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American Masters: Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night

Airs Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 9:30 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" set.

Johnny Carson (October 23, 1925 – January 23, 2005) was seen by more people on more occasions than anyone else in American history. Over the course of 30 years, 4,531 episodes and 23,000 guests, he became a fixture of national life and a part of the zeitgeist.

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson in Florida, circa 1960s.
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Above: Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson in Florida, circa 1960s.

Johnny Carson with his second wife, Joanne, circa 1960s. She was instrumental in persuading NBC to consider Carson as host of "The tonight Show" after Jack Paar left in 1962.
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Above: Johnny Carson with his second wife, Joanne, circa 1960s. She was instrumental in persuading NBC to consider Carson as host of "The tonight Show" after Jack Paar left in 1962.

Johnny Carson outside the NBC studios, circa 1967.
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Above: Johnny Carson outside the NBC studios, circa 1967.

Johnny Carson at "The Tonight Show" desk, circa 1970s.
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Above: Johnny Carson at "The Tonight Show" desk, circa 1970s.

In a 2007 TV Land/Entertainment Weekly poll, Americans voted Carson the greatest icon in the history of television. Two-time Emmy®-winning filmmaker Peter Jones explores his life, career, complexities, and contradictions in the two-hour documentary American Masters "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night."

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over "The Tonight Show" from Jack Paar and the 20th anniversary of his retirement.

Narrated by two-time Oscar®-winner Kevin Spacey, the film features 45 original interviews with Carson’s friends, family and colleagues, including his second wife, Joanne, Dick Cavett, Doc Severinsen, and other "The Tonight Show" staff.

Performers who appeared, or began their careers, on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" are also interviewed, including David Letterman, Jay Leno, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, Steve Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ellen DeGeneres, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, and David Steinberg. Late night TV hosts Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien also discuss Carson’s influence on their careers.

For 15 years Jones wrote an annual letter to Carson requesting his cooperation in the production of a documentary. His appeals went unanswered until 2003, when he received a telephone call from Carson himself: “You write a damn fine letter, Peter, but I don’t have anything more to say.”

Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones directed his letters to Johnny’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who controls his uncle’s archives.

Finally, in 2010, Sotzing agreed to cooperate and the Carson Entertainment Group granted unprecedented access to Johnny’s personal and professional archives, including family photo albums, home movies, memorabilia, and all existing episodes of "The Tonight Show" from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. His simple reason: “I didn’t want people to forget Johnny Carson.”

Quite possibly the biggest star that television has ever produced, Carson commanded, at his peak, a nightly audience of 15 million viewers – double the current audience of Leno and Letterman – combined.

Rarely giving interviews, Carson chose to remain a very private man whose public persona made him an American superstar. He once revealed, “I can get in front of an audience and be in control. I suppose it’s manipulation. Offstage, I’m aloof because I’m not very comfortable.”

"Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night" explores this dichotomy and enigma, unearthing clues about Carson’s childhood, early days in the business, and personal and professional life.

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Preview: American Masters: Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night

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Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night: Johnny and Ed

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Above: A look at the complicated relationship between Johnny Carson and his "Tonight Show" sidekick Ed McMahon.

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Outtake: Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling

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Above: Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling talk about the time they went out to dinner with Johnny and discussed the unpredictability of show business.t

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Outtake: Doc Severinsen

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Above: Doc Severinsen talks about when he made some sartorial changes after becoming the leader of "The Tonight Show" band and Johnny’s reactions to his eccentric outfits.