June 24, 2009
Ed McMahon, America’s Top Second Banana, Dies
By RICHARD SEVERO
Ed McMahon, who for nearly 30 years was Johnny Carson’s affable second banana on “The Tonight Show,” introducing it with his ringing trademark call, “Heeeere’s Johnny!,” died early Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 86.
His publicist, Howard Bragman, told NBC that Mr. McMahon died at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center surrounded by his family. Mr. Bragman did not give a cause of death, saying only that Mr. McMahon had a “multitude of health problems the last few months.”
A person close to Mr. McMahon, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release information, said Mr. McMahon had bone cancer, among other ailments, The Associated Press reported. In February he had been hospitalized with pneumonia, Mr. Bragman told CNN.
With his broad, genial, regular-guy features, Mr. McMahon had the face of someone you would buy a used car from. Indeed, for decades he was one of television’s most ubiquitous pitchmen, selling everything from boats to beer. He also took a few acting roles and in later years was the host of the television talent show “Star Search” and wrote some popular books, includinghis memoirs.
But it was in the role of the faithful Tonto to Carson’s wry Lone Ranger that Mr. McMahon made his sideman’s mark. After he rolled out his introduction like a red carpet for the boss, and after Carson delivered his nightly monologue, Mr. McMahon, in jacket and tie, would take his seat on the couch beside the host’s desk, chat and banter with Carson a bit before the guests came on and almost invariably guffaw at his jokes, even when he was the butt of them. When the guests did arrive, he would slide over to make room and rarely interrupt.
6 years, 2 wars, and 85 combat missions serving in the Marine Corp. That was part of Ed McMahon’s 86 year history, as well.
It’s the passing of a generation, folks.
Andrea Shea King did an interview with him November 30, 2007. Worth a listen to.
The rest of the NYTimes piece, by Richard Severo:
The work paid handsomely — some reports said $5 million a year — and it made Mr. McMahon a familiar face, and voice, in millions of households. “The Tonight Show” became the country’s most popular late-night television diversion, and the “Heeeere’s Johnny” introduction became a national catchphrase.
“I laugh for an hour and then go home,” Mr. McMahon once said. “I’ve got the world’s greatest job.”
Off camera he and Carson were friends and occasional drinking buddies, although Mr. McMahon noted that Carson, who died in 2005, was not terribly social. “He doesn’t give friendship easily or need it,” he said. “He packs a tight suitcase.”
Mr. McMahon rarely ran the risk of upstaging Carson. “To me, he’s the star and I’m on the sidelines, just nudging him a bit,” he said. But early in their association he slipped up.
It happened one night when Carson was telling the audience about a study concluding that mosquitoes preferred to bite “warm-blooded, passionate people.” Before Carson could deliver his punch line, Mr. McMahon slapped his own arm, as if crushing a mosquito. The audience roared. Carson coolly produced a giant can of insect spray from under his desk and said, glaring at Mr. McMahon, “I guess I won’t be needing this prop, will I?”
It was a rare flare-up in an association that began in the late 1950s, when Carson was the host of the ABC comedy quiz show “Do You Trust Your Wife?” and Mr. McMahon was hired to announce the show and read the commercials. (The title was later changed to “Who Do You Trust?”) In 1962, when Carson moved to “The Tonight Show,” replacing Jack Paar, he took Mr. McMahon with him.
Mr. McMahon warmed up the studio audience, read commercials and served as Carson’s straight man until Carson left the show in 1992. Though Mr. McMahon sometimes projected the image of an amiable lush and got laughs for it, the cup that was always before him on “The Tonight Show” held only iced tea, he said. Years later, he said he had missed only three tapings in 30 years, because of colds or the flu.
Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was born in Detroit on March 6, 1923. His father, a vaudevillian, had to move a lot to find work, and young Ed had attended 15 high schools by the time he was a senior. Edward Sr.’s career was so erratic that one year, awash in money, the McMahons lived in the Mark Hopkins hotel, atop Nob Hill in San Francisco; another year, flat broke, they existed in a cold-water flat in Bayonne, N.J.
As a boy in Bayonne, Mr. McMahon recalled, he dreamed of becoming an entertainer and did imitations of stars, using a flashlight as his microphone and his dog, Valiant Prince, as his audience. He shined shoes, sold newspapers, dug ditches, sold peanuts, worked as an usher, labored on a construction gang and sold stainless-steel cookware door to door.
At his request he spent his last high school years in Lowell, Mass., where his grandmother lived. By the time he was 18 he had been a traveling bingo announcer in New England and had sold a gadget called the Morris Metric Slicer to tourists on the Atlantic City Boardwalk and in Times Square. He also took elocution lessons at Emerson College in Boston.
Mr. McMahon enlisted in the Marine Corps toward the end of World War II and became a fighter pilot, but did not see combat. After his discharge he attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1949. He then landed a job at a Philadelphia radio station and began appearing on television as, among other things, a clown and the host of a cooking show.
But his budding television career was interrupted when he was recalled into military service during the Korean War. He flew 85 combat missions in 15 months, winning six Air Medals, and remained active in the Marine Corps Reserve afterward.
Returning from the war, he resumed his television work in Philadelphia while traveling to New York hoping to break into network television. He also pursued a separate career as a businessman. By the time he made it as an announcer, he had acquired a stationery company, a company that made knickknacks, two television and film companies and a talent agency. He also speculated in real estate.
Even when he got his big break with Carson, he never let up on his business activities. Carson would tweak him about them on “The Tonight Show,” suggesting that after that night’s show was over, Mr. McMahon would be selling jams and jellies in the elevator.
Over the years Mr. McMahon became a paid spokesman for many products and companies, including Budweiser beer, Alpo dog food, Chris-Craft boats, Texas Instruments, Breck shampoo, Sara Lee baked goods and Mercedes-Benz. His name and photograph were fixtures on the form letters mailed by American Family Publishers announcing sweepstakes winners. He marketed his own brand of liquor, McMahon Perfect Vodka. Most recently, he and the rapper MC Hammer promoted a gold-buying business called Cash4Gold.
And for more than 40 years, Mr. McMahon appeared with Jerry Lewis on Mr. Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon over Labor Day Weekend. He did some acting as well. Among the movies he appeared in were “The Incident” (1967), in which he played a passenger brutalized by young thugs on a New York subway train; “Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off” (1973); and “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977).
After leaving “The Tonight Show,” Mr. McMahon appeared in summer stock and kept his hand in television. He was the host of the talent show “Star Search”; he joined Dick Clark on “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes”; he was Tom Arnold’s sidekick on the short-lived sitcom “The Tom Show.” For the USA Radio Network, he broadcast “Ed McMahon’s Lifestyles Live” weekly from his home.
There were books, too, most recently the best-selling “Here’s Johnny! My Memories of Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship” (2005). Others were “For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times” (1998), written with David Fisher; “Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion” (1969); and “Here’s Ed, or How to Be a Second Banana, From Midway to Midnight” (1976).
Despite his many business ventures, Mr. McMahon encountered hard times in his last years. He was forced to sell his Beverly Hills mansion last year after falling behind in payments on $4.8 million in mortgages, and a former lawyer sued him for nonpayment of fees.
Mr. McMahon blamed two divorces, bad money management and bad investments for his woes. “I made a lot of money, but you can spend a lot of money,” he said by way of explanation.
He was plagued by health problems as well, undergoing a series of operations after breaking his neck in a fall in 2007.
Mr. McMahon married Alyce Ferrell during World War II. They were divorced in 1976. They had four children, Claudia, Michael, Linda and Jeffrey. His second marriage, to Victoria Valentine, in 1976, ended in divorce in 1989. They adopted a daughter, Katherine Mary McMahon. Mr. McMahon and his third wife, Pam Hurn, a fashion designer, were married in 1992.
Mr. McMahon regarded his friendship with Johnny Carson as a marriage of sorts. “Most comic teams are not good friends or even friends at all,” he wrote in “Here’s Johnny.” “Laurel and Hardy didn’t hang out together, Abbott and Costello weren’t best of friends.” But, he added, “Johnny and I were the happy exception.”
”For 40 years Johnny and I were as close as two nonmarried people can be,” he wrote. “And if he heard me say that, he might say, ‘Ed, I always felt you were my insignificant other.’ “
No matter what he did after “The Tonight Show,” however, Mr. McMahon will likely always be remembered as America’s favorite second banana, perhaps the most famous sidekick in television history.
“For 40 years Johnny and I were as close as two nonmarried people can be,” he wrote in “Here’s Johnny! My Memories of Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship,” a best seller in 2005. “And if he heard me say that, he might say, ‘Ed, I always felt you were my insignificant other.’”
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.