Johnny Carson’s Tragic Life Story Brings His Fans to Their Knees
A world-class comedian and entertainer, it seemed like Johnny Carson had the world on a string. Looks can often be deceiving, however. Despite his fame, Carson struggled with inner demons throughout his entire life. The truth about Carson, one of the loneliest and most misunderstood men in show business, has now come to light, nearly fifteen years after his death.
Johnny Carson was many things: a comedian, a talk show host, a father, and a three-time divorcé. He never let the public in on the details regarding his marital life, however, as Carson was an extremely private person. The on-screen version of the man was the only one that anyone was ever allowed to see.
Carson kept everything else under careful wraps, and so did his close friends, lawyers, and fixers, but there was always speculation about something much darker. While some saw Carson as a simple Midwestern boy who was kind, generous, and could command a stage with poise and control, others argued that Carson was shy, insecure, aloof, and coldhearted. What many don’t know about the man is that he was all of the above in spades.
Coldhearted or private?
Perhaps coldhearted is too strong of a word, but it was the one that was thrown around the most regarding his attitude toward guests during commercial breaks. Throughout his celebrated career, Carson was rumored to change his demeanor at the drop of a hat. Add alcohol to his mood swings and it’s clear that he was far beyond the man the public saw on the television screen.
What made Carson so memorable and fascinating? Well, some won’t be surprised to learn that he was just as charming — and unwittingly funny — when he was a young boy. Like many comedians, his humor came from a dark place, however.
Class clown from the start
In Laurence Leamer’s novel, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, Leamer visits various periods of Carson’s life, from his childhood onward. When it comes to Carson’s boyhood, Leamer paints a young man in Nebraska seeking attention and his mother’s approval. The author describes Carson’s mother as “a proper woman with a dramatic flair.”
Apparently, his mother was also the kind of homemaker who would run her home as though she was a “captain of a warship.” She favored Carson’s sister, Catherine, over him and his brother, Dick. There was no pleasing her, although the boy sought to do just that.
Catherine always stole the show
Although her mother always wanted more daughters, Catherine was the only girl in the family, and therefore the apple of her mother’s eye. When the matriarch wasn’t doting on Catherine, she was often strict and domineering — yet somehow was extroverted and a good hostess. She was a good performer, which provided the foundation for Carson’s future stage presence.
Carson was an attention seeker and would often get himself into trouble in school. He was happy to play the role of the class clown who always had the last laugh, but he truly wanted to gain his mother’s respect. A classroom is as good a place as any for a stand-up comedian to begin his career, and that’s exactly what Carson did.
Although his mother was the emotionally disruptive nucleus of the family, she was overly sarcastic and dismissive of his accomplishments. Carson’s first wife, Jody Wolcott Carson, said that she heard stories about his mother and family life.
“I heard stories that she broke a whole set of dishes on the kitchen wall. She was a real force in the family, the real matriarch,” she explained.
If the firm grip over her home wasn’t enough, it was also said that there was absolutely no communication there. For a child seeking approval, fulfillment, and appeasement, Carson and his brother would receive none of these things. Instead, they received the brunt of their mother’s misdirected anger, and it obviously played into Carson’s mistreatment of women as an adult.
He’d never measure up
His mother was rumored to lack any form of maternal affection toward her sons, rarely praising their accomplishments or encouraging them in any fashion. Her silence toward their achievements made the brothers feel as though they always fell short of her good graces. Carson always felt that, unlike his sister, he could never measure up to her expectations.
It was the reason why Carson felt compelled to perform; he wanted to receive his mother’s affection. He once said: “I can’t say I ever wanted to become an entertainer, I already was one, sort of — around the house, at school, doing magic tricks … People thought I was funny.” His need to perform, as well as the emotional distance between him and his mother, would stay with him into his adulthood.
A natural entertainer
A natural-born entertainer, it’s worth noting that Carson was groomed for the stage (and large audiences) from early on in his career. On stage, he was the one in control.
“When I’m in front of an audience, well, it’s a different thing. I’m in control,” he once said. “There’s Carson the performer, and there’s Carson the private individual, and I can separate the two.”
His need to control his environment onstage was something that Carson demanded and craved in his career. Socially, however, he was aloof and closed off, taking on a more apathetic and shy persona. It doesn’t sound strange considering his situation. Any person could feel the need to retreat from intimacy with strangers. What could be more terrifying?
Henry Bushkin tells all
Henry Bushkin was Johnny Carson’s personal lawyer and fixer for more than 20 years. When Carson passed away from emphysema in 2005, Bushkin wrote a tell-all about their relationship, simply titled Johnny Carson. In this memoir, he reveals what it was like working with the King of Late Night himself.
Bushkin was only 27 years old when he started working for Carson, and he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
“The question that people most frequently ask me is, ‘What was Johnny really like?’” said Bushkin. “Their interest flags when I add that he could also be the nastiest son of a b***h on earth. The truth is that he was an incredibly complex man: once gracious, funny, and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted in the next.”
Bitter divorces were the norm
Carson’s negative characteristics were exhibited during divorce proceedings with his second wife, Joanne Copeland. Known for working late hours and answering the call of the bottom of a whiskey bottle after shows, Carson fell into a vicious circle of addiction that has plagued many comics for centuries. Despite the cost of his fame, he still loved his wife deeply.
When Carson suspected Copeland was cheating on him, he notified Bushkin and four other investigators. Although Bushkin wasn’t Carson’s lawyer yet, the opportunity to appease a big name in the entertainment industry blindsided him. Bushkin suddenly found himself in a trial run, and Carson asked him to do something insane. So insane that it meant Bushkin would have to call his own ethics into question.
Carson was a man of reason
Despite the drinking and carousing, Carson was a man of reason, as well as someone who always kept his word. Anyone who promised the same, but broke their loyalty to him, would “get theirs” someday. One day, Carson wanted Bushkin to testify as a legal witness in his favor.
For what? After Carson hired four private investigators to spy on his wife, they discovered that she had been living in a secret apartment. Here, she and another man had been conducting a covert affair. It was during this time that Bushkin learned of Carson’s hidden dark side. He was far from being the funny man on The Tonight Show.
In came the champion lawyer, Henry Bushkin
Bushkin was a 27-year-old lawyer at the time, but before he could represent one of the biggest names in the nation, he had to prove himself. Carson and Bushkin’s group of investigators infiltrated Joanne’s love nest, where they discovered that she was cheating on him with a professional football player, Frank Gifford.
Carson, Bushkin, and the investigators found all the evidence they needed, including picture frames with photos of Copeland and Gifford, along with their clothes in a closet and her negligee under the couch. That was the first time Bushkin had ever seen Carson cry. It wasn’t as heartbreaking as what Carson told him next, though.
What did Johnny Carson and Sinatra have in common? ‘Jilly’s’
There was a bar in Manhattan that Carson frequented called Jilly’s Saloon, located on West 52nd Street and Eighth Avenue. “Jilly’s” was owned by a “connected” guy by the name of Jilly Rizzo. Rizzo just so happened to be a childhood friend of Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.
It was a dangerous, yet solitary space that stars like Dean Martin and Judy Garland would retreat to as a way to unwind after filming for several hours. Of course, Carson would be there too. The same night Carson raided his wife’s apartment, he called on Bushkin to meet him at Jilly’s Saloon to talk. It was 2 a.m. and when Bushkin obliged, Carson was sitting at the bar alone.
Alone and vulnerable at Jilly’s
“Carson was alone at the bar,” Bushkin wrote. “Johnny looked like the loneliest man I had ever seen, and the sight intimidated me.” He sat with Carson and heard him out. He was drunk and revealed what he hardly admitted to anyone in his life. He admitted he wasn’t surprised Joanne was cheating on him.
Carson admitted the hurt: “I shoulda been home more,” Carson said. “Not running around.” As Carson sat in his inebriated state, he revealed a vulnerable memory that he only told his wife. He talked about his mother, a sentiment that Carson was raised to stay silent about.
Oedipus complex, much?
As stated earlier, Carson’s mother was a tough woman to please. When speaking to his lawyer, Carson admitted, “She’s the toughest … of them all. There was no … way to please that woman.” Suddenly, Bushkin was in shock as this powerful man poured out the darkness within.
“She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she f**ked me up!” said Carson. Despite his bad luck with women, it wasn’t like Carson was exactly faithful either. In fact, one encounter with a young woman almost got him whacked by the Mob. This was an obvious low point in his personal life, one that would require the aid of several studio fixers.
Monogamy wasn’t easy for Carson
Although Carson was permanently tending a broken heart, he wasn’t exactly the most monogamous individual. Jilly’s Saloon was Carson’s usual watering hole, a place where he got into a fair share of trouble after hitting the bottle for a few hours. Rizzo was used to the lot of drunks that were his patrons, so he was skilled in breaking up disputes or playing dispatcher.
This time, however, was a whole different level of extremity. One evening, Carson was drinking at Jilly’s when an attractive brunette walked in. She was quite beautiful, and to no one’s surprise, caught Carson’s eye. Of course, he had to introduce himself. Unfortunately, that’s when everything went wrong.
That time Carson hit on a mobster’s ‘gumar’
Carson, like most comedic performers, had a soft spot for pretty women. This particular brunette on this evening, however, definitely captivated his attention more than most.
Bushkin’s book reveals that the brunette that Carson was cozying up to was already spoken for. Of course, that didn’t automatically deter Carson. This was because he didn’t know her boyfriend was a “major figure in the criminal underworld.” That’s right, a bona fide wiseguy.
Little did Carson know, the boyfriend with Mafia connections showed up (and was obviously not happy). This is when things got ugly. The mobster boyfriend did not look kindly upon Carson’s advances on his mistress.
And when he confronted Carson, he wasn’t alone. He rightly slapped Carson right off his barstool. Smack!
NBC saved Carson from a hit
The mobster boyfriend and his associates lifted Carson off his barstool in a single bound, then threw him down a flight of stairs (yikes). Just before things were about to get even uglier, Rizzo showed up to clear the bad air from the stale cigarette smoke. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep Carson safe in the long run.
Although the physical altercation was broken up, Carson wasn’t out of the woods with the Mafia just yet. The mobster put a hit out on Carson, meaning that his life was ultimately in jeopardy, as there was now a price on his head. Until a solution could be reached, Carson became a recluse. Things didn’t look too good for The Tonight Show host.
‘I know a guy who knows a guy’
Word got out to NBC that the Mafia had a hit out on Carson. Because of this, he locked himself in his apartment for three days, missing three shows. Of course, without Carson, there was no show. So, NBC executive David Tebet got involved and reached out to someone who “knew the right people.”
Tebet got ahold of George Wood, an agent at the William Morris Agency, who in turn was connected to Joseph Colombo, the reputed head of one of the “Five Families of New York and New Jersey.” Tebet asked Wood what could be done to clear the hit. Wood’s answer had Tebet leaning forward in his seat.
Media recognition saved Carson’s life
According to Bushkin, Colombo was planning a big Italian-American Civil Rights League “Italian-American unity rally” on Columbus Day in 1979. When the rally was set to take place, Colombo communicated how unfortunate it was that none of the New York networks wanted to cover the event (hint hint).
The message was clear, and Tebet reportedly said, “Oh, I don’t think NBC has completely made up its mind yet.” Tebet made some important calls and sent NBC to cover the event, which effectively ended the contract on Carson’s life. Once called off, Carson left his apartment and continued on with the show.
Carson dipped in and out of trouble
Unfortunately, the Mob wasn’t the only problem in Carson’s chaotic existence. One would think that Carson would keep his mouth shut, keep his head down, and stay out of trouble, but of course, he didn’t.
He wouldn’t be the man everyone knows today if it weren’t for his wisecracking antics; however, not everyone appreciated his humor.
Apparently, he didn’t look good in the eyes of actor and television producer, Keefe Brasselle. It’s safe to say that Carson was not just a comedian, but a smart aleck to boot. When word got out that Carson was poking fun at Brasselle on the show one evening, things got heated, and he soon received an unexpected visitor.
Carson’s jokes went too far
While Carson was sitting in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, a bear of a man named Walter Stevens walked in and found Carson with a friend. Stevens asked to speak to Carson privately. He obliged, considering Stevens had asked politely. When they got to talking, Stevens revealed that he was hired by Brasselle to “quash the beef.”
His demands were simple: Lay off the jokes. Carson, however, found the request amusing and didn’t take the suggestion seriously.
Due to this lack of understanding, Stevens repeatedly punched Carson in the stomach and liver. He didn’t pull any punches (literally) until he was restrained and hauled out of the restaurant. Carson then begrudgingly agreed to lay off the jokes.
A self-deprecating jokester
It seems that Carson had a joke for everything and for everyone. It was his money-making talent, his crutch, and his coping mechanism.
The talk show host would marry four times throughout his life. Each marriage, aside from his fourth, would bring heartache and disappointment. Whether due to infidelity or marital strain, Carson always seemed to highlight this material during his monologues. This was the fuel that drove the self-deprecating zingers he’s well-known for.
Close friends could tell when relationships were rocky on Carson’s end when he brought his personal life into a bit. After all, at the end of the day, Carson could rely on only one thing, and that was his humor.
Issues with management
If his romantic life wasn’t enough to garner sympathy for the famous late-night host, then his professional life would. He not only had bad luck with love, but he had bad luck with managers, too. Yes, although he was one of the most famous TV figures of the time, it didn’t mean that he was immune to being taken advantage of financially.
When it comes to fame, everyone wants to be with the person who has the most money and power. Carson’s management shared this desire. With the amount of TV time and success Carson was getting, he should have been loaded. This was not the case. In fact, he was far from it.
Carson was broke
Carson was broke while hosting The Tonight Show. According to Bushkin, Carson had very little money, no investments, owned no real estate, and had no savings account. How is that possible? Bushkin revealed it was due to his grubby managers. They didn’t bat an eyelash when it came to taking advantage of Carson.
The only real asset he had was deferred compensation owed by NBC. Before Bushkin, Carson’s previous lawyer helped negotiate a contract from NBC that would garner Carson $100,000 a week for The Tonight Show, which was $5.2 million a year. Carson got much less, and what he did make would surprise his former viewers today.
He wasn’t getting his cut due to taxes
Instead of receiving his weekly $100,000, he only received $3,000 a week ($156,000 a year). According to Bushkin, he didn’t receive a tenth of his promised income. The excuse? Taxes. If Carson got his entire paycheck as promised, the government would eat away his money. In the late 1960s, income taxes on high-income recipients was 70 percent.
Not a bad plan, but there was a catch. Though the network was happy to keep Carson’s money, he was getting the raw end of the deal. As time went on, the money was devalued, and network executives thought the deal would eventually disappear when the bill came. No loyalty, no morals, just business.
Executives were milking Carson like a golden cow
If the executives weren’t bad enough, his manager was bilking Carson like the golden cow that he was. For instance, Carson always looked classy in a suit and never wore the same suit twice on set. Sonny Werblin saw his taste as an endorsement opportunity and created a deal with Hart Schaffner & Marx to start a new apparel line inspired by Carson, called Johnny Carson Apparel.
Carson would wear the suits, look stylish for the audience, and boom, promote sales. Again, there was a catch: Sure, Carson wore the suits, but he wasn’t getting his cut of the bargain either. When Carson found out, he was rightly furious.
As Carson’s lawyer, Bushkin combed through his account book and discovered that Carson owned no equity interest, meaning he got nothing. Half of what the new fashion line was making ended up in the pockets of manufacturers, and the other half was taken by his manager, Sonny Werblin. Once Carson found out that his own manager was holding back, he was quick to give him the ax.
Once Werblin was out of the picture, Bushkin helped Carson to get what he deserved. First, he helped renegotiate Carson’s clothing deal. In the end, Carson got Werblin’s side of the deal, with an additional $400,000 annual modeling fee. Carson reached a financial equilibrium.
Carson wanted control
Despite Carson’s need for control, and despite getting the upper hand in his business, his personal life was always taking a turn for the worse. Money and fame didn’t make Carson happy. By 1987, Carson had been married three times and was currently on his fourth marriage. He was also, unfortunately, estranged from his sons.
Yes, he was the man of the hour on The Tonight Show, but when the lights dimmed and the cameras turned off, reality would sink in and a temperamental Carson was released. The best example of this was the time when his yacht captain made a major — yet ridiculous — mistake.
It was Carson’s way or the highway
While vacationing in the Mediterranean, Carson and a group of friends sailed over the clear blue waters and docked at an island near Cannes for dinner. Carson and his companions had their meal and perused the island. Bushkin was present and agreed to meet back at the yacht at a certain hour.
When it was time for pickup, the captain failed to show. He arrived six minutes late. Carson was livid. For the entire evening, Carson blew up at him no matter how many times he apologized. Finally, at six in the morning, after going back and forth about whether to get rid of his captain, Carson decided to keep the captain and continue his vacation.
He is remembered for the good and never the bad
Before the entire ordeal took place, Carson was already set into motion by a heavy force. Bushkin tried to cheer his friend up but to no avail. Bushkin later wrote that it felt like four adults trying to console a child. Carson’s response to Bushkin was heartbreaking: “You know I don’t have much of a talent for happiness,” Carson said. “I never have. My mother saw to that.”
Despite the ups, Carson always felt down when away from the spotlight. Ultimately, he was lonely. If there was one thing to take away from all of this, it would be the fact that Carson did his best to navigate through the circumstances of his life. By doing so, he gave an entire generation joy and something to look forward to at the end of the day: a smile.