Producer Peter Jones was granted unprecedented access to the Carson archives and offers viewers a candid yet reverent look at the iconic talk show host's life.
For thirty years, from 1962 through 1992, millions of viewers turned on their TVs to welcome Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show into their homes. He became an icon: the indisputable king of late night television. But for all those many hours spent in front of an adoring public, the man himself remained an enigma, a mystery. Emmy winning producer Peter Jones wanted to delve deep into the Carson legacy and produce a film that would not only focus on elements of Carson’s life not previously revealed but to pay tribute to the man and how his work affected his loyal viewers and the entertainment world.
On May 14, PBS will air Jones’s documentary American Masters-Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. I spoke with Jones by phone recently about the challenges and joys of creating his film.
Were you an admirer of Johnny Carson growing up?
Yeah, just as everybody else was, as a viewer. Then when I became a journalist and documentary filmmaker, he was the number one person I wanted to make a film about. Arguably, this is the most famous guy in the United States and everybody loved him but there was so much people didn’t know about who Johnny Carson was. It was a perfect challenge for a filmmaker not only to get access but then also to scrutinize the man.
You tried for fifteen years to get Johnny Carson’s cooperation in the production of a documentary, and he finally responded. What did you think when you got that call?
Oh my god, I thought it was a joke. I honestly did. But then there was that voice. He said he admired my persistence and style and told me all the people who’d been after him for interviews. He wanted to call me himself because he knew I had been after him for years and wanted to tell me personally that he wasn’t going to really ever do anything because he wanted his work to stand on its own. He wanted to be judged for the work and not for the man. I think there were many things about his personal life that he regretted. I think he didn’t want that to be belabored. I tried to assure him it would be fair and balanced but he chose to not participate in anything because he was concerned his personal life would be handled or mistreated in a way that didn’t reflect well on him.
He’d seen it happen firsthand with celebrities he’d known both personally and professionally.
Why do you think, as time went on, this never changed, that he continued to remain so elusive?
I think there was a big part of him that was just genuinely shy. It was a part of him when he was a kid. He loved to just play in the leaves by himself in the fall. He loved to play solitaire. He loved to read. He liked solitary pursuits. There’s a quote from The Tonight Show in the film where he says when he got laughs the first time he got on the stage, he felt so good. He also knew when he was on stage he was in control. He could connect in a way without having to give anything more than he was projecting. Now what he projected was this remarkably accessible human being. At the same time he kept so much to himself and much of who he truly was remained a mystery. The craziest paradox is that you have a guy who was loved for being just a regular guy, although a huge star, yet someone who is an enigma and a mystery to so many people.
In 2010, five years after Carson’s death, the Carson Entertainment Group agreed to grant you unprecedented access to Carson’s personal and professional archives. Why did you decide that PBS should be the home for your film?
We always knew the ideal place for the film would be PBS. [We wanted it to be] a commercial free film, no interruptions. The American Masters series is so well respected for journalism and for its artful filmmaking. I wanted to make a dramatic feature film, in a sense. Although it was documentary I wanted it to play like a dramatic feature film and having no commercials and having the PBS audience. Kind of an ideal combination being able to do that.
How did you decide who to interview?
There was a huge, long list of people who got their start on The Tonight Show, a huge, long list of people who were Johnny’s favorite guests. Then, of course, there was the family and a few friends who were important. I was amazed. When it was all said and done we did 48 or 49 on camera interviews. We used something from 45 of them in the film. No celebrity turned us down with the exception of Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. I don’t know why but so many people who don’t do interviews did say yes. I’m just grateful for all the ones we did get.
One of the most emotional and heartfelt interviews came from Drew Carey.
Yes. I only asked him one question. It was the shortest interview in terms of my job I ever had. I asked him to tell me about the events leading up to and including his appearance on The Tonight Show, and he talked for exactly 51 minutes. It was the only question I asked and he went on and on in minute detail. It meant so much to him. And when it got to that point where Johnny wanted him to come over to the couch, Drew became very, very emotional.
The documentary is a fitting homage to a man who entertained countless numbers of viewers. What would you hope people will take away from this work?
An appreciation for the whole man. Although there were things he regretted about his personal life, I think in the end he comes off, like we all are, as a flawed human being, warts and all. People are going to see Johnny Carson on a level they’ve never seen before and come away with a respect and a love for him on a different level, as well.
American Masters-Johnny Carson: King of Late Night premieres on PBS Monday May 14, 2012 at 9:00pm | Repeats Tuesday at 3:00pm and Wednesday at 1:00pm.