A Look Back At Johnny Carson's Career And Private Struggles

Apr 07, 2021 by apost team

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” became a television institution during his three-decade run as the host. Carson himself became one of the most recognizable faces on the small screen and in Hollywood, as he became a part of the American family just as much as a parent or child is. Unfortunately for Carson, his own family life did not have the same connection and joy he gave his audience and viewers night after night. This is the story of Johnny Carson and the relationship he had with his children.

According to Biography.com, John William Carson was born on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa to Ruth and Homer R. Carson, who worked as the manager of a power company. At a young age, the young Johnny got his early chops as a preteen magician, practicing magic tricks as “The Great Carsoni” from a magic kit he’d acquired. His love of performing would continue into high school and into the military as he joined the Navy during World War II in 1943. He would work as a communication officer on the USS Pennsylvania, where he ensigned and worked as a code breaker, as well as continue his magic act. 

After two years, the war ended and Carson enrolled in the University of Nebraska where he earned a bachelor’s in radio and speech. According to the Vallarta Tribune, Carson’s career began as a radio and television host in Omaha, Nebraska. On his program, “The Squirrel’s Nest,” the young upstart comedian would interview pigeons about the local political corruption they have seen as one of his routines.

Johnny Carson (1993), (Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

He soon found work in Los Angeles after he was recommended by the wife of an Omaha politician to head out to LA to host his own comedy show for station KNXT. The television program, “Carson’s Cellar,” lasted only from 1951-53, but it built up Carson’s name within the entertainment world.

He soon became a writer for “The Red Skeleton Show” and made a number of guests and hosting appearances on different comedy programs throughout the 1950s. Famously, in 1955, he had a well-remembered appearance on “The Jack Benny Show” where, for a sketch, he attempted to critique and give advice to the veteran comedian. When a second show bearing his name, “The Johnny Carson Show”, ended after a quick run, the comedian moved out to the Big Apple, New York City, to look for his big break. 

This break came in the form of a new hosting job on the show “Who Do You Trust?” For the next five years, (1957-62) Carson became a daytime television star on ABC. In 1962, Carson’s life (as well as nighttime television) changed forever when he accepted the job to replace Jack Parr and become the new host on NBC’s The Tonight Show. Here is a clip of Carson on the program, “What’s My Line,” announcing to the television viewers his new job. 

Carson’s first show was in October 1962 and after an initial year of subpar ratings, the audience began to embrace the comic. He would stay the host of the nighttime program until 1992. With “The Tonight Show,” Carson went from a popular host to the standard by which every television host became compared.


Johnny Carson (1960), (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

His various characters, sketches, interactions with the biggest celebrities in film, television, politics, and art, all made Carson a 20th-century icon and earned him the moniker, “The King of Late Night Television.” Comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Freddie Prinze, and Jim Carrey all performed their stand-up routine on Carson’s show, helping launch their own careers in comedy.

As the host of “The Tonight Show,” Carson was awarded six Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During this same period he was cementing his television legacy, Carson attempted to cement another legacy, as a husband and father. The results were not as successful. 

Carson’s first marriage to Jody Morrill Wolcott, which produced Carson’s three sons, Christopher (b. 1951), Richard (b. 1952), and Cory (b. 1953) lasted 14 years and was ripe with betrayal and infidelities on both sides of the marriage. According to Glamour Path, the pair’s split was originally amicable, as the two sides knew of their relationship outside of their marriage and called it a day in 1963, a year after Carson took the hosting spot from Jack Parr.

However, in 1990, Wolcott and Carson were back in court as she desired for there to be an increase in her annual alimony payments, which Carson referred to as “a baldfaced holdup.” During the court proceedings, Wolcott called her ex-husband a neglectful husband and father who cared more about his career and show than his own family to reporters, UPI reports:

“Like anybody else on the way up, he was too busy for us.”

Johnny Carson, Joanna Holland (1972), (Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

This criticism of Carson seemed not to be a scorned ex-wife looking to hurt her husband or his bank account, but a detailed and accurate analysis of who Carson was. His own lawyer and biographer, Henry Bushkin, had this to say about his departed friend’s struggle as a father in a comment to Closer Weekly:

“It was a tragic story of a very successful father who had children who never gave him anything to be particularly proud of. I don’t think he ever did anything as a dad they were terribly proud of.”

Another close colleague of the late-night host repeated this common flaw of Carson’s character. Mike Barrie was a writer for “The Tonight Show” and said this about his boss’ children in the same article:  

“All of Johnny’s kids suffered because of his devotion to his career. Maybe that was his first love.”

The same year he divorced his first wife, Carson married Joanne Copeland. Just like his first marriage, his marriage to Joanna Copeland ended in divorce, though it came with a very messy legal battle in the courts that ended with her receiving half a million dollars and annual alimony from her ex-husband. A tough cost, but third time's the charm right? Just like how he married his second wife the same year his divorce with his first became official, Carson married Joanne Holland the same year he divorced Joanne Copeland in 1973. A decade later, the couple would divorce. 

Carson would remain alone for a few years. Documentarian Peter Jones said of Carson he enjoyed being alone and being out of the spotlight: 

“He loved reading and being on his boat — it was very solitary, just him and the sea. He loved traveling to places where people didn’t know who he was.”

Johnny Carson, Jody Wolcott, Christopher, Richard, Cory (1955), (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Jones attempted for a decade and a half to convince the retired Carson to allow him to make a documentary about his life. Each offer was rejected. He told NPR that in 2003, Carson called him and told him, “you write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don't have anything more to say." During his interview, Jones believed a great deal of Carson’s refusal to cooperate with being interviewed for a documentary about his life came from his failings as a husband and father.  

“He loved all the wives he was married to…  But he had deep regrets that that did not work out because he had this problem with philandering. And also he deeply regretted his relationship to his three sons or, frankly, his lack of relationship with his three sons."

Carson’s iron wall around his own personal life has kept many to only speculate to how close or how distant he was with his sons. However, this wall came crashing down in 1991 when tragedy struck. According to the LA Times, on June 21, 1991, Johnny and Jody’s middle child, Richard Carson, died when his car fell over 100 ft near Cayuco’s community beach in California. As for any parent, this must have been the most heartbreaking thing to go through. The grieving father gave his son’s eulogy and said this. 

“When Rick was around, you wanted to smile. He had a laugh that was contagious as could be. He tried so darn hard to please . . .Probably the most difficult moment of my life.” 

Kit, Ricky, Corey and Johnny Carson (1955), (Getty Images/Getty Images)

His friend and partner on the show, Ed McMahon commented by saying for a man as private as his friend, it took courage to speak as he did. According to Fabiosa, nine days after his son’s death, Carson lost his friend, actor Michael Landon, to cancer.

Maybe it was the loss of a child in combination with the death of his friend, or just coincidence, but the next year would be Carson’s final year as the host of “The Tonight Show.” His final show on May 22, 1992, netted him the highest viewership of his career with over 55 million people watching, according to UPI

After the show ended, Carson made very few public appearances for the rest of his life. While thinking about retirement, Closer Weekly reports that Carson once said, “I think I left at the right time. You’ve got to know when to get the hell off the stage, and the timing was right for me.”

Seemingly enjoying his final days, he and his fourth wife, Alexa Maas who he married in 1987, lived together until his passing in 2005 at the age of 79. Carson’s remaining sons, Christopher and Cory, had their own careers in different entertainment industries. Christopher worked for a time as a professional golfer and even has a daughter with his ex-partner Tanena Love Green, while Cory worked as a musician (even appearing on the show with his father to perform). However, both sons, like their late father, enjoy their privacy and have slipped out of public life.  

Johnny Carson, Kit, Cory and Ricky (1955), (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What was your favorite moment from The Tonight Show? Was Johnny Carson your favorite nighttime host? Let us know what you think.

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