Johnny, alone on a stool, faces his audience for the last time. After 30 years, America’s most revered TV personality–and favorite late-night pal–is calling it quits. The previous night, The Tonight Show host enjoyed a star-studded climax with Robin Williams and Better Midler. But for his finale, the ever-tasteful Johnny opts for intimacy. He chats quietly with bandleader Doc Severinson and guffawing sidekick Ed McMahon. They run a few highlight reels (Jack Benny, Liz Taylor, Michael Landon and Jodie Foster as a round-faced child). At the show’s close, after thank-yous and good wishes are exchanged, Johnny, eyes shiny with emotion, wishes America a “heartfelt goodnight” for the last time.
The Tonight Show was a microcosm of celebrity democracy. Divas like Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall rubbed elbows with Loni Anderson and Connie Stevens. Incomparable actors like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda beamed alongside Vegas luminaries like Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal plugged books beside Jacqueline Susann. Richard Nixon and Bobby Kennedy shared the spotlight with Jim Fowler’s animals and Dr. Joyce Brothers. Through it all sat Johnny, unflappable master of the reaction take: a bewildered yet dignified glance that neatly aligned him with his viewers.
And though others would follow–Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman,–none would surpass.
The Last Word: “Wouldn’t it be funny, instead of showing up tonight, if we put on a rerun?” –Johnny Carson, in his final monologue