Angie Dickinson, who went from movie actress to television star on “Police Woman,” was a Carson friend and frequent “Tonight” guest of his. “When I was in my prime,” she says, “I used to run into people and they wouldn’t ask, ‘What’s it like to work with Gregory Peck?’ They would ask, ‘What’s Johnny Carson really like?’ A lot more people, I think, saw me on his show than saw my movies. And I’d always tell them, ‘He’s great.’ Which he was.”
Born in Kulm, N.D., Dickinson believes the Midwestern roots she shared with Carson gave them “kind of a built-in simpatico. We were on the same wavelength, and we hit it off from the very beginning. It wasn’t so much romantic as that we just enjoyed each other and ‘got’ each other.”
Carson fans seeking classic segments will find many of them in the “American Masters” portrait: actor-singer Ed Ames‘ unfortunate tomahawk throw; the “Tonight” marriage of singer Tiny Tim; an interview of Dolly Parton that superbly showcases Carson’s impish streak; visits with creatures brought by animal expert Joan Embery; such sketch characters as turbaned psychic Carnac, Aunt Blabby and “Tea Time Movie” host and huckster extraordinaire Art Fern; and Bette Midler serenading Carson upon his “Tonight” farewell.
The program also incorporates fond remembrances by comedians who careers were pretty much made by their “Tonight” appearances with Carson, including Drew Carey — still clearly emotional that the host summoned him over to the guest couch after his stand-up performance — Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano and Garry Shandling.
Severinsen also was a big beneficiary of Carson’s appreciation of talent. Having started on “Tonight” as a band member under conductor Skitch Henderson, he reflects, “NBC would have preferred to have had, at most, a five- or six-piece band. Being a fan of the Big Band era, Johnny said, ‘No. I want a big band.’ And that’s what they had.” Severinsen would spend many years opening the show by playing one of TV history’s most recognizable musical introductions, “Johnny’s Theme,” composed by Paul Anka.
Much of the Carson footage utilized by “American Masters” comes from the archives maintained by his nephew, Jeff Sotzing. He notes that almost 20 years to the day Carson left “Tonight,” only to be seen again receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors and in a wordless “Late Show With David Letterman” walk-on, “We’re getting to the point where people are forgetting who he was, so it seemed important to me to do this [special].”
Sotzing has created an online Carson library — the appropriately named http://www.johnnycarson.com, with a channel connected to YouTube — where clips can be accessed by searching by guest name or topic. “We’re just hopeful we can find an audience that appreciates this,” says Sotzing of both that venture and the “American Masters” tribute. “I’m actually very surprised that there is continual demand for this material.”