He had everybody in stitches for 30 years, but offstage Johnny Carson was not the life of the party.
Who he was and how he got that way will be revealed at 8 p.m. Monday when PBS' “American Masters” airs the documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.”
It took filmmaker Peter Jones years to make the film, primarily because he couldn't get Carson's cooperation. Every year for a dozen years Jones wrote to Carson begging for an audience with the comic.
“In 2002 he finally actually called me, and I thought it was a joke when on the P.A. it said, ‘Peter, Johnny Carson on 601.' And he said, ‘Peter, it's Johnny Carson. I want to tell you, you write a damn fine letter, but I'm not going to participate in anything on my life because, you know what? I don't give a (expletive).'
“He said, ‘One day something may get done, and you know what? You're probably the guy to do it. But it will never happen while I'm alive. I've done everything I've wanted to do. I've said anything I want to say. There is nothing more.'”
Carson was shy and often anti-social. But Angie Dickinson, who was a personal friend and who often appeared on the show recalls, “He wasn't cocky at all. As a matter of fact, it's amazing with all of his success, and (being) one of the most recognizable men in the world, he was very shy about it. And I think that's typical Midwest having come from the Midwest myself … we're not boisterous with ego, I think. It's just more of a simple and not complicated person.”
Carson's reserve probably stemmed from his unyielding mother, Jones surmises. “I think it all traces back to his relationship with his mother, Ruth Carson, who for his entire life, he tried to get her approval and her love. And she withheld it, no matter what he did.
“When he premiered on Oct. 1, 1962, hosting ‘The Tonight Show,' an interviewer asked Mrs. Carson what she thought. She said, ‘Well, I really liked Jack Paar. Johnny's not as controversial.'”
Jones thinks the bitter reception Carson received from his mother leached into his four marriages, too. “His whole life his relationship with women was really defined, I think, by that principal relationship, or lack of relationship he had with his mother, because none of the marriages ever worked. It was one of his deepest regrets.”
The documentary probes not only Carson admirers, but those who faced his wrath. One of those was Joan Rivers, who served as “The Tonight Show's” guest host for three years and later headed up her own show on Fox.
Jay Leno inherited “The Tonight Show.” But it was David Letterman that Carson befriended, says Jones. “Johnny really loved David Letterman. And Bob Wright, the former head of NBC, in the film, talks about how Johnny did express to him his wish that David would be a great host.”