John William "Johnny" Carson was born on 23 October 1926 in Corning, Iowa. He was the second of three children of parents Ruth Elizabeth (née Hook) and Homer Lloyd "Kit" Carson. His father was a manager of the Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Company. He grew up in town in southwest Iowa before moving to Norfolk, Nebraska at the age of eight.
He began to develop his talent for entertaining at a young age. When he was twelve, he found a book on magic at a friend's house and purchased a mail-order magician's kit. He used his family as a practice audience before his first stage performance for the local Kiwanis Club at the age of 14. He debuted as "The Great Carsoni" and was paid $3 for his performance. His mother even sewed a cape for him. He soon began performing shows at local events, such as picnics and county fairs. After he graduated from high school, he hitchhiked to Hollywood.
On 8 June 1943 he joined the United States Navy and received officer training at Columbia University and Millsaps College. When he was commissioned as an ensign late in the war, he was assigned to the Pacific aboard the USS Pennsylvania. He served as a communications officer in charge of decoding encrypted messages. While on the Pennsylvania, he engaged in boxing matches, posting a 10-0 amateur record. He once encountered the United States Secretary of Navy, James V. Forrestal. He asked Johnny if he planned to stay in the Navy after the war. Johnny responded no, he wanted to be a magician instead. When Forrestal asked him to perform, Johnny did a card trick, that amused the cranky and sophisticated Secretary. Johnny never saw combat; he was on a troop ship headed to a combat zone when the war ended.
After the war, he took advantage of the educational opportunities available to him from the Navy. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he majored in journalism, but later switched to speech and drama after deciding to become a radio performer. He received his BA in 1949, with a minor in physics. He also managed to find time to perform his magic act, but was now paid $25 per show.
Johnny began his career in 1950 at the WOW radio and television station in Omaha. He hosted a morning television program called The Squirrel's Nest where one of his routines involved interviewing pigeons on the roof of the local courthouse that would report on the political corruption they had seen. He supplemented his income by serving as master of ceremonies at local church dinners.
The wife of one of the Omaha political figures Johnny lampooned owned stock in a radio station in Los Angeles and, in 1951, she referred Carson to her brother, who was influential in the emerging television market in Southern California. He soon joined the Los Angeles station KNXT, where he had a low-budget sketch comedy show, Carson's Cellar.
His career took off from there when Red Skelton, who was a fan of his show, hired Johnny as a comedy writer for The Red Skelton Hour. Johnny's big break came in 1954 when Skelton accidentally knocked himself unconscious during rehearsal an hour before his live show began. Johnny stepped up and successfully filled in for him and delivered his first monologue to a national audience.
In 1955, Jack Benny invited Johnny to appear on one of his shows during the opening and closing segments. Johnny imitated Benny and claimed that Benny had copied his gestures. Benny predicted that Johnny, who readily admitted that Benny had a substantial influence on aspects of his comedic delivery, would have a successful career as a comedian.
He went on to host several shows, including the game show Earn Your Vacation (1954) and the CBS variety show The Johnny Carson Show. Beginning in 1960, he was a guest panelist on the original To Tell The Truth and became a regular panelist from 1961 to 1962. After the primetime The Johnny Carson Show failed, he moved to New York City to host ABC-TV's daytime game show Who Do You Trust where he met his future sidekick and straight man, Ed McMahon. Although he believed moving to daytime television would hurt his career, it was a success. It was the first show where he could ad lib and interview guests. Because of his on-camera wit, the show became "the hottest item on daytime television" during his six years at ABC.
Due to the tremendous success on Who Do You Trust, NBC invited him to take over Tonight a few month's before current host Jack Paar's departure. Fearing the difficulty of interviewing celebrities for 105 minutes each day, Johnny initially declined the offer. However, NBC continued to woo him and finally convinced him to sign by early February 1962. He finished out his ABC contract and, six months later, he became the host of Tonight on 1 October 1962. Although he continued to have doubts, the show did very well in the ratings.
In 1966, Johnny popularized the Milton Bradley's game Twister when he played it with actress Eva Gabor. Not widely known up to that time, the game skyrocketed in popularity after the broadcast.
Johnny's show launched the careers of many performers, especially comedians and musicians. For a comedian appearing on the show, getting him to laugh and being invited to the guest chair were considered the highest honors. Notable among these were David Letterman, Robin Williams Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy, Ellen DeGeneres, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Roseanne Barr, and Don Rickles.
Johnny retired from show business on 22 May 1992 at age 66.
Unlike every other TV star, he remained on top until the very end, the show winning its ratings period every year for 30 years. When Johnny retired, his last appearance was one of the highest rated late night TV shows ever.
When he was not on camera, Johnny was introverted and shy. He was known for avoiding most large parties and was often referred to as "the most private public man who ever lived." Dick Cavett once said of him, "I felt sorry for Johnny in that he was so socially uncomfortable. I've hardly ever met anybody who had as hard a time as he did." He normally refused to discuss politics, social controversies, his childhood, or his private life with interviewers, and offered an identical list of eleven written answers to journalists who wanted to ask him questions.
In a December 1967 interview in Playboy magazine, Johnny said in response to comments that he was anti social: "I couldn't care less what anybody says about me. I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with that, that's his business. Whatever you do, you're going to be criticized. I feel the one sensible thing you can do is try to live in a way that pleases you. If you don't hurt anybody else, what you do is your own business."
He was married four times and reportedly joked: "My giving advice on marriage is like the captain of the Titanic giving lessons on navigation."
Johnny had many personal life problems. Whether it was his family, friends or lovers, or alcohol, he ultimately struggled every day. But in his mind, there was one reason why: he blamed his personal coldness on his terrible, heartless mother, Ruth. When speaking of his mother, he only had one thing to say: "She's the toughest son of a [expletive] of them all." He also blamed her for all of his failed marriages. "There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She's Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she [expletive] me up!" When she died, he did not go to her funeral. He said, "The wicked witch is dead."
Johnny died on 23 January 2005 in Los Angeles of respiratory failure arising from emphysema, a result of having smoked four to five packs of Pall Mall cigarettes a day.
In terms of career longevity, popularity, peer respect and impact on the medium, Johnny ranks with greats of television.
Here is one of the more complicated and fun family trees I have done so far: