Johnny Carson's man behind the scenes

May 21, 1992|By Kay Gardella | Kay Gardella,New York Daily News

"It's been a hell of a roll of the dice, a great 22 years," declared Fred de Cordova, Johnny Carson's talented executive producer, who started with the "Tonight" show on Oct. 10, 1970.

While he'll be leaving with Mr. Carson on Friday, Mr. de Cordova is making himself available during the transition period on a consulting basis for Jay Leno and NBC. Mr. Leno's new executive producer will be his manager, Helen Kushnick.

Mr. de Cordova hasn't heard any regrets or second thoughts from Mr. Carson. "It was his decision and he made it," said the man who is always just out of camera range. "Johnny still approaches every show with the same attention to detail, with the same interest in what he's doing. He's aware, obviously, that there are only a few more days until the final goodbye. And, like all of us, that the ending is imminent."

The 81-year-old producer has booked more than 4,000 "Tonight" shows over the years, and admits the hardest part is that when you get through with one you have to immediately start on another.

"But the easy part," he said, "is to work with a guy like Carson. Nobody would be around for 22 years if they didn't like the star. I've had a great deal of luck working with talented people easy to get along with.

"In fact," he added, "I still miss Jack Benny."

Benny, Burns and Allen, Spring Byington, Robert Cummings, Fred MacMurray; they all headlined TV shows produced by Mr. de Cordova. How did they differ from Mr. Carson? "They all played parts -- Burns as the husband of a 'silly wife,' Gracie; Jack as the penurious, self-admiring person. But Johnny plays Johnny. What I like about him is he's always very pleasant and very nice to be with, a humorist without being a jokester."

The producer, right out of Harvard Law School, went to work for the Shuberts 60 years ago as an assistant stage manager on Joe Cook's "Hold Your Horses." He later directed a Ziegfeld Follies. Then he landed a contract with Warner Bros., and then Universal, where he directed a host of films, including the famous "Bedtime for Bonzo," starring Ronald Reagan and a chimpanzee. When Mr. de Cordova became dissatisfied with films, he moved to CBS and "The Burns and Allen Show."

The most outrageous happening he can recall on "Tonight" was a show on which Oliver Reed, the English actor, was the guest. "He made some anti-feminist remark, and Shelley Winters, standing in the wings, heard it and walked out and dumped a glass of water over his head."

People generally clamor to be on the show, especially now that it's coming to the end. But two people who never appeared were the late Elvis Presley and Cary Grant. Elizabeth Taylor did her first show just a few weeks ago.

Said Mr. de Cordova: "A lot of people are doing it to pay their respects to Johnny before he leaves."

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