Naval officer. Comedian. Legendary late-night, talk-show host.
Name three things that sum up the life of the late, great Johnny Carson.
Carson was an entertainer from an early age, picking up a book about magic at age 12 while visiting a friend's house in Norfolk, Nebraska. From there, he mail-ordered a magic kit, his mom sewed him a cape, and he began performing magic shows at the local Kiwanis Club.
By the time he turned 18 in 1943, World War II was raging and Carson joined the Navy through a special program designed to churn out good officers for the war effort. He attended Columbia University and was commissioned an ensign before the war's end. Assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania, which survived Pearl Harbor, his duties were to decode encrypted enemy radio traffic.
Ever the entertainer, Carson recalled that the high point of his military career was performing a magic trick for Navy Secretary James Forrestal.
In his biography, he said that was the moment he realized he wanted to be an entertainer. Forrestal asked Carson whether he was going to stay in the Navy after the war. When Carson said no, that he wanted to be a magician, Forrestal asked him to perform a card trick.
The trick delighted the secretary, and Carson decided that if he could entertain an infamous curmudgeon like Forrestal, he could amuse anyone.
Johnny Carson Leaves the Navy
Carson left the Navy and attended journalism classes at the University of Nebraska, with the intention of being a comedy writer. Eventually, he pursued voice acting and studied drama instead. He graduated with a degree in radio and speech in 1949.
His first performing gig came in Omaha in 1950, hosting a morning television show called "The Squirrel's Nest." He moonlighted hosting events at local functions, where he came to know many of the town's prominent citizens. Through those connections, he soon found himself at the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, hosting his own show, "Carson's Cellar," in 1951.
Carson already was growing a legion of famous fans. Comedians such as Red Skelton and Jack Benny were soon reaching out to him. When Skelton accidentally knocked himself unconscious during a show, Carson took over the rest of the program. And Benny predicted Carson would be a star after the young comedian made an appearance on his show.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Carson did a string of shows on CBS, NBC and ABC, but he made his name in 1962 when he took over hosting "The Tonight Show," then known simply as "Tonight." The show started in 1954 with Army veteran Steve Allen as host. Fellow Army vet Jack Paar took over hosting duties in 1957, but when Carson came in, he made it his own.
Over the course of the next 30 years, Carson not only achieved Benny's prediction of stardom, he became an entertainment business kingmaker, launching the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy, including David Letterman, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Arsenio Hall, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, David Brenner, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Howie Mandel and Roseanne Barr.
Carson retired in 1992, handing the reins of the show to Leno, and made sporadic television appearances for a short time after. He died of a heart attack in 2005 in Los Angeles at age 79.
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