Be Careful With Heroes

PBS regularly airs a series called “American Masters.” It is a wonderful set of biographies of people who have made an indelible mark on this great country of ours.

Here's the real Johnny.

Over the years I have seen some real treasures. Last week, they ran a two-hour piece on the life of “The Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson.

As any regular reader of my work knows, I have always held Mr. Carson in the highest esteem. His body of work, his humor, his classy approach, his artful way of handling himself and the press, his career and his stylish exit from show business all served as examples of the way I should handle myself now and in the future.

For most of my life, I thought Johnny had it all.

But as I watched this very honest and truthful expose, my balloons slowly deflated one by one.

The interviews with the many comedians he influenced were more than respectful. They were in awe of him.

Drew Carey’s retelling of his first “Tonight Show” appearance reduced him to very sincere tears.

Jerry Seinfeld said that if you were invited to sit with Carson–the King–you knew that right there and then your life had changed–you were a “made man.”

David Letterman spoke with such respect and honor that it rivaled a eulogy delivered at a wake about a father from a loving son.

But as the interviews ensued with his co-workers Ed McMahon and Doc Severenson, and even one of his ex-wives (Number 2), a portrait began to appear that was not so much less than flattering, but simply sad.

The man was endlessly private, trusted no one and lived in constant disappointment that his own mother thought little of his career or accomplishments.

His reclusive retirement seemed like a self-imposed exile as he floated around the Pacific in his 13-foot yacht reading, learning new languages and writing a few jokes now and then that he would fax to David Letterman.

One image they showed found him gazing out the transom of his boat, heavier, balding, solemn, a tight-lipped frown on his face.

Maybe I’m building more into it than was really there, but it looked to me like a man who was re-evaluating the choices of the last five or six decades and was coming up pretty empty.

Yeah, I know–how bad can you feel for a guy cruising around in an $11 million boat, right?

But it’s a bigger point than that. In fact, the rub lies in that very concept. How can a guy that’s accomplished all that and has retired in style have the nerve to be unhappy, unresolved, and seemingly unfulfilled?

They mention in the bio that his fourth marriage was more or less a treaty that they would spend most of their time apart, agree to disagree, and simply let sleeping dogs lie. He didn’t want to finish his fourth marriage with his fourth divorce.

So I think it’s safe to connect those dots. Failed marriages; broken relationships with his sons, one of whom died before Johnny ever had a chance to try harder to mend fences after retirement; a fair amount of business deals and business partners that went bad; and a complete detachment from the one thing he loved best, interacting with a live audience.

In 2005, Johnny Carson died. But now, as one of his most ardent fans, I am wondering if he ever really lived.

My dad had a friend at Ford Motor who worked there for 40 years lifting crankshafts; he started when he was 25 and finished when he was 65.

He and his wife were married right out of high school, and she made his lunch every morning and had his dinner on the table when he got home every night.

They raised two children, put them through college and now have three grandchildren.

The house they bought after his first year at Ford was paid off in 30 years and they still live in it to this day, as far as I know.

In retirement, they traveled, but not too far–Amish Country, cabins on a few of the Great Lakes. Mostly, they liked being home.

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