Forty-eight years ago, on October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson took over as host of “The Tonight Show,” broadcast on NBC from New York City, and in the next 30 years became one of the top entertainers in the country.
Born in Iowa in 1925, Carson grew up in Nebraska. His first paid act was at the Rotary Club at age 14. With the Great Carsoni emblazoned on a black velvet cloth draped over his magician stand, he performed for his mother's bridge club and at church socials.
“I can't say I ever wanted to become an entertainer,” he later said. “I already was one, sort of -- around the house, at school, doing my magic tricks, throwing my voice and doing Popeye impersonations. People thought I was funny; so I kind of took entertaining for granted."
Carson enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and for two years served in non-combatant positions before being assigned to the USS Pennsylvania, which the Japanese torpedoed at Okinawa two days before his arrival.
After World War II, Carson graduated from the University of Nebraska with a major in speech and a minor in radio. He made a recording of his favorite comedians for his thesis on "How to Write Comedy Jokes."
By the early 1950s, Carson was living in California, and working in radio and television. Then, he moved to New York City and became the host of the game show “Who Do You Trust?”
In 1958, Carson was a substitute for host Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show.” He took over on October 1, 1962, and hosted the show from New York City until 1972, when it relocated to Burbank, California.
The show began with sidekick Ed McMahon announcing “Heeere’s Johnny!” Carson's opening monologue of jokes, attention to comic details like timing and gestures, and his affable stage presence made him a natural entertainer.
He would banter with McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, and perform skits and play made-up characters. Carson then conducted interviews with all the major celebrities of the time.
Carson's popularity was so great that he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987. His show won six Emmys and a Peabody Award for excellence. "My success just evolved from working hard at the business at hand each day," he said.
After hosting “The Tonight Show” 4,531 times for nearly 30 years, Carson appeared for the last time on May 22, 1992. Jay Leno took over the next day. Carson is often credited with inspiring many TV comedians.
Carson was married four times. "If variety is the spice of life” he once joked, “marriage is the big can of leftover Spam." A longtime smoker, he announced in 2002 that he was suffering from emphysema.
The late-night TV legend died at age 79 on January 23, 2005. According to his obituary in The New York Times: “Throughout his career, Mr. Carson was instrumental in changing some of the bedrock ways television operated. His move to Burbank meant a realignment of American pop culture from East Coast to West Coast, from Broadway to Hollywood.”