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He continues, “But I remember Johnny when he was a drunk.” That was before the “Tonight Show” moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1972. He could get very hostile.”I point out to Lazar that Carson’s family tree has deep Irish roots on the maternal side. Or am I glibly casting him as an ethnic (“black Irish”) stereotype?
This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with Wilder in this very living room. “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best,” he said. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive.Just how the drug works is not known to science, but its effect is witnessed—ninety minutes per night, four nights per week, thirty-seven weeks per year—by upward of fourteen million viewers; and it provoked the actor Robert Blake, while he was being interviewed by Carson on the “Tonight Show” in 1976, to describe him with honest adulation as “the ace comedian top-dog talk artist of the universe.” I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema.“For good or ill,” he said, “Carson.”This pure and archetypal product of the box shuns large parties.“You are an enormously mercurial person,” she says, “who swings between very high highs and very low lows.”His eyebrows rise, the corners of his lips turn down: this is the mock-affronted expression he presents to the camera when a baby armadillo from some local zoo declines to respond to his caresses. “She makes me sound like a cross between Spring Byington and Adolf Hitler.”Before long, he parts as unobtrusively as he came. Characteristically, although he is surrounded by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Roger Vadim, Michael Caine, James Stewart, and Gene Kelly, he spends most of the evening locked in NBC shoptalk with Fred de Cordova.
Meeting him a few days afterward, I inquire what he thought of the party. De Cordova has just returned from his European safari, which has taken him through four countries in half as many weeks.(A strange and revealing encounter, to which we’ll return.) Actually, “hot” is a misnomer. They are highly professional, highly successful, highly dedicated people. And when they go to a break, they get on the phone. Or hardly ever: he may decide, if a major celebrity is on hand, to bend the rule and grant him or her the supreme privilege of prior contact. As Orson Welles said to me, “he’s the only invisible talk host.” A Carson guest of long standing, Welles continued, “Once, before the show, he put his head into my dressing room and said hello. The production staff behaved the way the stagehands did at the St.