There’s a new book just out about America’s most famous late-night tv star, and it isn’t necessarily flattering.
Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing) — the great man’s ex-lawyer, fixer and personal confidant — dishes the dirt with gusto and, given the 30-year longevity of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (running from 1962 to 1992), his book inevitably touches on several classic movie stars that made appearances on Carson’s program.
These star observations by Carson and others make for bracing reading, and we thought we might recount some of them today.
ZSA ZSA GABOR: The story went that she made a guest appearance and asked Carson if he would like to “pet my pussy.” The supposed reply: “I’d love to if you would just remove that damned cat!” The story is apocryphal, although Carson hinted later that he actually had had a fling with Gabor.
BUDDY RICH: Once a close friend of the great man’s, Rich was a drummer-bandleader (and a pioneer classic movie fan in his day) idolized by Carson. The two worked together professionally, with Rich and his band performing as the opening act for Carson’s live Las Vegas show. The problem was that Rich’s set went on 10 minutes too long, which upset the main attraction. Carson had his people tell the musician to cut a portion of his set. Angry at the request, Rich cut his act by two-thirds, and then quit. “The relationship was never the same” after that, writes Bushkin.
HEDDA HOPPER: This anecdote from the book doesn’t directly involve Carson but actress Suzanne Pleshette. In his show’s early days, Pleshette turned up as a guest as did the famous Hollywood gossip columnist, who kept patting the actress on the arm and trying to interrupt. During a commercial break, Pleshette turned to Hopper and said: “If you pat me on the arm again, I’m going to knock you on your can.” Thus, she was instantly endeared to Carson.
BOB HOPE: A familiar figure in Carson’s professional life who once angered him by presenting his (Hope’s) written material before a big performance. Snapped Carson: “Can you imagine the nerve of the man to think I need jokes from him?” Hope had the reputation of squeezing a buck pretty hard. “Bob is so cheap that he won’t buy new clothes,” Carson joked. “He’s worn his suits so long, they’ve been in style four times.” (Carson would also tell “cheap jokes” about Cary Grant and Fred MacMurray.)
DEAN MARTIN: Intended to be a performer on Ronald Reagan’s presidential inaugural in 1981, Martin showed up inebriated at rehearsal. “Dean, it was clear, was thoroughly plastered, with no idea where he was,” writes Bushkin. There is a photo in the book showing Frank Sinatra, organizer of the inaugural show, ordering Martin offstage. The event went on without him.
JACK BENNY: Carson looked to Benny for the latter’s impeccably timed delivery and style. But he did not share Benny’s famed miserliness. “The notorious skinflint had no effect on Johnny’s attitude towards finances,” Bushkin writes. When Carson died in 2005, he left an estate worth more than $450 million. He made a lot, and spent a lot.