THE OFF-CAMERA CARSON

On the face of it--and the closer you get to him--Johnny Carson seems not very different from other people. He has one best friend he trusts implicitly. He has a beautiful girlfriend he met on the beach. He drives himself to work, to the same job he's had for 24 years. He has three sons and three divorces. He works out regularly, yet smokes excessively. He's dallied with alcohol, but not on the job. He can be mischievous. When his next-door neighbors threw a wedding last year, he reportedly took a broomstick and wrote an epithet on the sand to shock the helicopter pilots and the press. (Not printable here, thank you very much.)

The bride and groom happened to be Madonna and Sean Penn--and Johnny Carson is obviously different from other people.

He opened the front door himself. The glass-walled Malibu house sits on a 200-foot cliff overlooking the world, and it's a little overwhelming, even for Johnny Carson. He related that "Bob Newhart took one look and said, 'Where's the gift shop?' " Director Billy Wilder may have been more to the point: "Where's the desk?" There is no question that Johnny Carson could do "The Tonight Show" here, and that may be the unconscious intent: to create a living area that's an idealized, glamorized version of the work area. Mirrored tables on white area rugs, swivel chairs and simple glass ashtrays. This has to be the ultimate $9-million show-business house. Ed Murrow, if only he knew about this house, would return to Earth for a special segment of "Person to Person." Overflowing with flora and fauna, the living room seems higher and wider and deeper than the lobby of the Kahala Hilton.

It's no wonder that Carson bought the place almost on a whim last year, 24 hours after a first look. "I was in escrow on another house," he confided, "when I saw this. I said 'Can I come back tomorrow?' And I did. Then I said, 'Can I come back tonight?' And I did. And then I bought the place." (The move was typically Carson: In the early '70s, he bought Mervyn LeRoy's Bel-Air house for $800,000--over dinner.) "My dad," said Carson, a little self-consciously, "would probably say to me, 'John, do you really need this house?' The answer, of course, is that I really don't."

Carson poured black coffee into simple white mugs--and began a tour of the greenery and grounds and grotto. He likens the setting to Carmel or Acapulco, and he likes to remind a visitor that his tennis building now in construction across the road won't be anywhere near as splashy. Which is apt. Because Carson--at a distance and right up close--is the opposite of splash. He's a master of energy, of using and saving it--and there's a conservatism about him that has nothing to do with politics. As he settled into a leather swivel chair for what was to be a two-hour interview, his posture was midshipman-perfect. When two hours stretched to nearly five, another session was suggested--and the posture didn't change. Johnny Carson apparently cannot slouch.

Carson hasn't been interviewed in seven years, since he discussed comedy in a Q&A; piece for Rolling Stone. (The framed Rolling Stone cover hangs in the outer office of his inner NBC office along with all his other covers--Time and Life and Look and so on, most of them from the late '60s. His last intensive print interview was with the late Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker in 1977.)

In the last two months Carson has refused to do covers of Vanity Fair, Esquire and People. Primarily because he did not want to discuss The Mouth, a.k.a. Joan Rivers, the comedienne he installed as the first permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show." In mid-May, just after the first of Carson's two interviews with Calendar, Rivers announced that she'd begin her own syndicated show in October. She had pulled an Eve Harrington by not only walking out on Carson but walking over and around him. While The Mouth never closed, Carson, while obviously not amused, said only, "I felt if I answered one question, then one question would lead to another."

Sitting in his living room with a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls, Carson, 60, might just as well have been in a dressing room in Burbank. At home, as at NBC, he fiddles with pencils or cigarettes (smoking a full pack during the first interview. His only stipulation: That he not be photographed smoking). It's not surprising to discover that Carson in college wanted to be either a psychiatrist or a journalist. On and off camera he probes and questions and listens and then answers. An extrovert when working, Carson is, however, an introvert when he isn't. Barbra Streisand's definition of fame--"not being left alone"--doesn't apply here. There is no bodyguard, no entourage, no driver.

"Oh God no!" said Carson, outraged at the notion. "That's like having license plates that say BIG STAR . I drive myself to work. If somebody is going to get you, they are going to get you. I remember once in Vegas, sitting at Caesars Palace, hearing a hushed voice whisper, 'Frank's here!' Well, of course you knew he was there. Sinatra likes that. He likes being surrounded by people. I don't."

'The Truth Is That I Never Was a Social Animal'

Johnny isn't one of those put-on-a-spotlight-I have-to-perform people. He's a loner but he isn't lonely. His interests are varied and surprising, like astronomy. How many comedians know anything about astronomy? I call him a verbal editorial cartoon.

--Stan Irwin, former producer of "The Tonight Show" and Carson's concert manager since 1964

Everything he does counts, and he operates almost singly. Every night before the show I go to his office and spend exactly seven minutes there. It's a tradition. Johnny will invariably be alone, rolling a quarter or doing an old magic trick. We never talk about the show, ever. We might talk about sex or divorce. Or we might watch TV news. Without talking at all.

--Ed McMahon

"The idea is to find a way to entertain him. His is a refined verbal talent, and the best guests rise to the occasion. They leave fingerprints, so to speak. Because in 24 years he's heard every answer and asked every question." --Robert Dolce, "Tonight's" longtime talent coordinator

A lawyer friend introduced us, casually. I was intimidated about meeting him. But we walked over to NBC in New York and I chatted with Carson 10 or 15 minutes. The next day I got a call from Carson. He was going through the divorce from his second wife, but I was not a divorce lawyer. And I wondered why he called me.... I finally decided he was so isolated in New York, by the people representing him, that maybe I was the only guy, the only lawyer, he knew. His isolation was extreme. I'm talking then -- not now. He's much more comfortable with himself now.

--Henry Bushkin, Carson attorney and confidante

If four people were asked to pin an adjective on Carson, at least three of them would pick private. The label sticks to him like tough sticks to Jessica Lange and non-verbal to Robert De Niro. Major stars seem to require such quickie identity fixes, perhaps so the public can understand them. Example: When Mary Tyler Moore stopped really playing Mary Richards (as in "cute"), the public got confused about her. Private is the label that keeps the public from being confused about Carson.

"Isn't it really a Catch-22 situation?," he asked rhetorically. "If you're out with a group of people, it's called 'an entourage,' and they say you're making a big play. If you keep to yourself, they say, 'He doesn't like people.' The truth is that I never was a social animal."

If Carson is more social lately--turning up at the Comedy Store to see friend Buddy Rich on drums, or at the eight-hour premiere of "Nicholas Nickleby" at the Ahmanson--the outings are occasional. (And almost always with his constant companion Alex Maas, the beautiful blonde he met by chance on Carbon Beach, after his separation from third wife Joanna Ulrich Holland.) "Ninety-eight percent of the time I come home after the show," he said. "And I don't necessarily watch the show. But even in the '50s, I never went to premieres out here. I never did understand anybody who puts on a tie and tuxedo to go to a restaurant opening. It's jive to me. The continual thing to concentrate on is the energy level for the show."

It's protected at all costs: "I wake up hard," Carson said in response to one of his standard lines from the '60s--"I don't trust anyone who's alert before 11 in the morning." "The Tonight Show" is taped at 5:30 in the afternoon, primarily because that's the best and latest time the program can be fed to New York. Still, the timing works for Carson's own personal rhythms, too.

"Is it biorhythms or circadian rhythms?" Carson wondered aloud. "I know men have similar cycles and emotional swings as women, though much about this is unknown. I know I have mood swings, big ones. I don't know a creative person who doesn't have them. I know that if we talked at NBC today, I would be tired for the show. Even if I have lunch in town, some of the best energy is gone. Same thing if I go to the office too early. So I get in the groove out here, in the morning, and start my notes." Yet Carson is simply not a morning-social, and he broke into a big grin when he repeated the line, "I do wake up hard. My gal calls it grump hour."

'There Were Not Too Many Magic Moments in Marriage'

During his show recently, during a commercial break, Carson took questions from his studio audience and, inevitably, he was asked if he would marry again. His answer bespoke of somebody not only press-shy but gun-shy. He said something to the effect of "I'm in no hurry." Earlier that day in his NBC office, Carson fiddled with drumsticks and talked about the connection between drums and magic, before circuitously getting to the subject of marriage. "I think my reading a book at 12 called 'Hoffman's Magic Tricks' probably changed the course of my life," he said when asked about an early experience that shaped him. Yes, but did magic help him with girls? "It did then," he said grinning, then added, "but not with marriage. There were not too many magic moments in marriage."

It's a touchy subject, if not the touchiest, and on-the-air humor has been Carson's way of handling it. When his last two marriages ended, the humor seemed hostile, though Carson claims the jokes were on him , and primarily at his own expense. "Maybe the jokes relieve tension," he suggested. "Comedy is a nice way of doing that without getting explicit. You can make veiled references, but you don't get too personal. . . . But I would not feel comfortable writing a book involving my marriages, nor would the people I was married to feel comfortable. Because you are then giving up a certain trust. And there's little enough trust nowadays."

Clearly, Carson has an old-fashioned propriety about marriage; after all, he's been married for much of his adult life, close to 30 years altogether. "If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to 'The Tonight Show,' " he confessed, "I'd probably have a hell of a marriage. But the fact is, I haven't given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages: I put the energy into the show.

"I've said before that what's most important to a man, in general, is his work. What's most important to a woman, in general, is her relationship. And for me, what I do comes first. But look at the failure rate of marriages in Detroit, something near 50%. Why should a guy who's doing a TV show be different from a dentist? I'll tell you why. Because of the press. But I now look at it this way: You're in the paper and you're out of the paper."

Out of the paper lately has been Joanne Copeland Carson, his second wife. Ironically, the diminutive brunette lives atop Sunset Boulevard in a glass-walled house with a panoramic view that almost rivals her ex-husband's. In New York, in the 1960s, the couple lived at the U.N. Plaza in a glass-walled 12-room apartment overlooking Manhattan. In the Carbon Beach house, the glass walls face the sea. The imagery is interesting--glass walls looking out--when one considers the Carson penchant for privacy, and introspection.

Joanne Copeland met Johnny Carson in 1960 when she was co-hosting 'Video Village" on CBS and he was hosting "Who Do You Trust?" on ABC. They shared the years before and during his catapult to major stardom. It is she who has perhaps the best perspective on Carson's need to be alone. Their New York years were much less social than the '70s, the Hollywood years he spent with his third wife, Joanna.

"Johnny isn't complicated," said Joanne carefully. "Complicated implies difficult. Johnny isn't difficult really; he's multifaceted. The difference is everything. Multifaceted means you have good sides, but many of them. Ambition was only one of his facets, which separates him right away from a Joan Rivers. With Joan it's all career. Johnny's different. Which is why he said no to 'The Tonight Show' when it was first offered."

And yet he's single-minded about the show, almost to the exclusion of the other facets. "Yes, but that was a choice. What Johnny put into the show has cost him, because he put 100% of himself into it. Johnny put his focus on the career because instinctively he knew the career would never let him down. He felt it would never betray him, and it never has betrayed him. What's also unknown about Johnny is that he hasn't used anybody."

Money Is Still a Topic Carson Has Problems Talking About

"If a star needs 10 people to prop him up," said attorney Henry Bushkin, "he's in trouble. Because sooner or later those 10 people are not going to be there." If everyone in Hollywood has a brother, Johnny Carson has Henry Bushkin. The lawyer (renowned to regular Carson watchers as "Bombastic Bushkin") is, by all accounts, the best friend. The men, with or without wives, go together to Wimbledon, to France, to breakfast at Malibu. Bushkin is also the lawyer who's best understood Carson professionally, and done the best by him.

"I oversee what goes on," is the understatement Bushkin used to explain his involvement with Carson and Carson's companies. In fact, no truly important decision is made at Carson Productions without Bushkin's knowledge. Example: "Years ago when I was at NBC," recalled Dave Tebet, the network's former senior vice president of talent who now works as "trouble-shooter" for Carson Productions, "I spotted a line in Johnny's contract that was so extraordinary. It was Bushkin's doing completely. A simple sentence to the effect that 'Johnny Carson will retain ownership of all his sketches on the "Tonight Show." ' Those sketches are now, of course, in syndication as "Carson Classics," and they have been available in every major U.S. TV market. (Contractually, they never can be aired opposite "Tonight.")

(The Carson Production Companies employ 40 people and occupy a building in Toluca Lake. The company's first film was the hit "The Big Chill" and its most recent was the flop "Desert Bloom." In the fall, Carson's TV division will fill what Tebet calls "the last great slot on NBC," following "Golden Girls" for a sitcom ("Amen") written and directed by Ed. Weinberger ("Mary Tyler Moore Show"), who's now president of Carson Productions. Then there are the investments. But, as Bushkin put it, "Investments are not businesses.")

How canny is Carson about business? Bushkin doesn't flinch. "I think you have to appreciate the fact that he's a performer. If he devoted too much time to business, he feels it would take away from his energies for performing." Carson, when asked the same question, responded much the same way: "I'm involved a bit in the companies. But I don't really like the business end of it." "The show," as Bushkin put it, "is the base of his pyramid."

The show has long been acknowledged as the network's largest single money-maker. As Bushkin explained, "There are shows that make more, but those shows aren't on as frequently. What makes this show unique is that it has sustained so long, and the (advertising) rates go up." How up is up? "That's real easy to figure," said Bushkin, "because I have a calculator. Let's say a one-minute spot today costs $45,000, and there are six network spots per hour. Multiply 45 times 6 times 260, and you see that the 'Tonight Show' can gross $270,000 a night. That translates to $70,200,000 a year."

Whether Carson earns $5 million or $7 million or $99 million a year, nobody will say exactly. "More than $5 million" is a figure nobody disputes. Contrary to rumor, Carson's negotiations were never very complicated: "What Johnny wanted is basically what NBC gave him," explained Tebet, the man who in 1961 decided Carson would be the heir to Jack Paar. Published lists of replacement hosts, names like Gleason and Newhart and Griffin, were so much balderdash, according to Tebet.

"I only had to see Johnny perform once to know," he remembered the other day. "It was a convention in North Carolina, at the golfing resort, and I could instantly see the effect he had on an audience. Based on that one experience (NBC programming chief) Mort Werner and I convinced NBC to stand behind us. There was no list. Carson was the list. We just had to wait for him."

Translation: ABC had Carson under contract, and NBC was losing Paar. There was a 26-week interim, and NBC waited for Carson. Guest hosts filled in until Oct. 1, 1962, when Joan Crawford and Mel Brooks became Johnny Carson's first-night guests. After initially saying no ("I was making a couple of grand a week on the quiz show, and following Paar, well. . ."), Carson said yes. His starting salary was $100,000 a year. By the summer of 1964, the sum was boosted by his headlining at the Sahara in Las Vegas. The starting salary at the Sahara: $40,000 a week.

Money is still a subject Carson has real problems talking about--at first. "I never knew what my father made," he said matter-of-factly. "And it never would have occurred to me to ask him, 'Dad, how much did you make last year?' Maybe it's my Midwestern upbringing. It's like when people come into this house and say, 'What did you pay for it?' I say, 'Why do you ask?' What I paid is the government's business and my business. I'm not sure it's anybody else's business."

'Am I Worth What I Make? Yes--Because I Can Get It'

Yet money is not a subject one can duck, and once started, Carson didn't stop. Several times in conversations he would return the subject to the public's fascination with big finance. "Humphrey Bogart said it all years ago," said Carson. "He was asked, 'Isn't $25,000 a lot of money for a picture? Why you?' And Bogey said, 'Because I can get it. . . .' So, am I worth what I make? Yes--because I can get it."

Carson delivered the line with the slightest hint of defensiveness, like a Midwestern multimillionaire who reveres privacy, and expects it. Where Carson comes from--which is not Brooklyn, where the boys on the block boast nonstop--discretion rules. In that regard he's not unlike fellow Nebraskans with last names like Fonda and Astaire and Brando.

"But isn't it all relative?" Carson wanted to know. "Sylvester Stallone gets $12 million for a movie about arm wrestling before the movie is even made." Implicit is the point that Carson works year-round, while a Stallone may work 12 weeks on a film, and be done with it. "It's no different than any other business. What is anybody worth?"

Carson wanted to play out the analogy, and play devil's advocate. "People say, 'The President only earns $200,000 a year.' And I say, so? Maybe CBS had a better year than the President. Look at rock stars. You hear figures like $5 million for five nights. Nothing can top that . . . I don't go to a psychotherapist over the fact of the money I earn, believe me."

Carson also doesn't "go into the negotiations myself. That's for others to do. Performers actually can be naive about their value. A certain amount of this is tied to what a program is worth. It's what you bring into the store. Regardless of relationships, networks aren't operating out of kindness. And I'm my only inventory," added Carson softly. "If I get in an elevator, and the shaft breaks, my inventory is gone." Which may explain why Carson years ago asked for and got a $1 million life insurance policy from NBC.

"I've been reading a book about J. Paul Getty," said Carson referring to "The Great Getty" a new biography (by Robert Lenzer) of the late billionaire. "I'd like to be spared that kind of wealth. The minute they say you are the richest man in the world you become a real recluse. Is it about never getting enough? The man had a pay phone in his house!" For years Carson has used one line about money--"Having money frees you from worrying about money. Period." Now he added, "If you equate money with success--and I don't--you can be in trouble. I've had many problems that were not solved by having money. Success is doing what you want to do. And yet you have to know what money is about. You have to have a handle on it."

When Carson said, at one point, "I'm Midwestern, but I'm not a yokel on any level," it was easy to believe him. Only a non-yokel mind understands the kind of wealth TV bestows without becoming obsessed by it. One feat of maintaining Carson's stardom is maintaining the Midwestern humor that peppers his monologue--but not his social life. The Neil Simon Disease of writing and thinking only about show business is not one Carson has caught. "I should show you something downstairs," said Carson impulsively. "I have a framed contract for my first $20 gig from AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists). It was a Nebraska variety show. I keep it on the wall, and I walk by it often, and I think to myself, 'Yes, that was a good date, a good job.' "

'I Believe in a Slow Build When It Comes to a Career'

The writer George Axelrod ("Seven Year Itch") once said that Carson would be "a great conversationalist if you had a little red light in the middle of your forehead." Meaning, apparently, that Carson was made for the camera. Carson remembered the line, and remarked on it. "I think George was being complimentary," he decided. "I can look into the camera and . . . I use the camera. I remember seeing a silent film from the '20s with Oliver Hardy sighing directly into the camera. I can't explain how perfect that sigh was. It's like trying to explain comedy."

Carson was remembering a recent incident that showed why he avoids self-analysis and interviews. "A friend of ours, a 16-year-old, was putting together a cable show and he wanted to ask me some questions. I said, 'Sure, I'll talk to you.' And then I didn't know what to say to him. He said, 'How do you do what you do?' and I couldn't answer. Finally I said, 'Be yourself and tell the truth.' And that's not an easy answer, really."

Is simplicity a solution that came slowly to Carson? "Probably. But I believe in a slow build when it comes to a career." Does he believe he's gotten better with time? "Probably. Acceptance is everything. You just do the next thing, whatever that is, and hope you're getting better. I think what you learn is what you can get away with. People ask, 'Why has the show lasted and done so well?' And again it's a Catch-22. If you say, 'Because it's the best,' people say you're an egomaniac. If you say, 'Gee, I dunno,' you sound dumb. I always tried to be honest and say I was doing a TV show. It's a performance and it should be looked at that way. The TV set is in your living room, not mine."

On Guard Against Writers Who Wield 'Personal Stilettos'

Carson at home, listening and talking, is at moments a different creature from the TV version. McMahon once said, "He has to become Johnny Carson every day," but it isn't that. It's that Carson in private doesn't use the extra layer, the patina of trying to please . He doesn't hide the ambivalence about fame. He smiles less often, but who wouldn't? He's more serious, yet simultaneously funnier. Pointing to the house next door, the site of last year's media wedding, he said, "Madonna and Sean Penn turned the place into Circus Vargas!" Carson off-the-record, without writers or jokes, is funny in a way most comedians are not. "He's funny without bitterness," said Stan Irwin. "But that's because he's basically loyal. Just don't cross him."

Especially if you're a journalist. The press is somewhat of a Carson bete noir , at least certain segments of the press, and he has an elephant's memory about how he's been treated, and by whom. He can cite verbatim an incident involving the late columnist Dorothy Kilgallen more than 20 years ago, when Carson hosted Lyndon Johnson's Inaugural gala. His joke had to do with birth-control pills and "The Tonight Show" keeping people up late. Kilgallen responded in print with a blind item about "What TV star showed bad taste at the Inaugural gala?"

Carson cringed at the memory. It still rankles. "I don't really mind criticism of the work," he said crisply, knowing there is very little criticism of the work. "But some writers have personal stilettos. Which is why I mostly kept my family out of the press."

(If not out of his humor. On impulse, Carson thought of a perfect funny example of using humor to make a point--instead of using his family. "One year we did a sketch called 'The Andy Davidson Christmas Special,' in which Betty White was my almost-ex wife. She's having a thing with a tennis pro, and the kids are off the deep end. NBC was having heart attacks about it. I think one year Andy (Williams) actually had his ex-wife on his Christmas special.")

The children of Carson, conversely, have rarely even been photographed. His three sons (Chris, Cory and Rick) are by his first marriage, to his former magic assistant and college school sweetheart Jody Wolcott. Carson hasn't before discussed his sons, but now he seemed willing to.

"One of my boys is a stage manager and one plays guitar," said Carson evenly. "And my other son is a professional golfer in Ft. Lauderdale." Again, a memory was triggered. "I was standing in the checkout line at the Colony Market," Carson said, sounding almost like any other shopper, "and there's, you know, a tabloid paper and they've got my son in there, the golfer." Carson cleared his throat, obviously a bit undone by this kind of exposure. "Well, they said he drove a rusty Datsun and was suffering in Florida, living without air conditioning. . . . Going after your children is below the belt. But it's very difficult to prove malice."

Carson lit another cigarette and sounded like he might have wanted to trace the malice. Then he shrugged a shoulder. "I called my son and said, 'Well, how is it down there without air conditioning?' Of course he has air conditioning!" Carson was letting some vulnerability show. He seemed to want very badly to be listened to not as Johnny Carson but as Johnny Carson. "I think if you are human. . . ," he said, not finishing the sentence. ("Part of Johnny's appeal," Dave Tebet had said earlier, "is that he's vulnerable without being a victim. Very few comedians can you say that about. Think about it.")

"Of course I want my kids happy," said Carson plaintively. "All I ever told them was, 'Do what makes you happy.' " In various ways Carson has attempted to contribute to that happiness. Example: "I wanted to avoid that killer label 'Johnny Carson Jr.' It's monstrous and egomaniacal to call your kids junior."

Carson Does His Cocktail Partying on the Show

"Tonight Show" executive producer Fred de Cordova was sitting almost at attention in his low-ceilinged NBC office that bears no resemblance to Hollywood executive offices. It's much too sparse and under-decorated. "That will be the 10 a.m. call from Mr. Carson," he said obediently.

(A few days later when it was suggested to Carson that the show was reminiscent of a patriarchy, because of the staff's long tenure, he shied away from the label. "Do I have to be the father figure?" Carson asked. "Can't I be the brother? Let Fred be the father, or the grandfather.")

De Cordova is a burly ex-athlete ("At the turn of the century I was a sportsman") who brooks no dissident behavior in his midst. Being very social, he's very much the opposite of Carson. Yet he's lasted 15 years here for a reason: De Cordova is for Carson a throwback to his favorite era, the time of Jack Benny and George Burns, both of whom De Cordova worked for. Also, De Cordova is ebullient, in the sense of carny-midway-vaudeville show business, and he seems never to be thrown. By anything, or anyone.

The 10 o'clock call from Mr. Carson lasted exactly 2 minutes, 39 seconds: "There are travel warnings," De Cordova said into the receiver. "There are various places it's better to stay out of. Now, about tonight. You have Bette Davis, though you may have to lead her up the steps. (Comic) Paul Provenza is on. Pete Fountain's on, doing clarinet numbers. Doc has that spot covered."

Asked to list the misconceptions about Carson, De Cordova submitted two: "That he's wrapped in cotton. When in fact the oddest thing about him, for a comedian, is how aware he is of the outside world. The other one is that he's a cold cookie. Wrong. It's just that he does his cocktail partying on the show. When he goes home, he relaxes. The misconceptions are all trial balloons. They've all been sent up, and shot down."

Carson stressed that his policy has been not to let the press observe the workings of "The Tonight Show" for a reason. The show should look impromptu and live and the combination is not achieved without certain stress. It's not accidental that De Cordova and Carson chain-smoke, that producer Peter Lassally sits raptly in front of the monitor throughout tapings, rarely moving from the screen. The only goal is not to slip , in the ratings or in the public's perception, and it's fear-making on some level. Nobody wants the fear to show.

The new fear, obviously, is over who will replace Joan Rivers as guest host. "I'd like to see us go with various people," said Carson recently. "For instance, I'd love to see Bill Cosby do a few nights, or a week, if he ever has a week free. I think it would be fun to have various people doing it. But I don't know the direction we will ultimately take."

Joan Rivers 'Could Have Handled It Differently'

The subject was Joan Rivers, and Carson knew it. When told that he'd remained the gentleman throughout the flap, he smiled broadly. When asked if he was hurt by the tumult, the smile turned to a startled look. All at once Carson could have been a movie star; he registers emotions exactly like an actor. "Hurt?" The way he said the word was like a letter from a lawyer; it said everything and nothing all at once. "I just felt she could have handled it differently, that's all," he said finally. Previously, Carson had elaborated on differences between Rivers' style and his own.

"One reason I put Joan in there was the contrast between the way we work," he'd said comfortably. (At the time of this comment, Rivers' book "Enter Talking," was prominently displayed in Carson's front hall.) "Sure she's strident," he'd said in defense. "What she does is in total contrast to what I do. I am not going to ask Joan Collins her age. Joan can get away with that. It makes sense for her. But seven or eight weeks a year is one thing. It would be very difficult for Joan to do this full-time, and she knows it. She admits this--she's said herself that her style would become too obvious if exposed every single night 52 weeks a year."

"Frankly I was surprised," said Ed McMahon, echoing the sentiments of everyone questioned about Rivers on the show. "Doing our show, Joan was free for club dates, Vegas, whatever. To do what she is going to do every night is gruesome, believe me."

Producer Lassally admitted "total surprise," then also admitted that, "Yes, she tried to hire me," but that he was staying put. "I never had any difficulties with Joan," said Lassally, "but I might add I was disappointed only in the way it was handled."

Added De Cordova: "I was in her dressing room to chit-chat at two every afternoon the entire last week she did the show. There wasn't an innuendo, a wink, or an inkling. But am I sitting here crying? No."

It was left to Bushkin, as usual, to get the last word when it comes to the business of Carson. "Johnny was really annoyed she didn't call him first," said the attorney. "That was the gravamen of his complaint. But he handled the whole thing perfectly. A statement was issued through the publicist, and he never made another comment. His sense of it was absolutely correct. Not to be a hypocrite, but that was it . No more comments."

'People Don't See the Work, and They Shouldn't'

You don't just walk in and do what I do. You have to put it on the griddle, and it's from night to night. It's about momentum. That's why when I quit I won't come back to the same format. It's not like Jack Nicklaus, coming back to win the Masters. Maybe Nicklaus could play a smashing game once in a while, but ... Jack Paar came back. Nobody remembers it, but he did. He said "I shouldn't have come back." "The Tonight Show" really is about momentum. I don't think anybody again will do it this long. Maybe, who knows, but....

The question about Carson quitting is the one that every six months gets a new answer:

He told Rolling Stone in 1979, "No, I don't think I'll be around in 1986. I can't see myself sitting at the desk in my 60s."

In 1977, Ed McMahon told Kenneth Tynan for the New Yorker, "He will still be doing the job in 1980. Beyond that, I don't know." Two weeks ago McMahon updated his statement: "It's a burning issue for me, too. I've told him I will stay as long as he does. Next year it will be 25 years, and that would seem the logical time to go. That would be a real moment for America! . . . Johnny has the best sense of timing of anyone I've ever met. But I don't know. What would we do if we weren't doing the show? I think that's the real question."

De Cordova: "I just hope he stays as long as I'm alive." (De Cordova is deep into his 70s and shows no signs of slowdown.) "Johnny's current contract is up in October of 1987. Sixteen months is a long time away."

Dave Tebet, who put Carson on the show in the first place: "I don't think Johnny knows the answer yet. Steve Allen did it for 2 1/2 years. Jack Paar had had it after four years. So had Johnny. But with Johnny we invented vacations."

"The fact is," Carson said privately, "I haven't had more than four consecutive weeks off in 24 years. . . . Once in New York when I was doing 'Who Do You Trust?' I was getting out of a cab when the driver stopped me. 'You got it made,' he mumbled. 'You only work two hours a day, right?' 'Right,' I said. The guy is driving a hack from midnight to eight in the morning. So how else are you going to answer him? Naturally people don't see the work, and they shouldn't. "

The work begins with the monologue which Carson begins thinking about by 9:30 each morning. De Cordova claims he gets the daily 10 a.m. call from Carson whether or not Carson is on vacation. Almost no detail escapes Carson: The day Benny Goodman died Carson personally rifled through Goodman classics to choose one ("Don't Be That Way") to close that evening's show. "Doc has the arrangement," Carson told De Cordova firmly. "It's a kind of pure Goodman song and I want to use it." Goodman had once let Carson sit in on drums during a Goodman gig in Ft. Lauderdale, and Carson's feeling for the musician was evident.

The point is that Carson is completely involved to the degree where vacations are almost misnomers. (He'd hardly ever visited Europe until his third wife, Joanna, hauled him to Cap d'Antibes and her native Italy. "Tonight" isn't seen abroad, thus Carson goes unrecognized.)

If the show is both all-consuming and a well-oiled piece of machinery, then how can Carson walk away? "It's not a national shrine," Carson said quietly in response. "They are not going to erect any statues. But I will say this: I remember when Jim Aubrey canned Jack Benny--and that won't happen to me. I'll know when the time has come. The people tell you. When we are not No. 1--or when it's no longer fun--that will be it. And it won't be with a lot of fanfare. The network will need a six-month notice."

There have been storm warnings before, of course. "I was prepared to leave if the show couldn't switch to an hour from 90 minutes. That was no ruse," claimed Carson. "I thought the one-hour format would be our salvation. You have to remember that David Letterman (whose show is a Carson production) went on the air doing 60 minutes four nights a week. When I started hosting 'The Tonight Show,' it was an hour and 45 minutes long and I worked 47 weeks a year. Over a period of time, one of two things is going to happen: You are going to lose consistency, or you are going to reach a boredom level."

The switchover to a one-hour show saved "The Tonight Show," but there are only so many concessions Carson can ask for. He cringes when remembering the 105-minute shows he did in the '60s. "Just to do seven hours of live TV a week is a feat. A 90-minute show means you're filling in the time. What's nice for me now is to look up at the clock and see there's no time left. You wish some nights you had 10 more minutes. That's the thing. Always leave them wanting more. . . ."

When will Carson not want to give more? It's the question you circle around, then ask, then let go of, then ask again. Why it matters is obvious. As Carson himself put it, "The show is a national barometer. One night a young woman in the audience said to me, 'I was born the night you began hosting.' David Letterman says he was learning comedy from me when he was in college." Carson seemed stunned at how fast time passes. "Do you remember when you were 15 and your dad was 45 and you thought he was ready for a home? Then pretty soon 40 begins to look good to you."

As a diversion, a Carson career-planning session ensued. Realistically, what would Johnny Carson do without "The Tonight Show"? What were and are his alternatives? A solid case can be made that Carson was into his 30s, and five years a game-show host, when he was practically discovered (like in a roman a clef novel) for "The Tonight Show." Would he otherwise have become the host of nighttime "Jeopardy"? Would he have become a TV variety star? (His own CBS prime-time series, "The Johnny Carson Show," had failed miserably in 1956.) Las Vegas? Concerts? The college circuit? (He hasn't performed live in five years.) Comedy albums? Various ideas emerged until one word grabbed Carson's attention. Movies .

The primary piece of art in the waiting room of his NBC office is a one-sheet from "Looking for Love," a 1964 pseudo-sequel to "Where the Boys Are" starring Connie Francis and guest starring George Hamilton, Yvette Mimieux and Johnny Carson. In the '60s and '70s it was a show-business axiom that Johnny Carson would become a movie star. It was to be the natural next step.

"Robert De Niro came here to the house," Carson said, a little awestruck but not meaning to show it. "He sat in this chair." Carson swiveled around, as he does on TV when he becomes Ronald Reagan or Art Fern, and he became De Niro. He lowered his chin onto his chest, and looked like a skinny Jake LaMotta. Then came the impression: "Uhm, ah, I'd like you to do this, uhm, movie 'The King of Comedy' with me," said Carson doing De Niro doing LaMotta.

(The film, of course, was based on Carson, a look at the living hell that goes with being the most famous talk-show host in history. Jerry Lewis played the part opposite De Niro as the obsessed fan under the obsessive direction of.)

Carson switched roles, playing himself trying to decipher what De Niro was saying. He bent down as if looking up at De Niro and trying to make contact. "I said to Bob, 'I'll do the movie if you'll do "The Tonight Show." ' Bob shook his head and said, 'I don't know how you do what you do.' And I said, 'I don't know how you do what you do.' And that was the end of that."

'Redford Can Play a Baseball Player, but I'm Playing Me. Every Night.'

Carson has enough times said no to Hollywood to be taken at his word. "I do 140 broadcasts a year," he said simply. "I would need to take six months off for a movie, three months to film it, with time before and after. You tell me how. Sure, I've thought about movies, for years. I kid Jack Lemmon all the time. I tell him, 'Jack, I could have had your career. I could have played every part you ever had.' I could have done 'Mister Roberts' and I know I could have done 'Days of Wine and Roses' . . ."

Carson's grin is deceptive. Clearly a movie career wasn't lightly dismissed. He had firm offers for the Steve McQueen role in "The Thomas Crown Affair," and the Gene Wilder role in "Blazing Saddles," among other offers. Ten years ago agent Irving Lazar went so far as to walk unannounced onto the panel at "The Tonight Show" with a check for $1 million, the fee offered Carson to star in a film of Irwin Shaw's novel "Nightwork," a movie that never got made.

Carson's last word on the subject said it all: "Nobody who has played himself on TV has ever gone on to a successful movie career. Nobody. Redford can play a baseball player, but I'm playing me. Every night. Actors, God knows, have been successful going from TV to film, guys like Lemmon and Jim Garner and McQueen. But they played characters on television. I'm playing me. It's hard to have that kind of identification with the public and then go on to become a movie star. And I'll tell you something else," Carson said knowingly. "I go watch actors work. I don't think it's much fun acting in a movie. George Scott enjoys sitting around with crew people playing poker, then doing a pickup shot 14 times. I don't think I'd enjoy that."

How about a weekly variety show, then? As a way to ease out of the daily grind? This, too, has been considered, carefully, and rejected out of hand. "It's Parkinson's Law," replied Carson. "If you have a week to pack for a trip, you'll take all week. If you have one night, you'll do it in one night. I don't know that I'd like having a week to do a show. And I'd worry about competition. A strong movie opposite you can kill you in your time slot. Advertisers say goodby and you are off the air. You get so many viewers per thousand or you don't survive. I have less competition than a prime-time show. I'm under less jeopardy."

And there's something else. "People have the wrong ideas about what a variety show should be," said Carson carefully. "Which may be why we don't see many now." In explaining what he knows about the form, Carson began to reminisce. "In 1952 I was doing a show on KNXT called 'Carson's Cellar.' One day I came to work and there were dancing girls. They wanted to call the girls Carson's Cuties, and have them open the show."

Carson paused, then in a steely voice added, "I said 'Get rid of the girls.' What did I need girls for? What had the girls to do with what I was doing? I do sketches, I don't do singing and dancing. That was true then, and it's true now. I'm basically doing the same show I always did, with a dressier backdrop."

And his own instincts. "It's like when I took over 'The Tonight Show.' They said 'Keep Jose Melis as bandleader and Hugh Downs at the desk,' and I said no. I wouldn't do it with Hugh Downs. I like Hugh Downs. But I said, 'If you want Hugh Downs you don't want me, you want Paar back.' I wanted my own people."

But how did Carson know to get rid of the dancing girls? Especially so early in a career? "One night at Chasen's I met Ed Wynn and he said to me, 'What's sexy about a three-inch girl?' I never forgot it. . . . TV is not where you do what you do on a proscenium stage."

'If I Chose To, I Could Do the Show in My Sleep.'

What Carson does, and is most concerned about, is his monologue. It could be his favorite subject. It's what separates Carson from everybody else on TV, and what keeps him from being an emeritus figure. "Let's face it," he said candidly. "If I chose to, I could do the show in my sleep. But I think if you have any pride you don't ever take it for granted that you've got it made. Sure you could coast, you could phone it in. But I don't like it when I'm not doing well. And there are nights when I'm not doing well. Nobody wants an audience not to like what you do."

Carson can admit the monologue "is for making your points, subliminally. I can slip something into a joke and the audience never knows. An opinion, an expression. The monologue is the jumping-off point, and there's a strong connection between it and the rest of the show. It's this nightly barometer of how 500 random people--75-year-olds mixed with yuppies--react to you." And to issues and personalities. Example: "I knew from the monologue the very night that Spiro Agnew was suddenly in deep trouble. From a one-line observation I can get a response, a reaction, to say David Stockman that may be the best indicator of how Stockman is perceived in this country."

The barometer effect is not by accident. Once when visiting Hawaii, Carson discovered the show was routinely fed to Oahu four or five days after taping. He reacted strongly. "I made NBC fix that. The show has to be seen the day it's done. That's why we do it at 5:30 every day. It's the closest thing to live TV, for both coasts. I don't know any other way to keep the show fresh." Or to keep his humor on the cutting edge.

Carson's modus operandi is "stream of consciousness--when I'm really going. It's 'What am I gonna make up today ?' Not tomorrow. Often I'll decide on a joke one second before I do it. By 3 p.m. I've met with the writers (Carson employs nine), and I've got notes on cards, and it's edited for structure." But that's all. Carson doesn't rehearse the monologue, ever, or try it out. "There's nowhere to try it. It's like going to a party; you walk in cold, every time. Sometimes people think something's funny so they laugh. . . . It's about acceptance. You get up to a level mentally and you are flying very high."

Too high to come down? Carson knows full well his own most pressing Catch 22. "I'm an entertainer," he said with an edge--and some melancholy--in his voice. "I don't have that other thing in my life that would be as much fun as what I do now. I have tennis, I'm building a court now, but it's not the same thing."

Role models for walking-away were discussed, largely to get Carson off the subject of himself. Unwittingly, he can become repititious, if forced to over-analyze himself. To retain Carson's attention one must grasp this fact quickly. Otherwise all hope is lost. Carson will be gone. The thing to remember is that he's TV pure, and thus he will not stay long on one topic. He will not avoid, but also he will not dally.

"I'm not hedging," Carson said finally. "I'd like to quit like James Cagney. He did that movie for Billy Wilder ("One, Two, Three," 1961) and then just stopped working. Classy. But Cagney had this farm on Martha's Vineyard, and he loved driving cross-country. I'm not sure I could do that. To switch gears is hard for me." And there's another point Carson wanted to make. A very long pause left him room to get to it. "Creative people are spooked when they're not working," he said softly. "And that scares me. . . . Still, I'll know when to walk away. I hope."

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