Johnny Carson (10/23/1925 – 1/23/2005) was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history. He became a national treasure, a piece of the cultural furniture, a part of the zeitgeist. He put us to bed. One suspects that social anthropologists will one day turn to Carson's quips and commentaries in an attempt to understand popular American customs during the last third of the 20th century. Two-time Emmy®-winning filmmaker Peter Jones explores his life, career, complexities, and contradictions in the feature documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night that premiered nationally Monday, May 14, 2012 at 9 pm (ET) as part of the American Masters series on PBS. 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar and the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Narrated by two-time Oscar®-winner Kevin Spacey, the film features 45 original interviews with Carson’s friends, family and colleagues, including his second wife, Joanne, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, and other The Tonight Show staff.
For 15 years Jones wrote an annual letter to Carson requesting his cooperation in the production of a documentary. His appeals went unanswered until 2003, when he received a telephone call from Carson himself: “You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don’t have anything more to say.” Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones directed his letters to Johnny’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives. Finally, in 2010, Sotzing agreed to cooperate and the Carson Entertainment Group granted unprecedented access to Johnny’s personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia, and all existing episodes of The Tonight Show from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. His simple reason: “I didn’t want people to forget Johnny Carson.”
Quite possibly the biggest star that television has ever produced, Carson commanded, at his peak, a nightly audience of 15 million viewers – double the current audience of Leno and Letterman – combined. Rarely giving interviews, Carson chose to remain a very private man whose public persona made him an American superstar. He once revealed, “I can get in front of an audience and be in control. I suppose it’s manipulation. Offstage, I’m aloof because I’m not very comfortable.” Johnny Carson: King of Late Night explores this dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson’s childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life.
“Carson has been one of the holy grails for documentary filmmakers, but there’s such a protective veil surrounding Johnny that I was beginning to wonder if this would ever happen,” says Jones, whose films for PBS include the Peabody Award-winning Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times (2009) and American Masters: Goldwyn (2001).
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