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He Was Johnny Carson’s Sidekick, Yet He Died Broke and Homeless

In the glitzy world of show business, there’s a story of Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick. It serves as a cautionary tale about the fleeting nature of fame and fortune. As the faithful companion to one of America’s most celebrated television hosts, he basked in the spotlight and enjoyed the perks of celebrity life. Then, however, his life took a tragic turn, leading him to a destitute and homeless existence before his death. Join FactsVerse as we delve into the compelling life of Ed McMahon, examining the events and choices that ultimately led him from the pinnacle of success to the depths of despair.

Who was McMahon

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. is the son of Edward Leo Peter McMahon Sr.. A fundraiser and entertainer, and Eleanor (Russell) McMahon. During his childhood, he resides in Lowell, Massachusetts, and visits his paternal aunt, Mary Brennan, that locates on Chelmsford Street. Prior to his successful career, McMahon spends three years working as a carnival barker in Mexico, Maine. Also, he works as a bingo caller at the age of 15 in Maine. To pay for college, he sold vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk. His first job in broadcasting is at WLLH-AM in Lowell, which leads to his career launch at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia.

McMahon aspired to be a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot. However, before the U.S. enters World War II, the Army, and Navy. They mandate that pilot applicants complete at least two years of college education. Consequently, McMahon attended Boston College from 1940 to 1941. The college requirement was so important that it persisted even after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After fulfilling the college requirement, McMahon embarked on his primary flight training in Dallas, followed by fighter training in Pensacola. There, he earned his carrier landing qualifications and received his Naval Aviator designation. For two years, he serves as a Marine Corps flight instructor in F4U Corsair fighters. Way back before he assigns to the Pacific Fleet in 1945. However, his orders were revoked after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s unconditional surrender.

As a Marine Corps Reserve officer, McMahon was called back to active duty during the Korean War. He completed 85 combat missions and was awarded six Air Medals.

Post-World War II, McMahon took advantage of the GI Bill and attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1949. Majoring in speech and drama.

There’s a tribute to his contributions towards the National Guard and Reserves. McMahon receives an honorary commission as a brigadier general in 1982.


Ed McMahon’s love life was as varied as his career, filled with whirlwind romance and heartache. He exchanged vows with Alyce Ferrell on July 5, 1945, while serving as a flight instructor in the Marines. Their union brings four children into the world. But, their love story comes to an end, and they separate in 1972, with their divorce finalizes in 1974.

Despite the heartbreak, McMahon found love again and married Victoria Valentine on March 6, 1976. Together, they adopted a daughter, Katherine Mary, in 1985. However, destiny had other plans, and the couple divorced in 1989. McMahon provided a staggering $50,000 per month in spousal and child support.

In a twist of fate, just three months before his Tonight Show journey concluded, McMahon found love once again and married 37-year-old Pamela “Pam” Hurn in a ceremony near Las Vegas on February 22, 1992. Pam brings her son Alex into the family. Then, McMahon’s daughter Katherine proudly stands by their side as the best person at the wedding.

Financial woes

Ed McMahon, a generous individual who has given much to others, lost his Beverly Hills home to foreclosure after owing approximately $644,000 in payments on a nearly $5 million mortgage loan. Additionally, American Express secured a judgment against McMahon for nearly $750,000 in unpaid bills, and a Washington-based company called Hix Inc. claimed he failed to repay a $51,000 loan. In total, McMahon, who earned millions over his 50-year career, was in debt for almost $1.5 million. How could this television legend find himself in such financial turmoil?

His representative, Howard Bragman, believed that McMahon’s financial difficulties result from a combination of failing health. It is a mismanaged economy, and a bad housing market.

A significant factor contributing to the iconic sidekick’s financial downfall was his large heart. According to David Fisher, who collaborated with McMahon on his autobiography, “For Laughing Out Loud,” and his latest book, “When Television Was Young,” McMahon was an incredibly generous person, often to his own detriment.

Fisher added that Ed loved making people happy. He enjoyed carrying cash around, much of which went towards tips. Additionally, the T.V. legend spent a substantial amount of money supporting his third wife Pam’s clothing company. Although the designs were well-received, sold at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and even worn by celebrities like Paula Abdul and Sharon Stone, the high-priced fashion line eventually fizzled out.

While money continues to spend, there is little income coming in. Surprisingly, McMahon, who was Johnny Carson’s sidekick for 30 years, revealed that he did not receive residuals from the successful DVD box sets of “The Tonight Show.” Additionally, the 85-year-old had been unable to work since breaking his neck in a fall in 2008. Fisher shared a story about how, just a day or two after McMahon’s injury, he chose to honor his commitment to review the manuscript for “When Television Was Young” instead of going to the hospital.

Career beyond ‘Tonight’

While Johnny Carson built his fame around “Tonight” and retreated from the spotlight after retirement, McMahon chose a different trajectory. Over the years, he hosted several shows, including “The Kraft Music Hall” (1968) and the talent competition “Star Search.”

McMahon also co-hosted the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, a Labor Day weekend staple, and partnered with Dick Clark for “T.V.’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.” Together, they became the faces of American Family Publishers’ sweepstakes, appearing on contest entry forms and T.V. commercials. McMahon was also well-known for his ongoing Budweiser ads.

He played supporting roles in various films, such as “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977) and “Just Write” (1997), and took on his first regular T.V. series role in the 1997 W.B. sitcom “The Tom Show,” starring Tom Arnold.

In 1998, McMahon published his autobiography, “For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times,” detailing the origins of “Tonight.” McMahon writes that before the first show, Carson tells him, “Let’s just go down there and entertain the hell out of them,” which is the only advice he receives from Carson.

Health complications and death

In the midst of a seemingly glamorous life, darkness loomed over Ed McMahon’s health.

On April 20, 2002, McMahon filed a lawsuit against his insurance company for over $20 million, claiming that he and his wife, Pamela, became ill due to toxic mold that spread throughout their Beverly Hills home. The mold allegedly resulted from the improper cleanup of water damage caused by a burst pipe. The suit, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, also implicated members of the McMahons’ household staff and held the mold responsible for the death of their family dog, Muffin.

At the time, this lawsuit is one of several cases related to toxic mold that had been brought to court in recent years. The defendants named in the suit included American Equity Insurance Co., multiple environmental cleanup contractors, and a pair of insurance adjusters. The lawsuit aimed to receive financial compensation for the alleged breach of contract, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by the defendants. On March 21, 2003, the lengthy legal battle concludes with McMahon awards $7.2 million from the various companies deemed negligent for allowing toxic mold into his home, causing illness to him and his wife, and resulting in the death of their dog.”

In March 2007, McMahon suffers injuries from a fall, and in March 2008, it reveals that he recovers from a broken neck and two subsequent surgeries. He later filed a lawsuit against Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and two doctors, alleging fraud, battery, elder abuse, and emotional distress. McMahon accused them of discharging him with a broken neck after his fall and mishandling two subsequent neck surgeries.

On February 27, 2009, news surfaced that McMahon had been hospitalized in an undisclosed Los Angeles facility (later identified as Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center) for nearly a month. He was listed in serious condition and admitted to the intensive care unit. His publicist informs reporters that McMahon treats for pneumonia at the time, but can neither confirm nor deny reports suggesting that he diagnoses with bone cancer.

On June 23, 2009, McMahon was declared dead at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, California. His nurse, Julie Koehne, RN, mentioned that he passed away peacefully. Although no official cause of death was provided, McMahon’s publicist attributed his passing to the numerous health issues he had experienced during his final months. In addition to his wife, Pam, McMahon is survived by his children Claudia, Katherine, Linda, Jeffrey, and Lex.

There you have it. It’s now time to hear from you. Let us know what your favorite Ed McMahon commercial was.

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