Written By: Bill Syken
The news that a new biopic of Johnny Carson is on the way, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is exciting for a generation of fans who grew up knowing Carson as the one and only king of late-night television.
Carson was not the first host of the Tonight Show, but he was the one who defined the job and the format. Before he took over the show had been around for eight years, with two other hosts, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Their tenures lasted roughly as long as a one-term presidency. Carson took over and reigned like a monarch. He ruled for 31 years, from 1962 to ’92.
He began that reign in New York City, taping the show there from 1962 to ’72. In 1967, LIFE photographer Arthur Schatz spent time with Carson at home and on the set. The story never ran, but the photos in the LIFE archives paint an intimate portrait of a star on the rise.
Carson’s New York years had their own particular flavor. In 2014 Sam Karshner wrote about that era for Vanity Fair, on the occasion of the Tonight Show coming back to Manhattan when Jimmy Fallon took over as host. The story noted how Carson, a Nebraska native, often made jokes about the dark side of life in New York, to the point where the city council asked NBC to make him lighten up:
To an out-of-towner who bragged on an audience card, “My hometown of Cincinnati has much cleaner streets than New York, signed Miriam,” he answered, “Pompeii, after Vesuvius went off, had cleaner streets than New York.” He joked about the city’s high crime rate: “New York is an exciting town where something is happening all the time—most, unsolved.” Not even New York’s weather was immune to ridicule—“It’s so cold here in New York that the flashers are just describing themselves.”
The Vanity Fair story also talks about Carson’s city life—including his home, which is captured in Schatz’s photos, right down to the telescope Dick Cavett jokes about:.
Dick Cavett remembers Carson’s first apartment, at 1161 York Avenue, as a “four-bedroom bachelor pad over the river with his telescope there, [which he] claimed he used for astronomy.” He had a car and driver available day and night. In the mornings he would play tennis alongside Mayor John Lindsay at the Vanderbilt Club, in the Grand Central Terminal Annex; later in the day he’d make the rounds—Patsy’s, Toots Shor’s, ‘21,’ Le Club, Danny’s Hideaway, even the Playboy Club. Like a true midwesterner, he was a meat-and-potatoes man his whole life and loved the row of steak houses between Lexington and Second Avenues in the East 40s—Colombo’s, the Palm, Pietro’s, Joe and Rose’s, the Pen and Pencil.
In 1972 Carson left New York and moved the show to southern California to be closer to the celebrities who populated his guest’s chair. After Carson retired in 1992, late night was slowly carved up into fiefdoms, like so much of the rest of popular culture. Most viewers now experience late-night TV after the fact, trough viral clips such this one (which is awesome, by the way).
It’s safe to say, no one will ever bring late-night America together like Johnny Carson.