Out of Spotlight, Carson Worked on His Legacy

Times Staff Writer

After he retired in 1992, Johnny Carson abruptly turned his back on show business, politely but firmly turning down numerous requests for personal appearances and tributes -- including those from close friends.

But the longtime host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," who died Sunday at 79, remained a shrewd if conservative businessman, friends say, and even in retirement stayed active in one pet project. Between trips around the world, Carson supervised video and DVD compilations of his most memorable bits, designed to keep his legacy alive.

On Monday, one of those anthologies -- "The Ultimate Johnny Carson Collection -- His Favorite Moments From The Tonight Show (Vols. 1-3) (1962-1992)," originally released in 2000 -- zoomed to No. 1 on the Amazon.com DVD sales ranking. And four other Carson compilations, representing a fraction of the more than 5,000 hours of existing "Tonight Show" tapes, spiked to top 10 positions on the chart.

The star's company, Carson Productions, controls the rights to all the material. In 1980, Carson won the rights to all future shows in a contract renewal with NBC. And after he retired, he acquired the pre-1980 tapes as well, according to Carson's nephew Jeff Sotzing, a former "Tonight Show" producer who helped run Carson Productions with his uncle.

Many of the episodes between 1962 and 1972 were erased years ago because networks at that time frequently taped over old broadcasts to save money.

Once he gained ownership of what was left, Carson placed the remaining tapes and all subsequent footage in an underground storage vault in Kansas. The collection of more than 4,000 tapes is believed to be one of the largest single television libraries in the world.

Studios are typically loath to give up any rights to shows they produce, but Carson's clout was such that he became the first major host of a live TV broadcast to own the rights to his show, according to NBC Universal Chairman and CEO Bob Wright, who became a close friend of Carson's.

Handing over the tapes was "a big concession that I think [then-network president] Fred Silverman was forced into when NBC was going through a difficult time," Wright said in an interview Monday. "It's nothing I would criticize; you have to do what you think is best for the business."

Wright pointed out that the vast library of Carson episodes could fill up programming time on cable networks such as E! or Comedy Central. And Sotzing pointed out that a clip show, "Carson's Comedy Classics," ran in syndication a few years back.

But it's clear that Carson Productions is staking the TV host's posterity not on syndication but on the DVDs -- which, it seems, was how Carson wanted it.

"The DVD is really a wonderful example of the work that he did, because it contains an example of all the things he did on the show," Sotzing said. "He was never comfortable merchandising the show, and that's why there's not that much of that out there.... There are no [Johnny Carson] coffee mugs, no T-shirts."

Yet in today's media blizzard, it may be hard for a legacy like Carson's to thrive.

Unlike sitcom stars, who tend to live on forever in syndication, talk show hosts -- such as Fred Allen, Arthur Godfrey and Carson's "Tonight" predecessor, Jack Paar -- tend to be forgotten rather quickly, according to Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"The bitter pill to swallow is that the stars of 'Saved by the Bell' may be remembered longer than Johnny Carson" because their shows are more accessible on cable networks, Thompson said. "If you want immortality [in television], you've got to star in something that can rerun on Nick at Nite."

But ever since Carson's death was announced Sunday, it has been hard to avoid tributes to the former television host, who reigned in late night for 30 years. On Monday, his successor on "Tonight," Jay Leno, paid homage to Carson's "American voice."

"Johnny never went out of style," Leno told viewers. "As a performer, I don't think I ever wanted to impress anyone more than Johnny Carson. He had that effect on comedians."

CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" has a long-scheduled break this week, although Letterman -- considered by many the closest heir to Carson in late-night TV -- is expected to pay tribute on Monday's show.

Times staff writers Lynn Smith and Paul Lieberman contributed to this report.

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