Ed McMahon has died. For baby-boomers and older, we remember McMahon as one guffawing voice of a generation that starred Jimmy Stewart, Joan Rivers, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Elvis, Dean Martin, Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles, Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra. McMahon was 86.
For younger folks who may not know, McMahon was the sidekick of late-night TV pioneer Johnny Carson. McMahon had suffered several reversals of fortune in his final years including bone cancer and foreclosure on his Beverly Hills home. Ultimately a deal was worked out for him to stay in the house. McMahon even spoofed his own financial problems in a cash-for-gold spot that aired during the 2009 Super Bowl where he jokingly said “Goodbye, old friend” to a gold toilet, and finished with a memorable “H-e-e-e-e-e-e-r-e’-s money!”
Famous for his Everyman persona playing second fiddle to Carson with his week-nightly “H-e-e-e-e-r-e’-s Johnny!” intro on NBC’s Tonight Show, McMahon was the perfect straight-man foil to Carson’s incessant playfulness. He described his role this way:
“It’s like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher. The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher’s got to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help.”
McMahon and Carson were working together on the game show Who Do You Trust? when Carson was offered the host position on NBC’s late-night show in October 1962 taking over for Jack Paar. The show ran continuously until Carson‘s retirement in 1992. Jay Leno took over for Carson and recently handed over the program to Conan O’Brien. Carson died in 2005.
Born Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. on March 6, 1923, in Detroit, McMahon grew up in Lowell, Mass. and served as a Marine in World War II and Korea. He got his start on television playing a circus clown on the 1950-51 variety series Big Top.
While Carson built his career around the Tonight Show, McMahon was host of several shows including The Kraft Music Hall and the talent contest Star Search program He also was a longtime co-host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon and was co-host with Dick Clark on TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.
McMahon and Clark also were representatives for American Family Publishers’ sweepstakes, while McMahon did work for Budweiser as well. He had supporting roles in several movies, and released his autobiography, For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times in 1998.
McMahon recalled his first meeting with Carson after they had left The Tonight Show. “The first thing he (Carson) said was, ‘I really miss you. You know, it was fun, wasn’t it?”‘ McMahon said. “I said, ‘It was great.’ And it was. It was just great.”
But while we all might look at McMahon and Carson’s careers as examples of American success, Carson’s longtime lawyer is planning a tell-all book about Carson that describes him as many people had suspected – a sad and depressed man who cheated on his wives, was tormented by his mother and refused to visit his own son when Rick Carson was admitted to a mental hospital.
Henry Bushkin says that 4-times-married Carson, who starred in 4,531 episodes of the Hollywood-based Tonight Show, “was a great star, but not a great man,” an analysis that fits the mold of many so-called ‘entertainers’ today.
Thus while McMahon may have been the common man that we all knew, Carson was the Hollywood recluse that we never did, playing out his role for us by night and hiding from the world by day. “Nobody got to know him,” said comedienne Joan Rivers, who often substituted as a guest host on the Tonight Show. “He was very private.”
Hollywood is a place of masks. And while much of the world is a place of masks, Hollywood is one of the worst. And that Hollywood could have such an influence on Americans today is a disturbing state of affairs.
Carson and McMahon came of age in an era when entertainers were less publicly politicized. Today we have bitter, angry attack comedy from David Letterman; Sean Penn chumming around with dictator Hugo Chavez; and a Hollywood elite that is completely out of control, with vicious assaults on those who disagree with its far-left ideology.
And this shows Hollywood for what it really is – a land of play actors and court jesters who should Shut Up and Sing, as conservative commentator Laura Ingraham suggests in her book of that title.
Despite his personally dark side, at least Johnny Carson played it down the middle, never becoming political. And Ed McMahon did too, lighting up our lives with his magnanimous supporting role. McMahon will be missed, as we all miss those more innocent days when entertainers did what they are supposed to do – make us laugh so that we can forget our daily cares.
At least for an hour or two, that is.
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