Ed McMahon, who for 30 years rode shotgun to Johnny Carson on NBC's legendary The Tonight Show and became the model for a generation of talk-show sidekicks, died early Tuesday. He was 86.
Mr. McMahon died at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center in Westwood, Calif., according to NBC, the network for whom he worked more than three decades. The entertainer and TV pitchman had been seriously ill for several years. He had been at the UCLA medical facility for the past three weeks being treated for pneumonia, according to a spokesman. He also had been diagnosed with bone cancer.
With all the changes in late-night TV these days, it is hard to remember what a reliable, inviting and reassuring place Mr. McMahon and Mr. Carson made their faux couch-and-desk set seem from 1962 to 1992 - one of the longest and most successful runs in TV history. Mr. McMahon played a large role in creating that popularity, with his deep voice, ready laugh and trademark "Heeeeeerrrrrre's Johnny" nightly introduction.
There was nothing flashy about Mr. McMahon in his role as second banana on The Tonight Show, but that was just the point - he was supposed to be the Average Joe, looking on with admiration at the wit and dazzle of the star, and occasionally feeding the star a line or two that would make Mr. Carson look ever better.
Part of the job was also to be the butt of jokes made by Mr. Carson as he and Mr. McMahon bantered at the desk after the comic's opening monologue. A recurring line of "comedy" was that Mr. McMahon drank too much. Often when his sidekick was talking, Carson would look at the camera and raise an invisible glass to his lips. The gesture always resulted in laughs. Such was the mind-set of the late-night TV audience - and much of mainstream America - in the 1960s and 1970s heyday of The Tonight Show.
But if the job involved a bit of abuse, it also paid very well. Mr. McMahon was said to be making more than $4 million a year during his last decade on the air with Mr. Carson. Despite such earning power and a post-Tonight Show career as pitchman and talent show host that kept Mr. McMahon in America's living rooms well into the new millennium, he was deeply in debt and in danger of losing his home in recent years.
Mr. McMahon blamed his debts in part on two divorces, but even that seemed more like recycled Tonight Show couch talk than truth; another of the recurring comic bits was Mr. Carson's many divorces and the fortune his ex-wives were costing him.
The TV persona of Mr. McMahon as an everyday guy was built on some truth - as a person, he was very much a man of his era.
Born in Detroit in 1923, he was raised during the Depression. His father has been variously described as a struggling vaudeville performer, salesman, pitchman and con man. Whatever the truth, Mr. McMahon's family often moved, and later in life, the performer claimed to have attended 15 schools as a child.
Mr. McMahon would later work his way through college. He graduated from Catholic University of America in 1949. He served as a Marine flight instructor during World War II, and then re-enlisted and flew 85 combat missions as a pilot during the Korean War.
Mr. McMahon was working in local TV in Philadelphia when Carson summoned him to be second banana on the Who Do You Trust? quiz show in ABC in 1958. When Mr. Carson got the call to host The Tonight Show in 1962, he took Mr. McMahon with him.
After The Tonight Show, Mr. McMahon served as host of Star Search from 1983 to 1995 - a talent show that reached back to the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and anticipated American Idol in its competition, voting, judges and discovery of unknown talent. America's Got Talent, which begins a new season this week, is a direct descendant.
Mr. McMahon also became one of the most ever-present pitchmen in the history of television. He seemed to be everywhere on the tube, selling everything.
At the end, his financial difficulties were enormous. A fall in 2007 resulted in a broken neck and huge medical expenses, according to Mr. McMahon. In 2008, he defaulted on mortgage payments for his $4.8 million Beverly Hills home and was on the verge of foreclosure before a group that included Donald Trump bailed him out.
Mr. McMahon was also involved in a series of highly publicized lawsuits. In 2007, he sued Cedars-Sinai Medical Center over his treatment after the fall that resulted in his neck injury. He said the medical facility misdiagnosed the injury and then did two faulty surgeries.
Mr. McMahon is survived by his third wife, Pamela Hurn, whom he married in 1992; and five children.