Sunday, March 23, 2014

Johnny Carson

I just read a book simply titled Johnny Carson that was written by Henry Bushkin. If you were a fan of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, you may remember Carson making jokes about Bombastic Bushkin. For the sake of the joke, Bushkin may have been portrayed as Johnny's accountant, financial adviser, lawyer or any number of other professions. In actuality Bombastic Bushkin was based on a real person. That person is the author, Henry Bushkin, who was officially Carson's lawyer for 18 years. The book is about their years together that spanned from 1970 to 1988.

Henry Bushkin was much more than a lawyer to Johnny. He was part confidant, agent, manager, adviser, tennis partner, enabler, drinking buddy, fixer, employee, companion, business partner, gopher and yes, even lawyer. When he was hired by Carson he was a 27 year old relatively inexperienced entertainment lawyer. His first duties were to accompany Johnny and a couple of others on a raid of Joanne Carson's, aka Mrs. Johnny Carson, secret apartment. The purpose of the raid was to find evidence of Joanne's infidelity. According to Bushkin, they found the place furnished with items from the Carson's apartment, women's and men's clothing, not Johnny's, and pictures of Joanne and Frank Gifford. The raid may have been illegal although technically Johnny was paying for the apartment. This all ultimately led to the Carson's divorce. It also led to Bushkin becoming Johnny's lawyer and a member of a very small Carson inner circle. One of his first tasks was to represent Johnny in the divorce from Joanne.

While it is obvious that Bushkin admired Johnny, basked in his glow and profited greatly from their relationship, he exposes many of the warts in Carson's life. It was a complicated life full of contradictions. That charming, witty, funny, midwestern host of The Tonight Show was far less charming off the air. Bushkin paints Johnny as a selfish and often nasty person. One who failed miserably at marriage, parenthood and friendship. An alcoholic who had issues with commitment and fidelity. A paranoid loner who once crossed, whether real or just perceived, held a grudge for life. A person who could be extremely charming to your face but also just as easily extremely nasty. It all depended on the mood du jour or state of intoxication. Because of his personality, wealth and power, Johnny was able to play by his own rules rules and live his life differently than the common folks. 

There is no need to go into the details of their time together. That's what the book is for.  There are many adventures documented, although very little about The Tonight Show. I will say that Bushkin was not an innocent bystander during that time. He philandered right along with Carson whether either of them was married, involved or single. There is no way to know if the misadventures portrayed are the whole truth, the edited version or complete fabrications. While admitting to errors and mistakes, Bushkin depicts himself as mostly the good guy who was just taking care of his client and friend. 
Henry Bushkin & Johnny Carson

According to Bushkin, the end of his relationship with Johnny took place in a three minute meeting that ended with a handshake. They spoke only once after that. Carson later accused and sued Bushkin for malpractice and a few other things. After four years of litigation Bushkin won a $17 million settlement and kept his law license. It is a little murky as to whether Bushkin betrayed Carson or did anything illegal or unprofessional. It is obvious that he made some careless and stupid mistakes, especially for a lawyer. It was a messy situation and Bushkin lost his stake in Carson Productions which owned The Tonight Show and some other entertainment properties. Carson Productions is still making money from the DVD's and rebroadcasts of Tonight Show videos. 

I've read eight or ten books about Johnny and The Tonight Show. While some of the details and interpretations of this book should be taken with a grain of salt, the general tone seems right. Johnny was the best ever at hosting late night TV. He was also not very successful at being a happy or pleasant human being. A very flawed person. Although the Carson estate was estimated at around $450 million at his death, he was virtually alone. He was separated from his fourth wife, had almost no relationship with his two remaining sons and almost no friends. He did leave much of his estate to charity.

The book is a good read but don't open the covers if you want to preserve your image of Johnny Carson as the funny, congenial, every man host who came into your living room or bedroom after the late local news. Sometimes our heroes have warts but they can still be our heroes. If there is a show about Johnny, a rerun or clip of The Tonight Show, I'll watch it and there's a 99.99% chance that I'll laugh out loud and enjoy it. His personal life won't be a factor. He provided 30 years of great entertainment. That's enough for me. It's sad that someone who brought so much laughter and enjoyment into the world for others was unable to find peace and happiness in his own life. RIP Johnny.


No comments:

Post a Comment