Stars who spent time on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” couch came away with a shared insight: America’s late-night TV buddy was a singular talent and man.
“It’s a sad day for his family and his country,” David Letterman said. “All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again ... He was the best, a star and a gentleman.”
Carson, who died Sunday at age 79, was a celebrity who remained true to himself, actor-comedian Jerry Lewis said.
“I think that Johnny, no matter how long he lived in Hollywood, and no matter how much money he made, he still had a piece of straw stuck in his ear,” Lewis told Fox News.
Daytime’s top talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, paid Carson high tribute. “I think he’s been one of the greats of our time,” she told The Associated Press.
Actress-singer Bette Midler, who memorably serenaded Carson during his final show, remembered him warmly.
“I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He had it all. A little bit of devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class,” she said in a statement.
Billy Crystal called Carson “the greatest talk show host of our time with the quickest mind. To me, he always knew exactly who he was and was always in control. He was a true giant.”
When Carson called one year to praise Crystal’s performance as Oscar host, “it was one of the greatest thrills of my career,” the actor-comedian recalled.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called him a “great friend” who welcomed him on “Tonight” when he was a relatively unknown bodybuilder.
“He brought out the best in people. Hollywood has lost one of its most esteemed pioneers, but he leaves a proud legacy that will inspire generations to come,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Ed McMahon was Carson’s longtime “Tonight” sidekick, introducing him nightly like a royal trumpeter with a cry of “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” and serving as ever-reliable straight man.
“Johnny Carson was a man I considered like a brother to me,” McMahon said in a statement that recalled a professional life together of 34 years and the friendship that held after Carson retired in 1992.
Whenever he faced a major post-“Tonight” career decision, McMahon said, “I always got the OK from ’The Boss.”’
Carson’s family withheld details of his death, reflecting the intensely private nature of a famous man who kept the world at arm’s length when he was off-screen. NBC, however, reported that Carson died of emphysema at his Malibu home.
“He always drove himself to work, never took a limo,” said Charles Barrett, who served as “Tonight” publicist for a decade. “He went down quickly to what we called the ’Carson bunker,’ under Studio 1 where the show was done” at NBC in Burbank.
But he was bright, witty and set high standards.
“He was a guy who expected a level of professionalism from everyone on the show,” Barrett said.
It was Carson’s own decision to walk away from “Tonight,” which passed to Jay Leno, but he couldn’t break his monologue habit of observing and commenting on the world.
“When he reads the paper in the morning, he can think of five jokes right off the bat that he wishes he had an outlet for,” Peter Lassally, one of Carson’s former producers, said last week.
He would send a joke occasionally to Letterman, who lost the battle for “Tonight” but remained a Carson friend. Some bits made it into Letterman’s monologue.
“Johnny gets a big kick out of that,” Lassally said.
Letterman said his career was launched by Carson’s “Tonight.”
“A night doesn’t go by that I don’t ask myself, ’What would Johnny have done?’ He has been greatly missed since his retirement,” Letterman said. “Thank God for videotapes and DVDs. In this regard, he will always be around.”
Carson’s success as an interviewer and host emerged from his nature, said Lewis, who recalled him as “the most decent, marvelous man I’ve ever known.”
Lewis said Carson “had great personal esteem” and “felt great in his skin.”
“And I think that he projected that and made others comfortable because of that,” he said.