January 25, 2005
THE LAST PROFESSIONAL (via Jim Siegel):
Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale (Kenneth Tynan, 1978-02-20, The New Yorker)
July 14, 1977: There is a dinner party tonight at the Beverly Hills home of Irving Lazar, doyen of agents and agent of doyens. The host is a diminutive potentate, as bald as a doorknob, who was likened by the late screenwriter Harry Kurnitz to “a very expensive rubber beach toy.” He has represented many of the top-grossing movie directors and best-selling novelists of the past four decades, not always with their prior knowledge, since speed is of the essence in such transactions; and Lazar’s flair for fleet-footed deal-clinching—sometimes on behalf of people who had never met him—has earned him the nickname of Swifty. On this occasion, at his behest and that of his wife, Mary (a sleek and catlike sorceress, deceptively demure, who could pass for her husband’s ward), some fifty friends have gathered to mourn the departure of Fred de Cordova, who has been the producer of NBC’s “Tonight Show” since 1970; he is about to leave for Europe on two weeks’ vacation. A flimsy pretext, you may think, for a wingding; but, according to Beverly Hills protocol, anyone who quits the state of California for more than a long weekend qualifies for a farewell party, unless he is going to Las Vegas or New York, each of which counts as a colonial suburb of Los Angeles. Most of the Lazars’ guests tonight are theatre and/or movie people; e.g., Elizabeth Ashley, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck, Sammy Cahn, Ray Stark, Richard Brooks. And even Fred de Cordova spent twenty years working for the Shuberts, Warner Brothers, and Universal before he moved into television. The senior media still take social precedence in the upper and elder reaches of these costly hills.
One of the rare exceptions to this rule is the male latecomer who now enters, lean and dapper in an indigo blazer, white slacks, and a pale-blue open-necked shirt. Apart from two months in the late nineteen-fifties (when he replaced Tom Ewell in a Broadway comedy called “The Tunnel of Love”), Johnny Carson has never been seen on the legitimate stage; and, despite a multitude of offers, he has yet to appear in his first film. He does not, in fact, much like appearing anywhere except (a) in the audience at the Wimbledon tennis championships, which he and his wife recently attended, (b) at his home in Bel Air, and (c) before the NBC cameras in Burbank, which act on him like an addictive and galvanic drug. Just how the drug works is not known to science, but its effect is witnessed—ninety minutes per night, four nights per week, thirty-seven weeks per year—by upward of fourteen million viewers; and it provoked the actor Robert Blake, while he was being interviewed by Carson on the “Tonight Show” in 1976, to describe him with honest adulation as “the ace comedian top-dog talk artist of the universe.” I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema. “For good or ill,” he said, “Carson.”
This pure and archetypal product of the box shuns large parties. Invitations from the Lazars are among the few he accepts. Tonight, he arrives alone (his wife, Joanna, has stopped off in New York for a few days’ shopping), greets his host with the familiar smile, cordially wry, and scans the assembly, his eyes twinkling like icicles. Hard to believe, despite the pewter-colored hair, that he is fifty-one: he holds himself like the midshipman he once was, chin well tucked in, back as straight as a poker. (Carson claims to be five feet ten and a half inches in height. His pedantic insistence on that extra half inch betokens a man who suspects he looks small.) In repose, he resembles a king-sized ventriloquist’s dummy. After winking impassively at de Cordova, he threads his way across the crowded living room and out through the ceiling-high sliding windows to the deserted swimming pool. Heads discreetly turn. Even in this posh peer group, Carson has cynosure status. Arms folded, he surveys Los Angeles by night—”glittering jewel of the Southland, gossamer web of loveliness,” as Abe Burrows ironically called it. A waiter brings him a soft drink. “He looks like Gatsby,” a young actress whispers to me. On the face of it, this is nonsense. Fitzgerald’s hero suffers from star-crossed love, his wealth has criminal origins, and he loves to give flamboyant parties. But the simile is not without elements of truth. Gatsby, like Carson, is a Midwesterner, a self-made millionaire, and a habitual loner, armored against all attempts to invade his emotional privacy. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn,” Fitzgerald wrote of Gatsby—as far as Carson has come to these blue pools, from which steam rises on even the warmest nights.
“He doesn’t drink now.” I turn to find Lazar beside me, also peeking at the man outside. He continues, “But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk.” That was before the “Tonight Show” moved from New York to Los Angeles, in 1972. “A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get very hostile.”
I point out to Lazar that Carson’s family tree has deep Irish roots on the maternal side. Was there something atavistic in his drinking? Or am I glibly casting him as an ethnic (“black Irish”) stereotype? At all events, I now begin to see in him—still immobile by the pool—the lineaments of a magnified leprechaun.
“Like a lot of people in our business,” Lazar goes on, “he’s a mixture of extreme ego and extreme cowardice.” In Lazar’s lexicon, a coward is one who turns down starring roles suggested to him by Lazar.
Since Carson already does what nobody has ever done better, I reply, why should he risk his reputation by plunging into movies or TV specials?
Lazar concedes that I may be right. “But I’ll tell you something else about him,’’ he says, with italicized wonder. “He’s celibate.” He means “chaste.” “In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.”
It is thirty minutes later. Carson is sitting at a table by the pool, where four or five people have joined him. He chats with impersonal affability, making no effort to dominate, charm, or amuse. I recall something that George Axelrod, the dramatist and screenwriter, once said to me about him: “Socially, he doesn’t exist. The reason is that there are no television cameras in living rooms. If human beings had little-red lights in the middle of their foreheads, Carson would be the greatest conversationalist on earth.”
If only other celebrities understood how much more they'd be if they offered us less of them.
Posted by Orrin Judd at January 25, 2005 5:39 PM
MORE (via Tom Morin):
Personal to Johnny: My nights on Tonight. (William F. Buckley, 1/25/05, National Review)
Remembering Johnny Carson, 1925 - 2005. (Larry Miller, 01/25/2005, Weekly Standard)
- Whoooooooo’s Johnny?: Richard Corliss on the cool, unknowable dude of late-night (TIME, Jan. 25, 2005)