Johnny Carson Once Gave Marlon Brando 1 Percent of His Salary and Other Legendary 'Tonight Show' Interviews
They don't call Johnny Carson the king of late night for nothing. Carson was the host of "The Tonight Show" on NBC from 1962 to 1992 and basically invented the late-night talk show format on television. Over those 30 years, Carson hosted 6,714 episodes, interviewed hundreds of guests, and entertained millions of TV viewers and in-person audiences.
He also made millions of dollars for NBC and himself. The secret of Carson's appeal was his Midwestern charm and family-friendly style. In the mid-1970s, he became the highest-paid TV personality in show business, making $4 million per year. At the peak of his career, Carson's annual salary was $25 million. That's $54 million in today's dollars. When Carson died on Jan. 23, 2005, at the age of 79, his net worth was $300 million.
But more than just being a great entertainer, Johnny Carson was a master interviewer. He knew how to listen to his guests, would ask smart questions, and could bring out the best in anyone. These are the best guests Carson ever had on "The Tonight Show" and the amazing interviews they produced.
And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Here's Johnny.
The first "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" was Oct. 1, 1962, in New York City. Groucho Marx introduced Johnny, who was 36 years old. His first guests were Joan Crawford, Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett and Rudy Vallee.
Carson was the third host of "The Tonight Show" after Steve Allen (1954-1957) and Jack Parr (1957-1962). The show had been popular with Allen and Parr, but after Carson took over with Ed McMahon as his sidekick, it became an American institution.
By 1972, the show averaged around 11 million viewers per night. By 1975, it was the most profitable show on television, earning NBC $50 million-$60 million, or the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $247 million-$297 million today.
A lot of people stayed up late to watch Johnny over four decades.
There Was Never a Dull Moment With Don Rickles, aka Mr. Warmth.
If Don Rickles were beginning his career as a comedian today, he might be canceled in five seconds. At the very least, he would spark a lot of controversy.
But Rickles became a comedy legend after starting his career in the 1950s and was a beloved Johnny Carson guest on "The Tonight Show." Rickles did it by "taking insult comedy to an unprecedented level of ferocity," as a 2004 New Yorker profile put it.
Johnny loved every insult and helped make Rickles a star with the national platform of "The Tonight Show."
Johnny Carson called Rickles "Mr. Warmth" for his barbed comedy. No one and no topics were off limits, but the insults were all in fun. And when Rickles appeared with Frank Sinatra, watch out. Sinatra called Rickles "Bullethead," and in the '70s, anything went.
It was a different time. Everybody could take a joke and laugh. No one took themselves too seriously. Rickles was a class act, even when he was insulting your mother.
Rickles was a "Tonight Show" regular for decades. He appeared on the show over 100 times during Carson's era, and the insults never stopped. He and Johnny used to take shots at each other, and Rickles could take it as well as he could dish it out.
Bob Uecker Made About 100 Appearances.
Bob Uecker played six seasons of Major League Baseball as a catcher with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals.
After his playing days, he became even more famous as a baseball broadcaster with the Milwaukee Brewers and an actor — on "Mr. Belvedere," in Miller Lite beer commercials and in "Major League" movies.
Uecker also was one of Johnny's favorite guests. He was known as Mr. Baseball and had one of the quickest wits of anyone, anywhere.
You could listen to Ueck ("Yuke") tell stories all day.
Nobody Could Crack Up Johnny Like Rodney Dangerfield.
Rodney Dangerfield became a regular "Tonight Show" guest in the 1970s, and his one-liners had Johnny and his longtime sidekick Ed McMahon rolling, along with anyone else who was in the studio vicinity.
Rodney also could crack up other guests, like he did with Dom DeLuise in 1974.
Rodney had his own comedy club in New York City called Dangerfield's and loved to perform.
Johnny was the perfect audience.
The act never got old.
Rodney Dangerfield joked about getting no respect, but Carson gave him the first-class treatment every time he was a guest.
Robin Williams Was Tough to Beat.
Robin Williams had so much energy it was hard to keep up with him in the 1980s. But Johnny did a masterful job and let Williams steal the show.
Robin Williams was brilliant every time.
He was one of a kind.
Jonathan Winters Was No Slouch Either.
Johnny and Jonathan Winters had some good times together.
Winters settled down over the years into an elderly kid.
And when you got Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams together, fuhgeddaboutit. Johnny Carson would throw in some occasional one-liners to the discussion or a funny expression, and the result was comedy gold.
Even though it was Johnny's show, he never had to be the center of attention. That's what made him the real star as a late-night host.
Bob Hope, Dean Martin and George Gobel Gave Us One of the Wildest and Funniest Shows Ever.
It doesn't get much better than Bob Hope, Dean Martin and George Gobel cutting it up with Johnny in 1969. It isn't just one of the funniest "Tonight Show" broadcasts ever recorded. It is one of the greatest moments in television history.
The drinks and humor were flowing with Hope, Dino (the King of Cool) and Johnny. But Gobel, an underrated comedian and actor, stole the show and delivered one of the best one-liners of all time.
"Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?"
Johnny said many times it was the funniest joke of all time.
That wasn't all the guests on that night. Actress Carol Wayne and actor Robert (Bob) Wagner also joined the festivities for more hysterics.
Every time the A troops got together seems like a classic treasure now and still warms the soul.
Johnny Carson Had a Historic Conversation With Marlon Brando About Civil Rights.
It wasn't all fun and games with Johnny Carson. Sometimes, things could get serious on "The Tonight Show." After Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Marlo Brando was a guest and called for people to help the civil rights situation in the United States.
"Nothing is going to change unless I do it, the trombone player (pointing to a band member), and the guy sitting at home with a beer can does it," Brando said. "We have to give our time, our hearts, and our money to help the cause of Black Americans."
Brando was developing a program to support King's work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was recruiting rich and famous people to give a percentage of their annual earnings to the civil rights cause. Carson listened and used to voice to encourage people to unite and make the country better.
Then, he put his money where his mouth and gave Brando a check for 1 percent of his annual salary. In 1967, Carson had signed a three-year, $4 million contract with NBC. So in 1968, Carson was making $1.33 million. He contributed $13,333 to the cause.
Johnny Held His Own With Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
Did you know Johnny could sing?
Frank Abagnale Stunned Everyone With Stories of Being a Con Man.
The movie "Catch Me If You Can" was based on Frank Abagnale's life, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Abagnale. The beauty of this interview is that Johnny knew he had something special so he bumped his other guests and gave Abagnale over 15 minutes to tell his tales. That is the genius of Carson.
As one YouTube commenter explained: "Frank was initially booked for one segment, but Johnny was so riveted and engaged to his story that he extended it to the three segments. The Pointer Sisters were supposed to be the musical guests on the show, but after the first commercial break with Frank, Johnny told the producer that Frank would be the guest for the remainder of the show and to tell The Pointer Sisters to come back another time. A very wise decision as this entire interview is gold, and one only Johnny Carson could conduct. Frank Abagnale made a total of eight appearances on 'The Tonight Show.'"
Clint Eastwood Was One Cool Cat.
Clint Eastwood was one of the most famous actors in the world in 1973, but when he appeared with Johnny, it was just two classy gentlemen having a nice conversation.
Randall 'Tex' Cobb Had a Great Sense of Humor.
Boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb was a funny man, and Johnny enjoyed having him as a guest. After Cobb lost a 15-round unanimous decision to Larry Holmes in 1982, Cobb stopped by "The Tonight Show" to break down what happened.
The big brawler finished his boxing career with 42 wins (35 by knockout), 7 losses, 1 draw and 1 no decision. He also acted in many films and TV shows, including "Miami Vice," "Walker, Texas Ranger," "Raising Arizona," "The Golden Child," "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," and more.
He has 33 acting credits to his credit and often played a villain or henchman. One of his most memorable roles is in the 1987 Coen brothers film "Raising Arizona," playing the ruthless outlaw biker/bounty hunter Leonard Smalls, the movie's main antagonist.
"He's less an actor than a force of nature," director Joel Coen said of Cobb.
Mel Brooks Was a Hilarious Regular.
Comedy legend Mel Brooks was one of the guests on Johnny Carson's first "Tonight Show" in 1962 and made many more appearances over the years.
One of the great things about the old late-night talk show is that guests would stay on for the whole show after their segment was done. That added more entertainment value to the show and comedy opportunities for Carson and his guests.
Brooks never disappointed. Like when he stayed on for a segment with actress Teri Garr, who worked with him on "Young Frankenstein."
There aren't many people funnier than Mel Brooks, who has won an Academy Award, four Emmys, three Tony Awards and three Grammys over his 70-year career in film, theater and television.
One of Johnny's favorite Mel Brooks stories is the Cary Grant story.
Johnny Helped Lucille Ball Have a Family Reunion.
You never knew what would happen on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. This was reality TV before reality TV.
Richard Pryor Called Out Chevy Chase and NBC for Trying to Replace Johnny.
Once upon a time, NBC flirted with the idea of replacing Johnny Carson as the host of "The Tonight Show" with Chevy Chase. Richard Pryor was on Team Johnny. It could have been an awkward interview with Chase and Pryor. But Johnny didn't mind the sparring and had a knack for making potentially awkward situations (see the video at 9:40) not awkward at all.
Sean Penn Didn't Like the Press, But He Didn't Mind Johnny.
Johnny Carson could get a lot of interviews no one else could. Sean Penn was one of Hollywood's bad boys in the 1980s, and his wedding to Madonna in Malibu was a media circus. Johnny's house in Malibu above the ocean was right next door to where the wedding was, and he joked about it with Penn.
Johnny paid $9.5 million in 1984 for that massive Malibu home on a cliff. After his death, Johnny's estate sold the home for $46 million. In 2017, the home went on the market for $81.5 million, then sold for $25.9 million in 2019.
Johnny Carson Kept Politics Out of His Comedy.
He joked about politicians, and he had politicians as guests from time to time. After Jimmy Carter was elected president, he even had his mom, Lillian Carter, as a guest.
Burt Reynolds appeared as a guest after Lillian Carter, and even dressed up to meet the First Mother. But Johnny never used his show for a political platform.
Bob Newhart's Dry Wit Was a Big Hit.
Bob Newhart had impeccable comic timing and could deadpan with the best of them. He and Johnny were good friends, which showed when these two funny men got together to talk.
Joan Rivers Was a Frequent Guest. Until She Wasn't.
Joan Rivers made dozens of appearances over decades. By 1983, she was the primary guest host when Johnny went on vacation.
Then, they had an epic falling out after she got her own talk show. Johnny had been her mentor, but he never spoke to her again before his death.
"I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him," Rivers later wrote. "I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, 'I found you, and you’re my property.' He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him."
We'll never know the whole story because Johnny was private with his personal affairs and never discussed his reasons for the end of their friendship. Like anyone, Johnny was human and imperfect, with good days and bad days. This was one of those relationships that didn't end well.
Eddie Murphy Killed It in His First Appearance.
Many comedians were discovered on "The Tonight Show." The national exposure was huge for them, and if Johnny called you over to sit down next to him after doing your standup routine, you had made the big leagues.
Eddie Murphy was a rising star on "Saturday Night Live" when he took the stage for Johnny in 1982. He became a household name and superstar soon after that.
Jimmy Stewart Had a Classic Line.
If you could make Johnny laugh, you had done something right. No matter who you were, the acknowledgment felt good. Because the laughs were always genuine from Johnny.
Betty White Was Always Delightful.
YouTube is the closest thing we have to a time machine, and Betty White was the closest person to royalty in America.
Charles Grodin Was Another Comic Genius.
Smart, talented people clicked with Johnny, and when they did, they became regulars. Charles Grodin was one of those regulars, and when he showed up, it was like a game of comedy tennis between pros.
Garry Shandling Had a Knockout First Appearance.
Garry Shandling made his first appearance on network television in 1981, and the young comedian knocked everyone dead with his standup jokes.
Johnny didn't invite Shandling over to sit down after his seven-minute performance, but only because the routine ran long, and they were just out of time.
But Johnny made him feel welcome and left us with some prescient words. "That's nice to see somebody new come out and really have some funny material. His name is Garry Shandling. You'll hear a lot about him."
Johnny was right, and Shandling was invited to sit down after future appearances.
Jerry Seinfeld Hit a Home Run Too.
It was a good year to be a young comedian on "The Tonight Show" in 1981. A few months after Garry Shandling made his first appearance, Jerry Seinfeld did the same, and Johnny asked him to take a bow.
Johnny knew comedy talent and helped cultivate it. Jerry continued to appear and deliver on the show, and it wasn't long before he was invited to sit down with Johnny.
Johnny Helped Comedians With Show Business Even After They Made It.
Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling always appreciated Johnny for making their lives. Years later, they went to dinner with Johnny, and he shared some valuable advice about the entertainment industry.
"Don't ever think that you know what is going to happen in this business," said Johnny.
Bobby Fischer Wasn't So Difficult.
Bobby Fischer was a chess master, but he was not considered an easy interview. Johnny made Fischer feel comfortable and gave a master class on how to deliver an intelligent conversation.
This interview shows how much television and media have changed.
Johnny Had a Lot of Unique Guests. And He Was Interested in All of Them.
Johnny was a gracious host and treated everyone with respect. It didn't matter whether they were the biggest star in Hollywood or cowboy poets. He had a down-to-earth quality when the lights were on and a natural curiosity about life and interesting characters.
Johnny was top shelf, but he had the air of an everyman, so he seemed more like a good friend than a big-time celebrity. And he could make anything entertaining. That's why he was and will always be the king of late night.
Johnny Carson Is the Best There Ever Was.
Johnny Carson is the greatest talk show host who ever lived. And it's not even close.
He understood the assignment and never failed in 30 years as the host of "The Tonight Show."
His job was to entertain people and make them laugh. He did it then, and he's still doing it now.