The Private Side Of Johnny Carson

A Rare 1979 Johnny Carson Interview With Correspondent Mike Wallace

In 1977, 60 Minutes persuaded a notoriously private Johnny Carson, who was a fan of the show, to talk about what kind of a guy he really was. But after three days of filming, he changed his mind and told 60 Minutes, politely, to go away.

But 60 Minutes persisted. And two years later, to its surprise, Carson talked to Correspondent Mike Wallace in a rare 1979 interview.

Why did Johnny Carson finally decide to do the interview?

"I understood that you're paying me a large amount of money for this," said Carson. "I'm not running a boiler-room operation. I have no phony real estate scam. I'm not taking any kickbacks. I did steal a ring from Woolworth's once when I was 12 years old, and I think that's why you're here."

"We're doing this because you're a national treasure," said Wallace. "That's what they tell me. You're a national treasure."

"And you know what the dollar is worth nowadays," said Carson.

The late-night legend spent most of his time at home alone in his office working, reading newspapers, and writing, his awards and mementos scattered about, his beloved drums close by, and taped jazz always in the background.

It was there that 60 Minutes sat down with Carson to find out what he was really like.

"Well, there's a stereotype of Carson. You know there is," said Wallace. "It is ice water in his veins."

"I had that taken out years ago. I went to Denmark and had that done. It's all over now," said Carson.

What about being known as shy and defensive?

"That's probably true. I can remember when I was in high school, if I pulled out my old high school annual book and read some of the things, people might say, 'Oh, he's conceited, he's aloof.' Actually, that was more shy. See, when I'm in front of an audience, you see, it's a different thing. If I'm in front of an audience, I can feel comfortable."

Why? "I'm in control," said Carson.

That's the key to Carson: control. Professionally, he insisted upon it. Socially, he couldn't demand it, so he retreated. He was uncomfortable. And the fact is that he was shy.

"There's Carson the performer, and there's Carson the private individual, and I can separate the two," said Carson.

What was a day in the professional life of Johnny Carson? The morning was given to reading half a dozen newspapers and magazines, looking for grist for the mill of that evening's monologue.

He was a man of habit. And at 1 p.m., the family cook, Lisette, gave him lunch in a brown paper bag. Then, into the garage and his Mercedes sports car for the 40-minute drive to beautiful downtown Burbank and the NBC factory. No chauffeurs, no entourage.

Five minutes after he arrived, he sat down with Fred De Cordova, "The Tonight Show's" producer and his good friend, to talk about that evening's guests. And at 5:10 p.m., his sidekick, Ed McMahon, showed up.

Did he get sensitive about the fact that people said, "He'll never take a serious controversy?"

"Well, I have an answer to that. I said, 'Now, tell me the last time that Jack Benny, Red Skelton, any comedian, used his show to do serious issues,'" said Carson. "That's not what I'm there for. Can't they see that?"

"Why do they think that just because you have 'The Tonight Show' that you must deal in serious issues? That's a danger. It's a real danger," added Carson. "Once you start that, you start to get the self-important feeling that what you say has great import. And you know, strangely enough, you could use that show as a forum. You could sway people. And I don't think you should, as an entertainer."

Carson studied tapes of old shows at home, for he was a perfectionist, and a very competitive man.

"Yeah, there are hazards in that, of course. There are good qualities about it, and there are bad qualities. You know, I mean, being too competitive, I think, sometimes is a bad thing," said Carson.

"I don't think it's being competitive in your work that's so bad. I think if you get too competitive in other things, outside of your work, that can be a hazard, because then you might not enjoy them as much as you should. It's like going out and playing tennis. I've found that most celebrities, especially in the public eye, have a far greater opinion of their game than their actual talent. They like to think they play better than they do."

He had played tennis for four years by then, and it showed. Still, he was earnest about it.

"What, are you waiting for your pacemaker to start," Carson said to Wallace during a game. "The thing has got to kick in just about when you serve."

Carson said he used tennis, which he loved, as a kind of therapy to help get rid of his aggressions.

And that went double for his drums, a gift from Buddy Rich. "It's like beating something," said Carson. "That's all it is. You ought to take this up, Mike. You've got a lot of hostilities."

"I'd rather beat on you," said Wallace.

If there is one almost universal comment from guests who have appeared on "The Tonight Show," it is that Carson was a gentle, kind man.

And by and large, that was true as well with the way he treated people in his nightly monologues.

Was he reluctant, in putting together his monologue, to go hard on a guy?

"Only when I sense the mood is, which you can do from an audience, and I'll give you a perfect illustration. When Wilbur Mills had his problem with the famous Fannie Fox and the Tidal Basin and so forth, it was amusing to most people, and you could do jokes about it," said Carson.

"I stopped doing jokes immediately as soon as people found out that he was an alcoholic and had emotional problems, and in fact was dependent on alcohol. Then I think that would be a cheap shot to take, to still do jokes about it. So I immediately ceased doing jokes about that, because it was really unfair."

"Of course, it takes one to know one," said Wallace.

"Ahh," said Carson, laughing. "Cruel. You're cruel."

Carson admitted there was a time when he used to drink, and he didn't handle it well. "I don't handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don't," said Carson. "Oh, Ed and I have had some wonderful times in the past."

"You know what Ed told us," said Wallace. "He told us that from time to time you were going to take on the whole Russian army, and he, and you didn't have the bazookas to do it."

"That's right. No, that's one reason I found that it's probably best for me to now really disentangle with it, because I just found out that I did not drink well," said Carson. "And when I did drink, rather that a lot of people who become fun-loving and gregarious and love everybody, I would go the opposite, and it would happen, just like that."

There was one bad habit, however, that Carson wasn't able to kick. Smoking.

Was he ashamed of smoking? "No, I guess because it has got so much press now that I feel guilty, you know," said Carson, who hid his cigarettes on the show.

Did he work better with a cigarette in his hand? "It's compulsive," said Carson. "I should go to one of those places where they shock you or do something or show you old reruns of 'Gilligan's Island' to make you give up smoking."

"I have never seen you apparently this open," said Wallace. "I always sense that somehow Carson is on guard, wary. Why?"

"I like to keep certain things private," said Carson. "I probably do put up a barrier, until I get to know people."

An interview with Rolling Stone said: "Carson is a man profoundly uncomfortable with his own emotions, and unable to express his pain, insecurity and deep caring without considerable difficulty."

True?

"No, I don't think so. I think I'm probably reluctant to do it. I don't find it difficult to do it," said Carson. "I'm reluctant to do it with people I don't know well. If I know somebody well, I can sit around."

He was also reluctant to discuss his salary. "Nobody's every quoted my salary correct, and that's always intrigued me. Nobody has ever had the figure right," said Carson.

"You know what? You have the opportunity at this moment before 40- or 50-million people to straighten us all out," said Wallace.

"What do you make a week," asked Carson.

"I'd be ashamed to tell you," said Wallace, laughing. "But no one's ever gotten your salary right?"

"No," said Carson.

Why is he so sensitive about the issue?

"Because I was raised in the Midwest, where it was considered impolite to ask somebody how much they made or how much," said Carson.

"I was taught that it was impolite to ask somebody what he paid for a car or a suit. Or if you walked into somebody's home, it would never occur to somebody to say, 'What did you pay for this house?' And yet somebody asked me that at a party a couple of weeks ago. He said, 'What did you pay for your house?' And I said, 'It's none of your damn business.' Which it wasn't."

"You've only had one failure that I know of, professionally," says Wallace. "'The Johnny Carson Show' back in 1950, whenever it was."

"Yeah, we were on for 39 weeks, and we went off at the end of 39 weeks," said Carson.

Ben Brady, who was then the producer of the show said: "Carson was trying to be a major comedian in prime time, and he didn't have the power. He is generically not a strong standup comedian like Hope, Skelton or Benny. He isn't now and he never can be."

"Well, I wonder what Mr. Brady would say today," said Carson.

When 60 Minutes first set out to do this profile, the only film it had shot before Carson called a halt for a while was his appearance to pick up an award as the Hasty Pudding Club's Man of the Year at Harvard University.

That night, at the awards ceremony, Carson said: "This is really lovely, but more important than that, I want to thank the club for letting me and my wife stay in the Master's Residence last night at Elliott House. You really don't know what that means. It's the first time I've scored with a chick on a college campus since 1949."

At the news conference, Carson was asked what he'd like his epitaph to be.

"I'd prefer not to have one at all if—where it never got to that point," said Carson, laughing. "I don't know. I think something like, 'I'll be right back.'"
  • Rebecca Leung

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