Johnny Carson: Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno help honor the King of Late Night TV

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From 1962 to 1992, keeping America entertained late at night largely was the duty of one man.

And it was a task Johnny Carson performed willingly and enjoyably, as his iconic status as longtime caretaker of NBC's " The Tonight Show" confirms. David Letterman's new CBS contract will make him the longest-running after-hours host in television history, but even he acknowledges the late Carson was the king -- as does PBS' highly enjoyable, thoughtfully organized " American Masters" profile " Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," debuting Monday, May 14 (check local listings).

"It's always nice to look back when you're looking at good things," reasons trumpeter Doc Severinsen, Carson's bandleader for 25 of the 30 years of his "Tonight" tenure. "I don't think there was ever a day when we didn't realize where we were and what we had, but that would be true for Ed ( McMahon, Carson's perennial announcer and sidekick) and me probably more than for Johnny. He appreciated what was happening, but he was very realistic."

Severinsen, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks are among the many Carson friends and peers in the two-hour documentary by Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones. Letterman, Carson's "Tonight" successor Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Dick Cavett (who wrote jokes for Carson) and former Carson guest host Joan Rivers (shut out by him once she became his rival on FOX) also are featured ... but interestingly for someone who gave few interviews, a great deal of the commentary is by Carson, who resisted assisting in the project before his 2005 death.

Such excerpts are taken from a "Tonight" chat with Hollywood columnist Rona Barrett, an appearance on Phil Donahue's talk show, a famous profile by Mike Wallace for CBS' " 60 Minutes" and the 1982 NBC special " Johnny Goes Home," which took Iowa native Carson back to his boyhood base in Nebraska. His remarks on such matters as his failed marriages and his inability to handle drinking were surprisingly candid for such an intensely private man. However, many believe they also increased the public's endearment toward him.

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 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."
Photo/Video credit: PBS
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