By Stuart Nulman
Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $36)
The late Johnny Carson was a TV pioneer who helped to revolutionize the late night TV talk show genre when he hosted “The Tonight Show” for 30 years. He was a generous, charitable, talented man. On the other hand, he was a cruel, distant, insecure and reclusive individual.
Henry Bushkin, who served as Carson’s lawyer from 1970 to 1988, worked closely with him, and personally experienced the two faces of the TV legend, which he explores in fascinating detail in his biography entitled, plainly enough, Johnny Carson.
This is not a typical biography that chronicles the 80 years of Carson’s life and career. Instead, we get an intense portrait of Carson as seen through the eyes of one of his closest friends and confidantes during an 18-year period when Johnny Carson became the most recognized – and richest – personality on television. This was a period when Johnny Carson became “The King of Late Night”.
And Bushkin was there to witness al of it. In fact, he had a hand in engineering the elevation of Carson to such heights in the entertainment industry. When he was hired to become his attorney in 1970, Bushkin realized that Carson was well paid by NBC to host the Tonight Show, but somehow saved very little of his salary. Unfortunately, Carson’s entourage was virtually bleeding him dry, and the profits from lucrative endorsements – such as Carson’s popular line of menswear during the early and mid-70s – were going into the pockets of the men who were supposed to look after the affairs of their boss, especially his then-agent Sonny Werblin.
Bushkin remedied this situation by convincing Carson to purge these people. He then had Carson invest his money wisely, and in order to hold onto the rights of the tapes of his past Tonight Show broadcasts and generate revenues as a producer of other TV shows, Bushkin helped to create Carson Productions (which was also responsible for such hits as “Late Night with David Letterman” and the NBC sitcom “Amen”). As well, when Carson was dissatisfied with then NBC President Fred Silverman and grew tired of hosting the Tonight Show and threatened to retire from the show in 1980, it was Bushkin who engineered the negotiations with the network (not to mention considering a lucrative offer from ABC) that resulted in Carson’s astronomical salary of $25 million a year, including 15 weeks of vacation annually.
However, with the fame and extraordinary wealth that made up the balance of Carson’s career on television came the moments where Bushkin saw Carson’s dark side many times over. There was the raid that Carson conducted in 1970 on the New York love nest of his second wife Joanne (where he discovered that she was having an affair with Frank Gifford); his mercurial temper when things didn’t go his way (for example, when a promised luxury suite wasn’t ready when he arrived at Caesar’s Palace for a gig there during the mid-70s, the owner of the landmark Vegas resort offered him his own private suite as a means to placate him); his firing of people on a whim (which happened to his longtime producer Fred De Cordova, who was unceremoniously dumped by Carson in 1991 after he told him to wrap up a tribute he was doing on the show to his late son Rick); and there was the ugly divorce from his third wife Joanna during the early 80s, in which she took half of his wealth (thanks to Carson’s stubborn refusal to sign a pre-nuptial agreement before their marriage in 1972).
But most of all, there was Carson’s tendency to be a cold, distant, unhappy and loveless person, which he attributed to his mother Ruth, who never showed any pride in her son’s accomplishments, or appreciated anything he did for her as he reached the heights of fame as host of the Tonight Show. “You know,” he told Bushkin in 1987. “I don’t have much of a talent for happiness. I never have. My mother saw to that.” Carson’s second wife Joanne backed that up when she said in an interview that Ruth Carson was “selfish and cold. No wonder he had trouble dealing with women. Mrs. Carson was cold, closed off, a zero when it came to showing affection.”
As well, Bushkin shows the fun times he had working for Carson, especially enjoying the lush life in California, the late night poker games, the constant brushes with celebrities, the jaunts to Vegas throughout the 70s, and their annual summer trip to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the South of France. However, his job as Carson’s lawyer (which almost paralleled that of the Tom Hagen character in “The Godfather”), had a toll on his personal life, especially how it wrecked his marriage to his wife Judy.
The book offers plenty of terrific details and stories of the two sides of Johnny Carson. The overall conclusion that you get once you finish reading the book is that Carson worked hard to become the King of Late Night, and that wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of his “consigliere” Henry Bushkin; however, because of his endless insecurities, boredom and inability to accept and enjoy his hard earned wealth and fame, he spent the rest of his life ruling over an empty kingdom all by himself.
Johnny Carson is an intimate, eye-opening book of one of the most revered, and most complex, figures in the history of television by a person who not only worked very closely with Carson, but also had the difficult task of trying to understand what made him tick. As Bushkin eloquently states at the end of the book, his purpose in telling his story of Johnny Carson was to try and “show him in all his complexity, in his huge talent and great vivacity, and with his tremendous appeal and charisma and sense of fun, and also with his failures and shortcomings and even cruelties. A man so suspicious of flattery and sentimentality might have appreciated my attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating, and mysterious relationship in my life – a portrait of a man I loved.”
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.