How Johnny Carson Nearly Quit 'Tonight' and Scored TV's Richest Deal Ever (Book Excerpt)

Ed McMahon (left) and Carson on "The Tonight Show" set in Burbank in May 1979, just months after he told NBC he was quitting. Unfailingly charming on camera, Carson in private was beset by dark moods and distracted by a series of divorces and the realization that his business affairs were in disarray. "Johnny was comfortable in front of 20 million but just as uncomfortable in a gathering of 20," said McMahon.
Ed McMahon (left) and Carson on "The Tonight Show" set in Burbank in May 1979, just months after he told NBC he was quitting. Unfailingly charming on camera, Carson in private was beset by dark moods and distracted by a series of divorces and the realization that his business affairs were in disarray. "Johnny was comfortable in front of 20 million but just as uncomfortable in a gathering of 20," said McMahon.
 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

A proposed NBC miniseries about Johnny Carson has prompted new interest in the life of the host who ruled late-night from his Tonight Show perch for 30 years until he retired in 1992. Now, a memoir by Henry Bushkin, his former lawyer and self-described wingman, is shedding fresh light on the man and icon. Their relationship began in 1970 when the 45-year-old Carson hired the unknown 27-year-old Bushkin on the advice of mutual acquaintance Arthur Kassel (who later married THR heiress Tichi Wilkerson) to handle his divorce from his second wife, Joanne, and recruited Bushkin to sneak into her secret bachelorette pad to prove she was having an affair.

Bushkin further endeared himself to Carson by fixing his finances: He convinced William Morris to reduce its $10,000 weekly commission (despite nominally making $100,000 a week, Carson was taking home just $3,000, as the rest was deferred for tax purposes) and got Carson out of a clothing endorsement deal that paid manager Sonny Werblin more than his client. For the next 18 years, Bushkin handled Carson's legal work, served as his tennis partner and joined him for nights on the town and vacations abroad. Carson, who died in 2005, severed their relationship in 1988 in a dispute over the sale of Carson Enterprises. In 1979, the host was ready to quit The Tonight Show even though he averaged more than 7 million viewers a night and earned NBC more than $50 million a year. 

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"Where is he, Henry?" Ginny Mancini demanded when she greeted me at her door. "You told me he would be here by now." And indeed I had, here being the beautiful Holmby Hills house of Ginny and Henry Mancini.

Frankly, I was surprised Johnny wasn't there already. He'd been famous for his punctuality since his early days in radio and undoubtedly before -- it's impossible to imagine Ruth Carson tolerating tardiness in her son. I didn't know why Johnny was late. But that didn't mean I didn't have a theory. Three weeks earlier, Johnny and his wife, Joanna, the beautiful, raven-haired, tempestuous third Mrs. Carson, had decided to split, and Johnny had packed his bags and moved out. This wasn't so unusual. He had walked out before, but this time, he had me rent him a house, which Carsonologists like me took as a sign that the breach with Joanna was serious.

That morning, almost as abruptly as they'd split, he and Joanna had decided to reconcile. As a public declaration of peace, they decided to come to the Mancinis' party together. This was surely a good thing, but the timing made me worried. "You know, feelings are still a little fragile," I advised him. Just that fast, I realized that I should have kept my mouth shut.

"Well, Henry Kissinger," Johnny sneered, "why don't you come to the party in case you have to mediate a new treaty?"

Johnny and Joanna arrived at the party in high spirits, and only once did I see his mood darken -- when he explained why he was late. It had nothing to do with Joanna, at least not directly. Johnny was delayed because he was engaged in a prolonged telephone discussion with Jerry Staub, one of my law partners, over the rental house that he had just vacated, almost as abruptly as he had moved in three weeks before. With price presenting no object, Marty Trugman -- a well-regarded realtor and a good friend of Johnny's -- cut a deal in no time.

He got the owner of a gated property on Loma Vista in Beverly Hills that had the required tennis court to vacate on a day's notice. Johnny agreed to rent the place for three months at $25,000 a month and to pay the entire $75,000 up front. But now that the crisis with Joanna had ended and Johnny had moved back home, he wanted his money back -- a third of it, anyway. "I only stayed there for less than a third of the time," he argued. "All I want back is a third of the money. That's fair, isn't it?"

I tried to explain, "You can't walk into a restaurant, eat a third of a steak, say you're full and ask for a third of the cost back. Besides, you signed a contract."

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Johnny waved me off; such legalities just didn't square with his basic Midwestern sense of fairness. "Look, just be my lawyer and get the money back."

"Carson can go f--- himself," the owner replied, and there the matter ended.

After the party, waiting for the valet to retrieve our cars, I bid Johnny and Joanna a good night.

"You're coming over tomorrow at 11?" he asked, referring to our standing tennis game. "There's something we need to talk about."

"Sure. Care to give me a preview?"

"You're going to New York next week to see Mike Weinblatt?" he asked. Weinblatt was the president of NBC Entertainment.

"Yeah, it's time to get contract extension talks rolling."

Johnny shook his head. "You need to tell him that I won't be renewing. In fact, you need to tell him that once we do this year's anniversary show, I'm going to quit The Tonight Show. I'm out." I pressed him for an explanation. "I'm tired. Seventeen years is enough. I'm 54 years old. Can you imagine me doing this when I'm in my 60s? That would be absurd!"

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The following week, Weinblatt greeted me affably, but I could tell he harbored apprehensions about my visit, and we rushed through minimal polite chitchat before I dropped the bombshell. "Johnny wants out. I'm here to give you a full half-year's notice. He intends to make his exit the same day and the same month he started, Oct. 1."

Mike was stunned. "Look, Fred's in the office. I should let him know what's at issue here before you leave." Minutes later, NBC CEO Fred Silverman burst into Weinblatt's office. "Henry, we all want our guy to be happy, but you must think me nuts to let this f---ing guy go. You know it doesn't work like that. We've got a contract. And it's got two more years to run. If Johnny wants to go, he can go in '81."

"I'm afraid not, Fred. We've had a law in California for 35 years that says you can't keep somebody under a personal contract for more than seven years. Johnny's is well over that."

Silverman replied, "Don't expect us to roll over because of some technicality. If we have to tell our sponsors Johnny is leaving, we'll stand to lose $50 million a year. We'll go after Carson for that, Henry. We'll sue his ass for $100 million."

Carson and NBC ultimately agreed to settle their differences over the legality of the host's personal services contract in private arbitration that would decide whether he was a free agent or bound to a contract until 1981. As the case proceeded, the other networks smelled blood in the late-night waters.

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By April, word got out that Carson had given notice and was "in play." It didn't matter that Johnny said he was tired and looking forward to a good, long rest. Nobody believed him. For nearly 17 years, ABC and CBS had lived in awe and envy of The Tonight Show money machine. One day, Johnny received a call from Edgar Rosenberg, the husband of Joan Rivers, a favorite of Johnny's. This high regard extended to Edgar, a gentlemanly Englishman who had an odd fondness for intrigue that tickled Johnny.

"Henry," said Johnny, "Inspector Clouseau just called. Says it's important."

I phoned Edgar, who, in a hushed voice, said, "I'm acting today in my capacity as an emissary of the alphabet people, who want to discuss a possible post-peacock throne." Johnny, of course, was forbidden to talk with NBC's competitors while the contract was in effect. I hoped no one was bugging this conversation; I couldn't possibly testify with a straight face that I didn't know what Edgar's gibberish meant.

ABC, Edgar revealed, would not only make Johnny much wealthier, but they also promised to treat him with more respect than NBC did. Naturally, we were curious about what ABC had in mind, but there was no way Johnny would allow himself to be caught flirting with another network. However, if I just happened to be driving through Bel-Air and just happened to turn onto Ambyzack Road and just happened to find myself outside the English Tudor home of Joan Rivers and Edgar Rosenberg, well, who's to say who else might be there?

As it happened, I did pop in on Joan and Edgar, and lo and behold, I found Fred Pierce, the head of ABC; Elton Rule, the chairman of ABC; and Tony Thomopoulos, the network's chief of programming.

Joan entered the room. "I know this is top secret shit you guys are going over. I let all the staff off. No one else is in the place, so feel free to talk about your secrets -- how much Barbara Walters makes, how much you have to pay plastic surgeons to keep Joan Collins' boobs off the floor."

After our laughter subsided, Pierce said, "None of us here knows what Johnny makes, but even in our dreams, we think we'd have to double it."

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"Interesting," I said. "Here are some of the things Johnny dreams about. One is a more productive work schedule, where he gets more money per show and does fewer shows and works 37 weeks a year." Then I threw out the wild card. "The thing Johnny dreams about most is starring in a show that he owns and produces."

Everyone was quiet for a moment, and then Rule finally spoke. "I haven't heard anything today that would make me think that dreams can't come true."

Meanwhile, the NBC high command had figured out that even if Carson and NBC had to be adversaries, there was no point in becoming enemies. When the New York Friars Club honored Carson as Entertainer of the Year, Silverman manfully took his place next to Carson among Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, Walters and Jack Benny on the dais.

"All NBC's top brass are here," said Bob Hope, emcee for the evening. "I'm sure you've seen them refilling Johnny's glass, cutting his steak, kissing his ring. Next year he's got a sweeter deal -- $43 million, and all he has to do is come in once a week and pick up his messages."

The only real tension came when Silverman got up to speak. One of the best things Fred had going for him that evening was me; I was a target he could attack with impunity. "I recently learned that Henry Bushkin's dream has long been to perform in the Olympics," said Fred. "I'm happy to announce that in Moscow in 1980, Henry will be a javelin catcher. It's the least I can do for Bushkin after all he's done for me."

Then Silverman aimed his guns at the ripest target in the room -- himself. "I was watching The Tonight Show the evening Johnny announced that he had decided to stay on at least until the end of the year." Fred paused a beat. "I was so relieved, I got down off the chair and put the rope back in the closet." 

Then he turned very earnest. "Johnny, you're more, much more, than Entertainer of the Year. You're the entertainer of our time. You're the best friend TV ever had," he said. The next morning, Johnny and I had breakfast in his suite at the Waldorf Towers. "Silverman actually seems like a nice guy. Give him a call and let him know I appreciated his remarks."

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In early 1980, the arbitrator ruled that Carson's seven-year personal services clock did not reset after he signed a contract extension. He was a free agent, able to leave NBC any time he wanted.

With a contractual obligation to NBC no longer hanging over his head, Johnny's resentment toward his Tonight Show duties evaporated. As June rolled around, as usual, he and I and our wives would visit the South of France and London, where we'd take in the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

This year was different in one respect: our business with ABC. In order to get us into international waters for our meeting, which they felt was advisable, ABC had chartered Lord Lew Grade's yacht, Cartigrey. The particulars were the same as those kicked about earlier at the home of Rivers and Rosenberg.

ABC had made a compelling offer, but Johnny was no longer angry with NBC. We recruited the up-and-coming Creative Artists Agency and its managing partner, Mike Ovitz, for advice. But for help in answering the key question -- which network to select -- Johnny turned not to Ovitz, who would become the most influential man in Hollywood, but to the man who already was: Lew Wasserman, chairman of MCA Universal, for decades regarded as the town's shrewdest, most insightful agent. Wasserman's opinion was simple and sensible: "It is not prudent to ask people to change their nightly viewing habits. Once they are used to tuning in to a given channel, they find it hard to make the move, no matter how good an alternative is being provided elsewhere." Wasserman's advice sealed our decision.

On May 2, 1980, a network delegation headed by Silverman arrived at Carson's Bel-Air home for the biggest signing ceremony since the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur. They brought with them what was by far the richest deal ever offered to any individual in the history of TV and of entertainment. Carson's salary was set at $25 million a year. For that, he was on the air one hour a night, three nights a week, 37 weeks a year, with 15 weeks off.

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In addition, Carson and Carson Productions became the owners and producers of The Tonight Show. Ceding Johnny ownership of The Tonight Show was one of the more shortsighted of NBC's concessions -- every week, Carson Productions' profits neared $50,000. Carson also took ownership of all the show's episodes made since his arrival in 1962 (to the extent that they existed; into the '70s, the networks routinely destroyed or taped over much of their programming). We then created Carson's Comedy Classics (from old Tonight Shows), 130 half-hours that Columbia Television's Herman Rush bought for $26 million. Carson Productions also would own the one-hour slot after Johnny's show.

He now occupied a position that offered us almost limitless opportunities and promised enormous success, unmatched except perhaps by Oprah Winfrey.

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