favor, and the portable toilet company was unable to use Caron’s coined phrase. Even in 2006, 30 years later, when Earl J. Braxton, the CEO of the toilet company, tried once more to use the phrase, he was denied.


Sorry Mr. President

Carson also managed to burn a relationship with the famous croon singer Frank Sinatra. In 1981, Sinatra asked Carson to be the host for President Ronald Reagan’s Gala of Inauguration. Carson made rude comments the whole time and even denounced Sinatra’s organizing of the occasion. He said the event was “a three-ring circus.” Carson’s grudge lasted the entire evening and resulted in a poor dispute with Sinatra. Only Carson could pick a fight with the lovable Sinatra.


Inappropriate behavior

Famous men are constantly being accused of being inappropriate and disrespectful with women, and Carson was definitely one of those men. He was accused numerous times by a large group of different women, including guests of his show and coworkers. Lucky for him, the accusations never got so far, thanks to his very expensive and talented lawyers who always were there to cover up his mistakes. Even though the accusations were covered up, the gossip about Carson and these women still spread like wildfire.



A costly divorce

Each one of Carson’s wives were well aware of his many affairs, which led Carson to have three, very costly divorces. Carson attempted to buy his way through forgiveness with his third wife, Joanna. He spoiled her rotten with dramatic and over the top gifts such as a Rolls Royce Corniche, a luxurious apartment and expensive diamond jewelry. The gifts didn’t keep Joanna long, and when the divorce was finished, Joanna walked away with $20 million.


Rivers the negotiator

Although Joan Rivers Johnny Carson’s friendship ended with a quarrel, a large portion of Carson’s career Rivers maintained a trustworthy and dedicated friend. She was so dedicated in fact, that when she heard Carson’s contract with NBC and The Tonight Show was coming to an end, she and her husband Edgar Rosenberg held a private meeting with Carson and the highest executives at ABC, Fred Pierce, Elton Rule and Tony Thomopoulos to talk about what ABC had to offer him.


A contractual disagreement

NBC, frightened that Carson was going to leave, stated that if Carson did leave the show that it would result in a loss of $50 million in advertisements. They wanted to bring actions to court with a lawsuit against Carson for $100 million. According to the state of California, it is illegal to keep someone under a contract for more than 7 years. NBC and Carson were sent to discuss the contractual agreement in court.


A touching tribute

In order to keep Carson around for good, NBC did everything they could to make amends. Carson was named Entertainer of the Year at the New York Friars Club by NBC executive Fred Silverman. Bob Hope even laughed about how NBC was obviously sucking up to the famed TV host in order to keep Carson on the air with them. Silverman named Carson, “the entertainer of our time” and “the best friend TV ever had.” It worked and Carson rang NBC right away to renew his contract.


Forget about it

In 1970 Carson flirted with the wrong woman. The woman happened to be the girlfriend of a mob boss and Carson was quickly targeted by the mafia. The mob boss witnessed Carson trying to take his girlfriend home with him and Carson was then thrown down a flight of stairs. The feud ended after his agents cut a deal with mob boss Joseph Colombo, all he wanted was some positive coverage by NBC for an Italian-American rally.


That was awkward

In the 1990s, Carson’s audience was crammed with fans of the musical guest act of the night, Morrissey. Let’s just say the young crowd didn’t quite get most of the jokes that Carson and his guest, Bill Cosby, told. The entire evening was quite awkward and uncomfortable to watch, as both comedians seemed to be the only ones laughing at their own jokes. The night was a bust for Carson, but safe to say a huge success for Morrissey.


Investment of the future

In 1975, Carson made a bad investment with Delorean Motor Company. Although Back to the Future fans seemed excited by the recognizable DMC-12 from the 80’s film, the company suffered financially. In 1982, after Delorean was arrested for selling illegal substances, the company went down. The situation was so bad that even a hefty investment by the world’s most lovable TV show host couldn’t help. In the end, John Delorean was found not guilty, but by then it was too late.


Behind the wheel

Carson was involved once again in a drinking related scandal in 1982 when he was pulled over while drinking and driving in his Delorean. During the trial in court, Carson only commented “no contest.” The incident resulted in a few driving restrictions for Carson. The deal was that he was only allowed to drive to his job and back to his house right after. He was not permitted to drive for any other reason. The restrictions also prohibited him from driving any passenger in his car.


When Johnny met Sally

Carson had romantic relationships with many different women throughout his lifetime. One of the most famous women he dated was the sweet and innocent Sally Field. She was about 20 years younger than him at the time, and even admitted to Andy Cohen that their relationship was like “the octopus and the little guppy,” hinting Carson’s persistence. She also mentioned that she often did not know how to say “no” to the charming TV show host.


Poker face

When Carson tried to buy the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas in 1980, he found himself in the middle of another celebrity feud, this time Wayne Newton. Newton and Carson each made bids for the casino that estimated at $100 million. Carson let his anger get to him and ended up giving up. Newton bought the casino for a much smaller amount and Carson felt humiliated. He hated Newton for the rest of his life.


Blue suede orthopedics

Only Carson would have the guts to bash the kind of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. When Presley turned 40, he accused Carson of saying that he was “fat and forty.” Presley, an avid fan of The Tonight Show and already sensitive about his new age, was not impressed. The aired footage proved that Carson only told a joke about Presley and his “orthopedic blue suede shoes,” but at that point it didn’t matter and Carson lost his best fan.


Carol’s sad ending

Carol Wayne was adored by fans for her regular performances on The Tonight Show as the bubbly blonde “Matinee Lady.” When Carson had to cut down on the length of the show, he cut Carol’s role. She was left devastated and penniless and started drinking excessively and taking illegal substances. Desperate, she supposedly took a job as an escort. Carson was blamed for the unfortunate turn of events. In 1985, while on vacation with Edward Durston, her body was found in Santiago Bay.


Not a fan

Before Carson passed away in 2005, he allegedly dined with famous comedians Garry Shanding and Jerry Seinfeld. During dinner, he went on a long rampage about how infuriated he was with current television. He told the comedians that he was “sickened” by the popularity of reality TV shows. He announced to them that he was thankful he retired when he did, many years before reality TV was in existence. It is safe to say he wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of the Kardashians.


Live from New York

Carson eventually made the decision to give himself more free time during the week, and asked NBC to schedule his show in the middle of the week opposed to on the weekend. The network had no choice but to agree and was left nervously trying to put together a new show that could replace Carter’s old slot on Saturday night. To make a long story short, we have Carson to thank for Saturday Night Live.


All by himself

In 2005, after Carson passed from respiratory problems, fans from all over the world cried and mourned the loss of the great TV host. His lawyer, Bushkin, reported that although Carson was married to his fourth wife at the time, he was very much a loner. He had created many enemies over the years and pushed many of his friends and family out of his life. This left Carson spending most of his end of his life alone.


Johnny’s neighborhood

Out of all the enemies Carson made, the adorable and big-hearted Fred Rogers is probably the most shocking. On one episode of The Tonight Show, Carson himself acted as a much meaner and greedier version of Mr. Rogers and even told children to take money from their parents. Rogers was appalled by what he saw and did not find any humor in Carson’s skit. He even told the public how distasteful he found Carson’s performance.