Book Review: Johnny Carson revealed in biography

Younger readers of this newspaper may not recall when Johnny Carson was the king of television’s late night programming.

For nearly 30 years, before the proliferation of cable and satellite TV, millions of Americans tuned in to Johnny on NBC before falling off to sleep.

Henry Bushkin’s biography, “Johnny Carson,” covers the years when he served as his lawyer as well as his confidante, tennis partner, friend and night-time companion.

The author reveals all of Carson’s warts: the womanizing, the drinking, the bad behavior. And, there was the good Johnny too, a man who could be witty, fun, generous, even kind.

In short, Carson was a complex person, in many ways a reluctant celebrity, even a loner.

Bushkin was fascinated by this extremely talented man and celebrated icon, who connected so well for so many years with viewers on his “Tonight Show,” but who had such a hard time doing the same with those closest to him.

Married four times, estranged from his children, Carson died alone.

Why was Carson the way he was?

Bushkin lays some of the blame on Carson’s upbringing in rural Nebraska as the son of a distant and cold mother. Apparently, nothing he did could please this woman who makes several appearances in the book.

But this isn’t a biography covering Carson’s boyhood or his days as a young, up-and-coming entertainer. It’s pretty much restricted to those years when Bushkin was with Carson.

Bushkin was a young attorney quietly practicing law when practically overnight he found himself working for Carson, giving him a front row seat for the next 18 years into the life of the late night show host.

I was drawn into the book from the opening chapter.

Carson hasn’t show up for a party being attended by some of Hollywood’s most glittering celebrities.

Bushkin recalls some of the conversation from the evening, the give and take among the famous people, many of them self-absorbed about their own lives and careers.

And yet, what is foremost on everyone’s mind? The whereabouts of Johnny.

Such was the charisma, the star recognition, the power Carson had in Hollywood for so many years.

Bushkin has many stories to share from his years with Carson – the feuds with show business people, the business deals, the vacations they took together.

Readers expecting to find out a lot of inside stuff about Carson’s long-running show, or people such as Ed McMahon, who served as Carson’s sidekick and foil on his shows, or bandleader Doc Severinson (who blasted Bushkin for writing the book), will be disappointed.

Some critics have accused Bushkin of using this tell-all book to get back at his longtime employer and grab a quick buck. It’s quite true the two eventually had a falling out with Bushkin given the boot by Carson.

I suppose only Bushkin knows deep in his heart if he had revenge on his mind. It should be pointed out that he certainly had flattering things to say about Carson in the book.

This is a biography about a man who came into the homes of many people, providing them with laughs and entertainment, but who apparently could find little in his own life from which to draw joy – at least according to Bushkin.