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Peter Lassally: A late-night life

Thanks to his 30+ years hosting "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson became a household name. Less well known is his executive producer, Peter Lassally. This morning he's talking television with our Mo Rocca: 

Peter Lassally's life in television has been something of a dream. As a producer, he was an early champion of comedy greats Nichols & May, and Mort Sahl. He mentored Garry Shandling, and discovered Steven Wright.

"He was so clever and so different and such a nice boy," Lassally said of Wright. "And so grateful, he still calls me every anniversary of his appearance to thank me again."

But it was executive producing shows hosted by Craig Ferguson, Tom Snyder, David Letterman and before that Johnny Carson that earned him the moniker "The Host Whisperer."

Late-night TV's Peter Lassally, executive producer of shows hosts by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Tom Snyder and Craig Ferguson.  CBS News

"Johnny, of all the hosts, was the most normal one," Lassally said. "He was intelligent, he was well-informed. We'd talk politics almost every day."

Lassally started out as an NBC page. By the mid-1950s, he was working for America's biggest television star, Arthur Godfrey.

Rocca asked, "Can you give our audience a sense of how big a deal Arthur Godfrey was?"

"No. I can't," he replied, "because there's nothing comparable today or in recent history to him."

With his warm demeanor on-camera, Godfrey commanded an immense audience. But off-camera he was rumored to be petty and vindictive -- and early on, Lassally learned a valuable lesson:

Arthur Godfrey. CBS

"When I took the job, the man who preceded me said, 'Arthur will either love you or hate you, but there's very little in-between. Sooner or later, he will invite you to his ranch in Virginia. My advice to you is, don't go. Because once he gets to know you, he turns on you.' I used that advice for the rest of my career, in not becoming friends with the hosts."

Of one picture of Lassally on the "Tonight Show" set, lurking off camera, Rocca said, "You have the look of a man who is not seeking the spotlight."

"That is right," he laughed. "I mean, I see reluctance everywhere."

Peter Lassally, right, on the set of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Peter Lassally

Lassally spent the longest stretch of his career with "Tonight Show" king Johnny Carson.

"Johnny Carson, which I think will surprise you, was the shyest man I've ever dealt with. He was very uncomfortable with people. If he'd have to go to a party, he'd sit at the end of the couch, wouldn't talk to anybody."

Did he have close friends?  "Not too many, no. He was not a social animal."

Lassally also helped break in some of the many guest hosts who filled in when Carson was away -- including Kermit the Frog. "And it was magical," Lassally laughed. "I loved it, I loved it, I loved it."

But in Carson, just like with Godfrey, Lassally saw a man much different off-stage than on.

"As early as the end of the first week that I worked with him, he said, 'Come on up to my office and let's talk.' And he was drinking, and was telling me that he wasn't worthy of this job and all these awful things. And it was most uncomfortable, as you can imagine. And finally, after a couple hours, I just said, 'I have to leave.'"

Peter Lassally with correspondent Mo Rocca. CBS News

Lassally says Carson's darkness had deep roots. "I would hear Johnny on the phone, talking to his mother, and he'd say, 'Yes, Mother, I still have that TV show.' You know, she'd pretend that he didn't exist."

Rocca asked, "Did you ever meet his mother?"

"I did. Another strange thing, I didn't like hanging out with celebrities, but I did like hanging out with comics. And three of them all had the same mother -- Johnny, Dave and Garry Shandling. Mothers that didn't appreciate them, didn't give them love, and they were always trying to prove themselves, and never won them over."

If Peter Lassally sounds blunt -- even dour at times -- it may have something to do with his life before television. 

Peter Lassally. CBS News

He was born in Germany in 1933. Jewish, the family fled to Holland. For a time, he was in grade school with Anne Frank. "Well, she wasn't in my class, she was in my sister's class, who told me afterwards that she was not a popular girl. I mean, all her experiences were not unusual or strange to me; I mean, you hid from the Nazis the best way you could. And we tried and failed."

When he was ten his father died.  Soon after, he and his sister and mother were sent to the first of two concentration camps.

Rocca asked, "Was there ever, in your 25 months in the camps, even just a moment where you sort of forgot where you were?"

"No. No. Never forgot where you were," Lassally replied. "I remember watching from my window a little baby being swung against the lamppost and, you know, that's what my life was like: Watching them kill an innocent baby in the most brutal way possible."

Lassally recalls another cruel tactic of his captors, this one psychological: "The middle of the night, word comes to the barracks, 'Everybody outside, form a formation.' You didn't know whether, a) it was a transport going out to another concentration camp, or you'd stand there for hours in the rain, in darkness. And they did it just to scare you and make you nervous. They always had you off-balance."

"So that you were always scared?"

"Always scared. Always scared. Which is what our president is doing."

His fear about the current state of American democracy is why he says he's only watching the news these days. "I sleep from 11:30 at night 'til about 3:00 in the morning, and I turn on the news station. I just watch it all day and all evening. I never watch entertainment programming."

Lassally, who has two children with Alice, his wife of 57 years, is especially reflective these days.

Rocca asked, "Have you had a lot of joy in your life?"

"Wow. That's a very tough question to answer. I don't think so. I'm happy with my marriage."

"A lotta years."

"A lotta years!" he laughed. 

CBS News

Pointing to a portrait of Lassally, Rocca asked him, "What do you see when you look at that, other than a very handsome man?"

"I see great lighting and a great performance," he replied.

"What I see is a little bit of wariness. A guy who's seen a lot."

"I saw a lot, you're right about that," Lassally replied. "I saw plenty. Everywhere!"

Story produced by Kay Lim.

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