Johnny Carson was arguably the best and most beloved American talk show host of all time. His unique brand of observational humor and snarky wittiness combined with his cordial demeanor resonated with audiences and critics alike.
In fact, throughout his career, his work earned him a mountain of accolades and awards; including six Primetime Emmys, the Television Academy’s 1980 Governor’s Award, and a Peabody Award, which he won in 1985. In 1987, he inducted into the Television Academy Hall of fame. And just a few years later, in 1992, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award. Which is the highest civilian honor that could possibly be bestowed upon a United States citizen or resident. A year later, he took home a Kennedy Center Honor award as well.
While much of Johnny Carson’s prolific life and career heavily documented and reported on while he’s still alive. Even more information pertaining to his private and professional life has come to light in the years; since his death on January 23, 2005.
Johnny Carson’s Interesting Life
What’s interesting is the fact that Johnny Carson’s life was a lot more eventful and intriguing than a lot of people realize. The man that America welcomed into their living rooms every evening for so many years; just by turning on their television sets wasn’t exactly the man he truly was when the cameras weren’t rolling. And really, how could he be? He had a persona that his fans expected to see. And it’s not abnormal for stars to be strikingly different from the characters that they play on TV. That same principle applies even to celebrities that become famous for portraying themselves on programs like talk shows and primetime news reports.
Join Facts Verse as we take a look at the Real Johnny Carson – the man he was when he wasn’t hosting his hit program, The Tonight Show. If you thought you had a pretty good idea of who Johnny Carson was; you’re going to be blown away when you learn these fascinating, eye-opening, and at times, scandalous truths about his character, personality, and antics. But first, let’s get a little background on what his childhood was like and what led up to him becoming the ubiquitous television personality that we all knew and loved.
Johnny Carson’s Childhood Was Fairly Mundane
John William Carson came into this world on October 23, 1925. He was born in Corning, Iowa, to parents Ruth Elizabeth Carson and Homer Lloyd ‘Kit’ Carson. His mother was your typical homemaker, while his father worked as a manager for a local power company.
Later on in his life, it would come to light that Johnny Carson wrestled with very active personal demons. He was notorious for being a heavy drinker, philanderer, and for having a short temper. In his adult life, these issues would cause him serious problems both in his personal and professional life. Although she no doubt did the best she could, Johnny would blame his domineering for some of his troubles.
Johnny once referred to his mother, Ruth, as ‘Lady Macbeth – the toughest…of them all’, and his relationship with her was apparently quite toxic. They were on such bad terms that reportedly, when she passed away, he didn’t even attend her funeral and quipped sardonically that the ‘wicked witch’ was finally dead.
Little Johnny grew up in the somewhat remote towns of Avoca, Red Oak, and Clarinda in southwest Iowa before his family relocated to Norfolk, Nebraska, when he was eight years old. Once there, Johnny grew up while discovering his passion for entertaining others. When he was 12, Johnny discovered a book on magic and sleight of hand at one of his friend’s houses and proceeded to buy a magician’s kit through the mail. After receiving his kit, he began honing his entertainment skills by performing simple card tricks for his family members.
Johnny Carson’s First Performance
His shtick around this time was following his siblings and parents around and asking them to ‘pick a card, any card’. Even though he would later come to resent her; Johnny’s mother just wanted to support her son and encourage him to follow his passions. So she sewed him a cape. Johnny’s first performance was at the local Kiwanis Club; where he made his debut as ‘The Great Carsoni’ at the tender age of 14.
From there, he went on to refine his routine, performing at local picnics and county fairs. And once he graduated from high school, he hitchhiked to Hollywood. Where he subsequently arrested and ordered to pay a fine for illegally impersonating a midshipman, although this tale has called into question over the years.
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Johnny Carson Joined The Military Before Scoring His Big Break
During World War II, Johnny enlisted in the Navy. While he was in the service, he engaged in regular amateur boxing tournaments. And apparently, he was quite good at the sport. When he’s in the Navy, he had a 10-0 record and participate in the most fights fought on board the USS Pennsylvania, the vessel he assigned to. But even though he was a capable and gifted fighter, he still retained his passion for stage magic.
One of the highlights of his military career, or at least the one he said was most significant to him; the time he performed magic for United States Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal. When the Secretary asked him if he planned on staying in the Navy after the war, Johnny responded by saying that he didn’t plan on it and instead he wanted to be a professional magician. After performing for the tough-as-nails, no-nonsense military career man; that’s when Johnny realized that he had the ability to entertain someone as crotchety and sophisticated as Forrestal reportedly was.
Johnny’s Career Entertainment
After the war was over, he dedicated himself to pursuing a career in entertainment by studying journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, With the intention of one day becoming a comedy writer. but he later switched his major to speech and drama to instead take a stab at being a radio announcer. Even though he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in radio and speech; he eventually moved away from radio and transitioned to working in television.
After many twists and turns, Johnny took over as host of the late-night talk show, Tonight. Previously that show was helmed by Jack Paar. While the show was already fairly successful by the end of the 1960s; Carson became a bonafide American icon during the 1970s and retained that status even after retiring in 1992.
Johnny’s casual yet conversational approach with his star-studded guests was unparalleled by any other host both before and after his time. He is seen even now as the reigning ‘King of Late Night TV’, and it’s undeniable how he influenced hosts that have taken the helm of his and other similarly themed shows since his retirement and death.
Johnny Carson Kept Much Of His Personal Life Private
Johnny was many different things. Not only was he a comedian and wildly successful talk show host. But he was also a father of three as well as a three-time divorcee. But even though he lived his life perpetually in the limelight; he rarely ever let the public know any of the details of his family life. He was a deeply private man, and the on-screen version of himself was pretty much the only one that his fans ever got to see.
Johnny was very careful to keep his private life carefully under wraps, and his friends, lawyers, and fixers also assisted him in keeping details of his personal life out of the tabloids. But even so, there was always much speculation that he was a much darker person than the one that we got to see whenever we flicked on our televisions.
While most people just saw Johnny as a kind, loving, Midwestern boy who remarkably gifted at taking command of the stage with grace and charm, others argued that he was shy, deeply insecure, cold, and calloused. In truth, he was all of these things – the good with the bad.
It wasn’t exactly a secret how Johnny would treat his guests between commercial breaks. He often called coldhearted by those that had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him on his popular show. It said that he would oftentimes lose his cool over the smallest things. And many suspected that his relationship with alcohol is what contributed to his volatile mood swings.
Johnny Carson Was A Very Nervous And Awkward Man Off-Screen
Even though Johnny effortlessly made small talk with his guests on The Tonight Show, he could be very anxious and socially awkward in real life. Despite being known as a suave debonair on-screen, when the cameras weren’t rolling, he struggled to make conversation. To ease the tension, it’s said that he would carry a deck of cards with him and do magic tricks whenever he got anxious.
One of Johnny’s fellow TV hosts, Dick Cavett, even said that he felt sorry for Johnny because of how socially uncomfortable he was. He even told Closer that he had never met anyone who had as difficult of a time in social settings as he did.
Johnny Carson’s Love Life Was Tumultuous
Johnny had a pretty lousy reputation of treating people that annoyed him fairly poorly. Apparently, it wasn’t very difficult to wind up on his bad side as well. One person that wound up in this unfortunate position was Johnny’s fourth with Alexis Maas, who put up with constant public humiliation whenever she would say something that would irk her husband when they were on their honeymoon.
The two spent said honeymoon in Italy in 1987. By all accounts, it was a pretty miserable affair because even though they were traveling on Johnny’s luxury yacht; his mood quickly degraded. Reportedly, when Maas made a fairly innocuous comment that annoyed her new husband. He shot back at her, commenting that even though they had married for only three weeks. If she were to say something like that again, their union wouldn’t last another three.
Fortunately, their marriage lasted a lot longer than another three weeks. The two actually remained married until Johnny’s death in 2005. Since then, however, Maas has remained totally out of the spotlight. And it’s unknown whether she has dated anyone else since Johnny.
But even though Johnny’s fourth marriage endured for many years. His previous marriages shined a bit of light on his character. When in the midst of divorce proceedings with his second wife, Joanne Copeland; it was revealed that Johnny’s alcoholism was at the heart of their marital troubles. It was also revealed that Johnny was deeply insecure and routinely suspected Copeland of cheating on him. When it was discovered that Copeland had a secret apartment where she was engaging in a clandestine affair with another man; Johnny’s dark side came out in a pretty disturbing way.
Johnny Carson’s Marital Trouble
Not only did he raid Copeland’s apartment without her consent, but he then fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism, self-hatred, and depression that was nearly impossible to keep a secret. The fallout from that chapter of his life would lead to him having a deep distrust for anyone – especially women.
Honestly, we could go on and on about Johnny Carson’s personal troubles and private battles. We didn’t even get a chance to cover his rocky relationship with his three children or his other two failed marriages. But we’ll likely be covering all of that in a future video – so be sure to give this one a like and subscribe to Facts Verse for more videos on the life and inner-demons of Johnny Carson. As well as deep-dives on many other Hollywood stars and starlets. And don’t forget to tap that bell to turn on notifications. That way, you can keep up with all of our latest and upcoming videos without missing a beat.
Were you surprised to learn about the dark side of Johnny Carson? Or have you always kind of suspected that there was more to him than the smiling face you saw on your television screen? Let us know your thoughts on Johnny Carson and his troubling personal life in the comments section below.
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