Johnny Carson

On this date in 1925, television host and comedian John William “Johnny” Carson was born to Ruth and Homer Carson in Corning, Iowa. He spent his childhood in Iowa and Nebraska and by age 14 was performing magic tricks locally as “The Great Carsoni.” After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earning a bachelor’s in radio and speech along with a minor in physics. Carson started his broadcasting career as a host for WOW’s radio and television programs in Omaha.

Moving to Los Angeles in 1951, he grew a fan base with “Carson’s Cellar” on KNXT-TV and worked for Red Skelton as a writer. He also hosted several game and variety shows, including “To Tell the Truth, “Who Do You Trust?” and short-lived “The Johnny Carson Show.” In 1962 he replaced Jack Paar on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and proceeded to become one of the highest paid and most beloved entertainers in history. He hosted “Tonight” until May 22, 1992, and received six Emmy Awards, a Peabody and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Carson was a major financial supporter over the years of the James Randi Educational Foundation and regularly featured skeptic James Randi, who exposed several televangelists on the show.  Randi treasures a letter from Carson in which he quoted the philosopher Francis Bacon’s admonition that “a credulous man is a deceiver.” Quiet and reclusive in his private life, he preferred to avoid public events and interviews but occasionally engaged in them. “In my living room I would argue for liberalization of abortion laws, divorce laws, and there are times when I would like to express a view on the air. I would love to have taken on Billy Graham. But I’m on TV five nights a week; I have nothing to gain by it and everything to lose.” (Life magazine, Jan. 23, 1970.)

In 1981 he created the John W. Carson Foundation to support children’s charities, education and health services. Upon his death he left the foundation $156 million. He also donated millions to the University of Nebraska and to causes in his hometown of Norfolk. He married four times and had three sons from his first marriage. Richard, his middle son, died tragically in a car accident in 1991. He died at age 79 of complications from emphysema in 2005. As per his wishes, he was cremated and no public memorial service was held. (D. 2005)

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