By Lynn Elber
LOS ANGELES — Ed McMahon, the loyal “Tonight Show” sidekick who bolstered boss Johnny Carson with guffaws and a resounding “H-e-e-e-e-e-ere’s Johnny!” for 30 years, died early Tuesday. He was 86.
McMahon died shortly after midnight at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center surrounded by his wife, Pam, and other family members, said his publicist, Howard Bragman.
Bragman didn’t give a cause of death, saying only that McMahon had a “multitude of health problems the last few months.”
McMahon broke his neck in a fall in March 2007 and battled a series of financial problems as his injuries prevented him from working.
McMahon and Carson had worked together for nearly five years on the game show “Who Do You Trust?” when Carson took over NBC’s late-night show from Jack Paar in October 1962. McMahon played second banana on “Tonight” until Carson retired in 1992.
“You can’t imagine hooking up with a guy like Carson,” McMahon said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1993. “There’s the old phrase, hook your wagon to a star. I hitched my wagon to a great star.”
McMahon, who never failed to laugh at Carson’s quips, kept his supporting role in perspective.
“It’s like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher,” he said. “The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher’s got to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help.”
“And now h-e-e-e-e-e-ere’s Johnny!” was McMahon’s trademark opener for each “Tonight” show, followed by a small, respectful bow toward the star. McMahon’s style was honed during his youthful days as a carnival hawker.
The highlight for McMahon came just after the monologue, when he and Carson would chat before the guests took the stage.
“We would just have a free-for-all,” he said in the AP interview. “Now to sit there, with one of the brightest, most well-read men I’ve ever met, the funniest, and just to hold your own in that conversation. ... I loved that.”
When Carson died in 2005, McMahon said he was “like a brother to me,” and recalled bantering with him on the phone a few months earlier.
“We could have gone on [television] that night and done a ‘Carnac’ skit. We were that crisp and hot.”
McMahon’s medical and financial problems kept him in the headlines in his last years. It was reported in June 2008 that he was facing possible foreclosure on his Beverly Hills home. By year’s end, a deal was worked out allowing him to stay in his home, but legal action involving other reported debts continued.
McMahon was a longtime co-host of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, a Labor Day weekend institution, and was co-host with Dick Clark on “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.”
The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.