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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 January, 2005, 19:43 GMT
Obituary: Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson, who has died from emphysema at the age of 79, was the master of the genre that has become the television chat show.

Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson "enjoyed every minute"
And as the host of the Tonight Show for more than 30 years, he was also one of the best known faces in the United States.

Born in Iowa and raised in Nebraska as the son of an electrical company lineman, Carson had been a showman since he began performing magic tricks at the age of 12. He made his professional debut at a Rotary Club two years later.

After spells in regional television in Nebraska and California, Carson hosted a CBS comedy programme, which soon folded. He moved to New York, where he graduated from daytime television game-show host to the now hallowed desk of The tonight Show.

Carson's first guest, on 1 October 1962, was Groucho Marx. Mel Brooks, Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee and Tony Bennett also appeared.

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson
Every night, Ed McMahon bellowed "H-e-e-r-e's Johnny!"
During the next three decades, appearing late every weeknight on network television, Carson became his viewers' most constant bedtime companion. He also hosted the Oscars on four occasions.

His Tonight Show formula was winning and enduring. After the resident band struck up his theme tune, his long-time sidekick Ed McMahon bellowed the now patented welcome, "H-e-e-e-r-e's Johnny!"

Political barometer

Carson showed consummate ease and professionalism, moving smoothly with a golf swing from each of his opening monologues to greeting his diverse list of guests. He proved as happy with the unconventional as he was with the glamorous.

It's the end of the day - people don't want to see someone who looks like they're having a nervous breakdown
Carson on his smooth style of presentation
More than 20 million viewers tuned in to watch the wedding of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki live on his show in 1969. Some fewer witnessed another of Carson's guests, a frightened lemur, relieve itself on the studio floor - and the host - after participating in some performance art.

Carson's move in 1972 from New York City to California's Burbank studios pinpointed a mass migration from east to west for the entertainment industry. Although he steered a middle course in his political jokes, his monologues provided a barometer of what the American public really thought.

Accessible but elusive

His nervous tics made him ripe for parody, but Carson behaved like the perfect dinner party host, keeping the conversation flowing, smoothing over any silences, and did what Bob Newhart called "always making the guest look good".

Miss Vicki, Tiny Time and Johnny Carson
Miss Vicki and Tiny Tim's marriage attracted record viewer numbers
Despite the show's longevity and his apparent accessibility, Carson remained a private man. In 1978, Kenneth Tynan wrote that talking to him was like "addressing an elaborately wired security system".

He only temporarily lost his composure in front of the cameras in 1991, following the death of his son Rick in a car accident.

Carson banned British comedians from his show because he considered their humour "lavatorial", but many stand-up comics kick-started their careers by appearing on Johnny's show.

Reclusive in retirement

One beneficiary of this lucky break was Jay Leno, who went on to host the programme after Carson's final appearance in 1992.

On that occasion, the normally aloof Carson brought the show to an emotional close. Before an invited audience, he bid his viewers finally "a very heartfelt good night", walked off the stage and firmly out of the limelight.

Johnny Carson at his desk on the Tonight Show
Carson sat at his famous desk for more than 30 years
In his retirement, reruns of his show kept his face well known to a new generation of Americans, but the star stayed off the screen, preferring to spend his time at home in Malibu with his fourth wife.

A teetotaller after a long battle with the bottle during his New York sojourn, Carson underwent heart surgery in 1999, but continued to sail on the Pacific in his yacht, and play cards with friends that included Steve Martin and Neil Simon.

He could look back on a career that his NBC chairman called "the biggest and best television has ever seen". Of his unmatched tenure behind the most famous desk on American television, Johnny Carson simply said, "I've enjoyed every minute of it."

See clips of Johnny Carson

US TV legend Johnny Carson dies
23 Jan 05 |  Entertainment

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