The King of Late Night, Johnny Carson, was known for his 30-year run as host of The Tonight Show. During his time, he was one of the most popular celebrities in American pop culture. He’d interview thousands of people each year, making his viewers laugh until their belly’s ached. But does anyone really know who Johnny Carson is?
In his new memoir, Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin reveals the good, the bad, and the worst events that happened during his time as Johnny Carson’s friend and lawyer. Needless to say, the late-night host who easily made people laugh had quite a withdrawn life.
Carson Delivered Money To A Blackmailer
In 1972, Richard Dziabacinski of North Hollywood tried to extort $250,000 from Johnny Carson. The crazy night started with workers finding a fake hand grenade, binoculars, and a note demanding money at the television host’s house. Carson even received a phone call from Dziabacinski, asking Carson to deliver the money to a phone booth near Universal Studios.
The FBI did not want Carson to deliver the money, but he finally convinced them to let him do it. After all, part of the note said that if he didn’t then harm would come to his family. Upon the delivery, cops swarmed and arrested Richard Dziabacinski and his wife.
Carson’s Second Wife Had An Affair
Johnny Carson and Joanne Copeland wed on August 17, 1963; she was his second wife. The two met while Copeland was a struggling model and Carson was starting his second year hosting The Tonight Show. They were happily married until 1970 when Copeland began her love affair with NFL star Frank Gifford.
Carson hired a private investigator, Joe Mullen, to ‘break-in’ to Gifford’s house for evidence. He said he found “various framed photos of his wife with football legend Frank Gifford.” The infidelity led to the couple divorcing in 1972, with Copeland receiving a settlement of $6,000 per month in alimony.
There Was A Contracted Mob Hit Put Out On Carson
There is one thing no one wants in their life, and that is a contract put out for your death commissioned by the Mob. Well, Johnny Carson is one of the unlucky ones that supposedly had a contract put out on him after he flirted with the girlfriend of a Mob enforcer.
In his book, Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin says, “An attractive brunette at the bar caught Carson’s eye… And when her boyfriend — a major figure in the underworld — arrived, he was not grateful to Johnny for entertaining his ‘goomar’ in his absence.” According to the book, Carson didn’t leave his “UN Plaza palace” for three days!
He Tore Up The Prenuptial Agreement Before His Third Marriage
The old saying is “third times a charm,” so maybe that’s why Johnny Carson thought it was a good idea to tear up the proposed prenuptial agreement hours before marrying his third wife, Joanna Holland. The stunt ultimately cost him $35 million in cash and some property, too. The settlement was 80 pages long.
Holland and Carson were secretly married on September 30, 1972, the afternoon before The Tonight Show’s 10th-anniversary party. The marriage was surprising to all of his friends and colleagues. Maybe Holland should have taken their reactions seriously because she ended up filing for divorce on March 8, 1983.
Carson Never Visited His Son In The Hospital
As made evident from his various marriages, Johnny Carson had many personal relationships that were a bit strained, including that of his middle son. Richard ‘Rick’ Carson suffered from mental illness, something that wasn’t openly talked about back in the 1970s. He eventually wound up in a mental hospital, Bellevue Hospital in New York, but Carson refused to visit.
The father and son had an estranged relationship up until June of 1991. While taking pictures, Rick’s car fell off a cliff near the town of Morro Bay, California. He did not survive the 125-foot fall. Carson did pay tribute to his son and his photography on The Tonight Show.
Carson Dated A Lot Of Leading Ladies
It’s not surprising that Johnny Carson was a bit of a womanizer in his hay day. Being friends with some guys from the Rat Pack will do that! It helped that Carson was a famous television star, but to say the ladies in his life weren’t famous in their own right would be a lie.
Carson was lucky enough to date Sally Field, Ali McGraw, and Angie Dickinson. These dates should have been a red flag for all of his ex-wives, especially his dates with Field. The Oscar-winning actress said that she faked a mental illness to get out of dating him any longer!
Wayne Newton Didn’t Like Being One Of Carson’s Jokes
Johnny Carson is known for joking about celebrities, and usually not in a great way. Well, Vegas singer, Wayne Newton, didn’t appreciate being made fun of on a popular television program. So, after being ignored by the host for months, Newton decided to confront Carson at his studio office.
Newton said, “I don’t know what child of yours I’ve hurt, I don’t know what food I’ve taken out of your mouth, but these jokes about me will stop and they’ll stop now or I will kick your a**’.” The good news is that Carson took the hint, quickly stopping his barbs at the famous singer.
Carson Didn’t Attend his Parents’ Funeral
When Carson found out his mother Ruth had passed away he said, “The wicked witch is dead.” Not exactly a normal reaction, but, then, Carson did not like his mother at all, refusing to even attend her funeral. According to Carson, many of his negative personality traits and marriage failures are because of his mother.
According to Bushkin’s book, she never gave him the professional recognition he wanted, “It constantly got to him. Her, sort of lack of any sort of emotion towards him. And certainly, never giving him the great satisfaction of being the giant star he became.”
Carson Was Alone When He Passed Away
Johnny Carson passed away on January 24, 2005, at Los Angeles’ Cedar-Sinai Medical Center. He was 79 years old. He passed due to respiratory failure caused by emphysema, a disease from which he had been suffering since 2002. In his book, Bushkin says that Carson retired from the Tonight Show and became a sort of recluse, something that didn’t surprise him.
“He essentially died alone, which is terribly sad, somewhat reminiscent of Citizen Kane,” said Bushkin. Carson was alone in a hospital bed without any friends or family members by his side when his time came. Bushkin said that Carson only had an outer circle of fans but no inner circle.
He Stopped An Inebriated Dean Martin From Performing
Brat Pack star Dean Martin was scheduled to perform at the 1981 pre-inaugural gala, but he never made it on stage. Martin had been sipping on Grandpa’s old cough medicine and Johnny Carson, the hired emcee for the evening, decided he was too inebriated to perform on stage in front of the country’s soon-to-be Commander in Chief.
Carson ended up blaming his lawyer, Henry Bushkin, for everything that went wrong at the gala, “[Carson] got a call from the [Commander in Chief] right after the inauguration in 1981…and he called Carson to apologize for several screw-ups during that weekend, which I was blamed for.”
The “Worst” Guest
As a late-night talk show host, Carson had many guests. He also had his favorites and least favorites. Can you guess which guest he thought was the worst to have on his show? From Carson’s point of view, Bob Hope was not a good guest.
Bob Hope, another American television icon, came armed with scripted jokes. Carson criticized the fact that Hope rarely would engage in any genuine conversation. Carson’s former co-head writer, Andrew Nicholls said, “There was nothing spontaneous about Hope. He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, and learned astronomy. He appreciated people with who he felt engaged in the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about.”
No “Hope” For Johnny
As time passed and the years progressed, Bob Hope’s hearing and eyesight were failing. So Hope’s guest appearances on Carson’s became even more of a trial, annoying Carson. Hope often had trouble picking up Carson’s questions, testing his patience.
Carson had to stick precisely to the notes his staff gave him. For example, if he asked a question out of order, Hope might answer a different question. Regardless of this inconvenience and irritation, Hope kept coming on the show, his weaknesses on full display for the national TV audience. One of the writers recalls how angry Carson became after one of the shows featuring Hope. Carson said to his writer “If I ever end up like that, guys, I want you to shoot me.”
Carson Gets Around
Like many men in show business, Carson was a relentless womanizer. While he was embroiled in harsh divorce proceedings with his second wife, Joanne, he was entertaining company with a Playboy model named Angel Tompkins. He was warned that he was jeopardizing any settlement if his wife’s lawyer found out, and Carson replied, “[expletive] him. A stiff [expletive] has no conscience.”
During his third marriage, his wife Joanna knew of his infidelity. She constantly received exorbitant gifts from him: from an apartment at The Pierre, to a Rolls-Royce Corniche, to diamonds, all as compensation for his many indiscretions. Obviously, it took a toll on their marriage.
An Insensitive Jokester
Fat jokes are not a new thing now — and it is hard to say when or who started the fat jokes. Well, Johnny Carson was no stranger to fat jokes. He didn’t mind putting someone’s weight on display in front on millions on national television. Imagine if you were that someone and how you would react.
Veteran NBC actor Raymond Burr was the source of many of Carson’s fat jokes. He finally became incredibly angry over Carson’s continuing fat jokes and he refused to appear on The Tonight Show. He did appear at least twice, in 1968 and in 1976.
Losing The Deal
Johnny Carson backed out of a huge deal in 1980; he was going to acquire the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Then, a competing group (led by Wayne Newton) successfully bought the property. While this is solely a personal, financial decision and shouldn’t necessarily be in the spotlight, Carson became annoyed when he was portrayed by the media as having “lost” the deal.
Carson reacted by telling jokes on his show about Newton, the new owner. Newton had spent a great deal of effort building a masculine image and back then, sexuality and masculinity were sacred. This created a high-profile feud between Carson and Newton.
Dealing With Joan And John
When former Tonight Show guest hosts John Davidson and Joan Rivers got their own talk shows, Carson was furious. He reportedly loathed what he perceived as their disloyalty to him because their shows were in direct competition with his show.
Rivers’ show was on Fox Network. Her time slot directly competed with Carson during the 1986–1987 season. But regardless of this competition, her show was later canceled. In 2009, Rivers praised McMahon on Larry King Live. But she made a comment about her relationship with Carson; she said that after she got her own show, Carson never spoke to her again.
Johnny And Joan: A Secret Past
While it’s known that Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson had a longstanding feud after Johnny allegedly felt slighted by her after she left for her own show, this was not the only scandal revealed between the two. Joan Rivers alleged in her book that the two had an affair at some point in time. The affair allegedly took place during Joan’s marriage to Edgar Rosenberg.
Joan and Edgar were married for twenty-two years and apparently, the comedienne was not always faithful during their marriage. It’s interesting to consider whether Johnny’s banning of Joan from his show had more to do with their sexual liaison than her loyalty to his show. Edgar ultimately committed suicide which was devastating to Joan and their daughter Melissa.
An Open Door For Johnny
After Jack Paar literally walked off set, he also decided to leave the country. He was later persuaded to return but only continued hosting for two more years before leaving for good. While he continued on for several years, it is thought that his original outburst over censorship was still a thorn in his side and a major deciding factor in his departure.
Although he publicly stated that it was simply because the schedule was too much to keep up with. It was Jack’s departure that left an open door for Johnny Carson to begin his legendary tenure on the show.
Johnny Loves His Pageants
Bert Parks was famous for being the voice behind the beauty pageant. Bert was a singer and a television announcer but most famous for hosting the Miss America pageant for over twenty years. He is the one who sang the famous “There She Is, Miss America”.
In 1979, he was unceremoniously ousted from his job, where producers felt like Bert had grown too old. The Miss America Organization was trying to pull in a younger audience. Many were outraged by his firing including Johnny Carson. Johnny even led an on-air campaign to try and get Bert reinstated but was ultimately unsuccessful.
If It Wasn’t Going To Be Johnny
Bob Crane was a hilarious radio and television personality who had actually been tapped to take over for Jack Paar after his departure from The Tonight Show. Luckily for Johnny, Bob didn’t take the offer as he wanted to pursue an acting career and he later went on to act on Hogan’s Heroes which is what he is probably most well known for.
In 1978, Bob was found murdered in his hotel room under mysterious circumstances. He had been bludgeoned to death. The weapon was never found. Bob Crane’s son long suspected an ex-friend to be responsible for his father’s death, however, in 2016 DNA was tested and pointed to an unknown suspect.