Carson was born John William Carson, on October 23, 1925, in Corning, Iowa, to Homer “Kit” Carson, a power company manager, and Ruth Carson (nee Hook), a housewife. His brother Dick Carson is a director for the game show Wheel of Fortune. Raised in Norfolk, Nebraska, he sent away for a magic kit at age 12, and "The Great Carsoni" gave his first performance two years later at Elks, Moose, and Redmen Lodges.
After serving in the U.S. Navy (1943--46), he graduated from the University of Nebraska (1949) and went to work in California, where he worked for various local radio and television shows.
A former amateur magician and ventriloquist, Carson began his career as a radio announcer in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1948. He was a writer and performer on the popular variety series "The Red Skelton Show" and hosted his first TV show, "Carson's Cellar," in 1951.
Moving to New York City in 1956, he hosted the television quiz show Who Do You Trust? (1958--63), where he was paired with McMahon for the first time in 1958 and helped to make it ABC's top daytime program. He first appeared on The Tonight Show in 1958, and as permanent host from 1962 to 1992, he turned it into one of National Broadcasting Company's biggest moneymakers.
Carson replaced Jack Paar as "The Tonight Show" host in October 1962, bringing a cooler and more easy-going demeanor to the job. Paar died last January. Steve Allen, the show's first permanent host, died in October of 2000.
Talent booked on Carson's show spanned generations. His very first guest in 1962 was Groucho Marx. Seven years later, some 45 million viewers tuned in to the on-air wedding of the falsetto-singing Tiny Tim to flower-child bride Miss Vicki.
Introduced by McMahon nightly with the rallying cry of "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!," the lanky Carson would saunter onto the stage to open the show with his monologue, capped by his signature golf swing to usher in the rest of the show.
Known for his boyish looks and low-key, Midwestern charm, Carson was the perfect foil for a wide range of guests -- from movie stars to small-town eccentrics and wild animals. He was a master ad-libber, and many of the show's most celebrated moments were unscripted.
Carson said one of his favorites was a segment in which actor Ed Ames, who played Daniel Boone's Indian sidekick on a 1960s TV show, threw a tomahawk at a cowboy target, landing the weapon in the crotch area of the drawing. As sustained peels of laughter died down, Carson quipped, "I didn't even know you were Jewish," igniting another round of guffaws from the audience.
Other memorable routines included "Stump the Band," sketch comedy bits performed by "The Mighty Carson Art Players" and "Carnac," in which Carson would sit at his desk in a large turban to guess the punch lines of jokes contained in envelopes presented to him by McMahon.
Carson's final "Tonight Show" broadcast aired on Friday, May 22, 1992, and was seen by 55 million viewers. "I am one of the lucky people in the world. I have found something I liked to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it," a teary-eyed Carson said as he closed the show for the last time. "I bid you a very heartfelt good night."
In later years, Carson rarely ventured into the public eye. In a 2002 Esquire magazine interview, Carson said he was content spending his retirement occupied with boating and playing poker with friends. He even refused a personal appeal from NBC Chairman Bob Wright to join in celebrating the network's 75th anniversary in an all-star special.
After a 1999 quadruple bypass heart operation, Carson cut back on his tennis and travel. An on-air smoker for many years in an era before cigarettes were taboo on TV, he was diagnosed with emphysema in 2002. But friends said he kept up with current events.
Former producer and friend Peter Lassally said recently that Carson occasionally wrote jokes that he would send to David Letterman, who lost out to Leno in the competition to replace Carson at NBC but whom Carson regarded as his rightful heir.
In private life, Carson was almost the opposite of his spontaneous, charming onstage personality; he was married four times and was reputed to be rather distant, even cool in his dealings with most people. He formed his own production group, Carson Productions, in 1980 and became immensely wealthy from his own and other shows (his high alimony payments were the source of many jokes over the years). He has been married to fourth wife, Alexis Carson (nee Mass) since 1987.
Inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1987, Carson won numerous Emmys for his hosting skills, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992, and the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.