Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, January 29, 2005
Johnny Carson, with a bit of Steve
New York Times
Quiet Times, but Lots of Laughs, in the Years After 'Tonight'
By NICK MADIGAN
Published: January 29, 2005
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 - There were only a few places where Johnny Carson let his hair down. The poker table was one of them.
Mr. Carson's notorious off-screen reserve dissipated during the monthly poker games that the film producer Daniel Melnick held for years at his house in the Hollywood Hills. The regulars included a panoply of well-known names, like Steve Martin, Neil Simon, Chevy Chase, Carl Reiner and Barry Diller.
"In our game we all became adolescents," Mr. Melnick, who had known Mr. Carson since their early days in television in New York, said in an interview this week, after receiving news of the former "Tonight" show host's death on Sunday.
"There was a lot of kibitzing, a lot of laughing," Mr. Melnick said. "We were a little more raucous than we'd be under other conditions."
Still, Mr. Melnick said, he always had to warn Mr. Carson in advance if he planned to invite a new player to the game, usually to fill the chair of an absent regular. It was a long drive from Mr. Carson's home in Malibu, and he did not like surprises.
"John was not comfortable playing with someone he didn't know," Mr. Melnick said. "I'd have to brief him beforehand."
Mr. Melnick, a producer on two of Mr. Martin's movies, "Roxanne" (1987) and "L.A. Story" (1991), said the poker games were still being held, in Mr. Martin's house, and that Mr. Carson had played as recently as last month.
"He looked fine to me," Mr. Melnick said. "We knew about the emphysema, but he wasn't carrying oxygen. He looked tanned from spending all that time on the boat."
Johnny Carson's shyness, which he readily acknowledged, was one of the paradoxes of his character, and it became startlingly evident after his retirement from a 30-year run on NBC's "Tonight" show in 1992, when he disappeared from public view and refused virtually all requests for interviews and personal appearances. He focused on tennis, spent a lot of time on his yacht, immersed himself in books, and learned Russian and Swahili. And he played cards.
After his retirement, Mr. Carson also supervised the editing and marketing of the videotape and DVD compilations of his years on the "Tonight" show, working with his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, the president of Carson Entertainment.
"He and I put those together," Mr. Sotzing said. "We had to see which segments worked and which didn't work."
Mr. Carson continued to write after leaving the "Tonight" show. He occasionally sent jokes to David Letterman, host of CBS's "Late Show." Mr. Letterman used some of them in his monologues. Mr. Carson also wrote for The New Yorker after his retirement.
In November, Mr. Carson donated more than $5 million to the University of Nebraska, his alma mater, in Lincoln, and also made substantial donations to a number of institutions in Norfolk, Neb., the town in which he grew up. He gave more than $2 million to a cancer treatment center in the town, and $500,000 to the local library, among other gifts. A memorial to Mr. Carson is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Johnny Carson Theater at the high school in Norfolk.
After Mr. Carson retired from "Tonight," Ed McMahon, who sat next to him on the couch for three decades, saw considerably less of the host. "We'd meet for lunch maybe three or four times a year," he recalled. "But after a time I felt I was intruding. For the last year or so I only talked to him on the phone."
Ed Hookstratten, a Beverly Hills lawyer who represented Mr. Carson for 15 years, said his client "was very much a man of privacy."
"He would do the show, get in his car, go home, have dinner with his wife and relax," Mr. Hookstratten said. "He did not need people socially. He loved tennis, and he loved his yacht. After he retired, he moved his office onto his yacht, and he'd go there daily."
Mr. Carson spent a good deal of time traveling, often in the company of Bob Wright, the chairman and chief executive of NBC Universal, and Mr. Wright's wife, Suzanne. They went to Africa in 1994, England the following year and Scotland the year after that, among other places. They visited the San Juan Islands on Mr. Carson's yacht, the Serengeti.
Mr. Wright, who estimated that about 90 percent of his relationship with Mr. Carson was "outside the workplace," said the former "Tonight" host was "not reclusive at all."