With his effortless charm and scrubbed Midwestern good looks, TV host Johnny Carson enchanted American television audiences for 30 years on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The NBC late-night talk show ran from 1962 to 1992, receiving six Emmy Awards as well as the Television Academy’s Governor’s Award in 1980 and a Peabody Award in 1985.
Often hailed as the “king of late-night“, Carson reigned as one of the most influential entertainers in show business (remember the time he caused the toilet paper shortage of 1973?) But for all the fame and glory of his on-screen persona, the talk show host was notoriously secretive with his personal life.
“Johnny Carson” – Henry Bushkin
However, in the years that followed Carson’s death in 2005, many of his secrets have been uncovered and controversies demystified — largely thanks to a biography published by his former friend and confidant, Henry Bushkin. The book, titled “Johnny Carson”, reveals the darker side of the beloved TV host.
“He could be the nastiest son of a bitch on earth,” Bushkin wrote. “He was an incredibly complex man: one moment gracious, funny and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted the next.” In this article, we take a closer look at this elusive television personality and his stormy personal life.
How Johnny Carson Became the Tonight Show Host
Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa in 1925 to Ruth and Homer R. Carson. After high school, Carson joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard the USS Pennsylvania. After his stint in the Navy, Carson went on the earn a degree in radio and speech at the University of Nebraska. After college, he worked as a writer on The Red Skelton Show in Los Angeles before moving to New York City.
In New York, Carson was hired as the host of the game show “Who Do You Trust? alongside announcer, friend, and future Tonight Show co-host Ed McMahon. In 1962, Carson took over from Jack Paar as host of the Tonight Show.
Who Were Johnny Carson’s Four Wives?
The television host attributed his marital woes to his mom, Ruth Carson. “She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all,” Carson reportedly once said of his mother. “There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she f – – – ed me up!”
Whether or not his mother was to blame, Carson did have a tumultuous love life, undergoing three marriages troubled by conflict and infidelity (plus one that ended happily). Here’s the run-down on all four: Carson married Jody Wolcott, his first wife, in 1948. The couple had three sons: Christopher, Cory, and Richard. Their relationship was notoriously troubled and marred by abuse and infidelity. Jody filed for divorce in 1959.
Within months after Carson and his first ex-wife divorced in 1963, the talk show host married his second wife, a model named Joanne Copeland.
While they were married, Joanne reportedly had an affair with Frank Gifford. When Johnny found out, he famously went on a drinking bender with his co-host Ed McMahon. The marriage between Johnny and Joanne Carson lasted a little over a decade and ended with a similarly contentious divorce. That same year, Carson married former model Joanna Holland in a surprise wedding. Carson and Joanna were together for 11 years before their divorce in 1983.
Carson was single from 1983 to 1987 before marrying his fourth wife, Alexis Maas, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native and former stock brokerage employee. The couple lived a luxurious Hollywood lifestyle in several massive homes, including a 16-bedroom oceanfront mansion in Malibu and another mansion in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, California.
How Did Johnny Carson Die?
Alexis and the NBC host remained together until Carson’s passing at age 79 in 2005. Family members reported that his death was due to respiratory failure caused by emphysema.
After her husband’s death, Alexis has remained largely out of the spotlight. Her most recent appearance was in the documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night.