TV legend Carson to quit 'Tonight Show'--next year

May 25, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Johnny Carson, the icon of late-night television whose retirement has been rumored for years, has made it official: He'll step down as host of "The Tonight Show" on May 22, 1992.

The 65-year-old comedian told NBC affiliates at the network's annual meeting in New York this week that he would stop hosting the show

when his contract expires -- after what will be his 30th consecutive year at the helm.

NBC yesterday assured its affiliates and viewers that Carson's departure does not mean the end of the program. "Obviously, 'The Tonight Show' will continue," said Curt Block, head of publicity for the network. "It has been the most successful late-night franchise in television history."

The network declined to comment on speculation that backup host Jay Leno, 41, would assume the role full-time, nor would officials confirm a published report that Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon, would also retire next May.

Other candidates for Carson's job include David Letterman and Gary Shandling.

"Jay Leno has been coming up to me every two minutes," Carson told the network affiliates Thursday, "asking me, 'How you feeling? Is yourthyroid all right?' "

While Carson has said for more than a decade that he was thinking of leaving, reports earlier this year indicated he would be replaced by Leno this May if he did not retire. The speculation was spurred by a drop in "The Tonight Show's" ratings during the Persian Gulf war; it trailed ABC's "Nightline" by as many as a million viewers. The numbers also showed that Carson was drawing an older audience; the thinking was that NBC wanted Leno to attract the younger viewers who were watching Arsenio Hall.

But Carson remains an institution. He averages about 12 million viewers a night, though his current contract requires him only to appear three nights a week, 37 weeks a year. When he threatened to leave in April 1979, NBC persuaded him to stay by cutting his then-five-night-a-week schedule to four and shortening the show from 90 minutes to an hour.

In a medium known more for turnover than longevity, his track record is staggering. He started Oct. 2, 1962, taking over for Jack Paar. He has withstood challenges mounted by every talk-show host and network and buried them all. The list includes Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers and Pat Sajak.

Ms. Rivers, whose friendship with Carson chilled when she started competing with him, issued an acerbic two-sentence statement yesterday through her publicist: "I haven't watched the show in three years. I thought he was gone."

Mr. Parr spoke admiringly of his former understudy. "He's 25 years late," he quipped in an interview with the Associated Press from his Connecticut home. "I don't know how he did it that long. I guess because it's really important to him."

Mr. Carson's appeal, the subject of much analysis, has been tied to his Midwestern roots. Born in Corning, Iowa, and raised in Nebraska, he made viewers feel there is something innocent and unjaded about a man who earns $7 million a year and has spent the last 20 years of his life in Hollywood.

Mr. Carson said he hopes the show will continue after he is gone.

"There are not many shows like the 'Tonight Show,' " he said Thursday, "where a new performer can come and have a platform and place to get national exposure. I don't think any of us want to see the networks end up being gigantic tape recorders where you hit a button and see endless reruns."

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