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Ed McMahon, who created the trademark “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” when he introduced host Johnny Carson for decades on the “Tonight Show,” died Tuesday of a “multitude of health problems” at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Hospital, his spokesman said. He was 86.
Known to millions as Carson’s steady sidekick on the venerable NBC late-night program, McMahon also hosted the syndicated talent show “Star Search” from 1983-95, served as a prominent commercials pitchman for American Family Publishers sweepstakes and many other products and appeared in films and TV shows.
McMahon’s impact could be seen in HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” where Jeffrey Tambor’s talk-show sidekick character is based on him, and in “The Shining,” where Jack Nicholson’s character shouts “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” while attempting to kill his wife with an ax.
McMahon was the friendly sidekick throughout Carson’s tenure as “Tonight Show” host from 1962-92. Moving to the couch next to Carson after the show’s first commercial, he was an excellent foil for Carson’s comedy and topical banter. McMahon, who professed affection for “the bubbly,” good-naturedly endured Carson’s jabs at his drinking, often delivering an amusing W.C. Fields’ imitation whenever the least prompted. Many considered him to be the Rock of Gibraltar for Carson, making the host feel secure as he stoically deflected comic misfires.
In addition to his “Tonight Show” duties, McMahon’s show business appearances were massive. He hosted a number of specials, including “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” “America’s Junior Miss Pageant,” “The Timex All-Star Circus” and “The Mother’s Day Show from Las Vegas.” He co-hosted the annual “Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon” for 15 years.
McMahon also served as co-host with Dick Clark on “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” and had a nightclub act.
He appeared on game shows and as himself in dozens of TV shows, and his film credits include “The Incident” (1967) and “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977).
Talking about McMahon’s work on the muscular dystrophy telethon, Jerry Lewis said, “Ed was a dear, dear friend. We were always making jokes, cracking each other up. He cared deeply about people with neuromuscular diseases. On the telethon, he was my right-hand man — it’s hard to imagine doing the show without him. “Of the thousands of celebrities who’ve helped ‘my kids’ during the last 50-plus years, none has given more, and given more gladly, than Ed McMahon.”
McMahon had money trouble in his later years. In June, it became known that he was fighting foreclosure on his multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills home. In one of his final TV appearances, he appeared in a Cash for Gold commercial that also featured MC Hammer.
Edward Leo McMahon was born March 6, 1923, in Detroit and raised in Lowell, Mass. He began his announcing career by working at carnivals when he was 15, then worked his way through Boston College doing numerous gigs, including his first on-air job announcing for WLLH radio in Lowell.
During World War II, McMahon enlisted in the Marines and served as a fighter pilot. He went on to become a fighter pilot instructor as well as a test pilot.
Following the war, McMahon enrolled at Catholic University in Washington, where he majored in speech and drama. After receiving his B.A., he moved to Philadelphia and wrote, hosted and produced local TV shows. With the breakout of military hostilities in Korea, he was called back to duty, ultimately flying 85 combat missions.
During his military service, he received six medals and ultimately was promoted to the rank of colonel. He returned to Philadelphia in 1952 and joined the ABC affiliate, where he distinguished himself by expanding a five-minute feature news segment and built it into an attention-getter. During that time, he hosted a late-night interview program and for a while played a clown on the show “The Big Top.”
In 1957, McMahon auditioned for the announcer position on a daytime quiz show “Who Do You Trust?” He was chosen by the up-and-coming host, Johnny Carson. After four years of polishing their interplay on daytime, the two were rewarded with the “The Tonight Show,” and it became a late-night institution, fending off the competitive likes of “The Joey Bishop Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show” as well as a short attempt to revive the late-night career of Jack Paar on a one-week-per-month basis.
McMahon lent his support to a number of charities and scholarship funds, including the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund and St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder, Colo.
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