Henry Bushkin gives us a sneak peek into life as funny man Johnny Carson’s confidante in his new book, A Hard Act to Follow. Get a sneak peek into the Johnny Carson that few people knew with these excerpts. Get more detailed book information here.
A big part of every day continued to be devoted to my number one client. His show taped at 5:30 in the afternoon and he didn’t go to the office until around 2 p,m. He had lots of time to kill, and I made sure to swing by and spend at least an hour with him every day. Sometimes that meant sunning ourselves by his kidney-shaped pool, but more often it meant hitting the courts at the Bel Air Country Club, at least until his home court was built. Later I often met Johnny at the studio after the program. He and his producers critiqued every show immediately after completion. There were days when everything was perfect, and there were days that nothing worked. The skit sucked, the comedian flopped, and the sound went bad for ZZ Top. Fred de Cordova was the master of blowing smoke up Carson’s ass. Bobby Quinn and Peter Lassally were far more accurate in the observations. But Johnny always knew if the show worked. He always knew.
I never said anything, and that’s why people tolerated my presence. I never tried to use my relationship with Johnny to undermine anyone at the program or force a role for myself in a place I didn’t belong. People knew that I had only one interest and that was Johnny’s well-being, and for that reason, I was treated warmly, like a friend of the family.
Johnny, meanwhile, seemed impatient, as if he had somewhere else to be. He lit one cigarette after another, exhaling smoke that drifted up to merge with the floating haze. He looked at me as though he found my presence a distraction, and I became increasingly uncomfortable. Both men were drinking. Sonny nursed a Scotch while Johnny sipped red wine. I neither drank nor smoked, which added to my growing discomfort. Finally, out of desperation to fit in, I asked Johnny for a cigarette. He smiled, and I felt an immediate vibe, a relaxation. Just like that, I had passed some invisible test and was now more acceptable.“I started smoking in 1939,” he said without emotion, the first remark he’d made since I’d arrived that was directed at me.
“Yes?” I didn’t mean for it to sound like a question, but it did.
“I have no plans to quit smoking. I can’t quit. What’s more, I don’t want to quit, and I don’t want people around me telling me I should quit.” I hadn’t had the slightest inclination to say anything to him about smoking, but I wasn’t about to argue. Then, happy to have made that point, he changed the subject.“Henry,’’ he said, finally arriving on the purpose of our meeting, ‘‘I have reason to believe my wife is cheating on me. I also have an idea who the son of a bitch is that she’s shacking up with.” No wonder he had been restless—he’d been sitting on a bombshell!
Johnny Carson, his famously puckish face obscured by sunglasses and disguised by distress, led a squad of men with downturned mouths and upturned collars through a rain-swept Manhattan evening. Carson strode purposefully, and his four followers hurried behind, dodging taxis and umbrellas and jumping puddles to keep pace. Their destination: a modest high-rise in the East Forties near First Avenue. Their mission: a dubious if not downright illegal cloak- and-dagger caper to enter an apartment to which they had no title, let alone keys. Their identities: Joe Mullen, a licensed New York private eye, straight out of Mickey Spillane, serious and capable; Mario Irizarry, his tall, gaunt aide-de-camp, adept at lock picking and as conversational as a clam; and Arthur Kassel, my best friend. A security ex- pert/crime photographer/police groupie with slightly grandiose ambitions, Arthur had made it his business over the years to befriend important people, and about a year earlier, at a police benefit, Arthur made friends with the event’s emcee, the host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson.
And then there was me, the last in line, the one who was hustling hardest to keep up, the one beset by worries—worried that I’d fall behind, worried that I’d collapse, worried that five hustling men in Manhattan who didn’t resemble the Knicks would draw the attention of the police. But everybody on the sidewalks had their heads down, and we didn’t stand out more than the average bustling New Yorker.
Sucking wind, I was glad when we finally reached our destination, although as we stood in the lobby, shaking the rain off our London Fogs, I began to feel a sense of panic taking hold.What was I doing here? I was a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School! I had sworn an oath to uphold the law, not violate it, and breaking and entering in the state of New York is a felony. As if sensing my panic, Johnny looked over at me. “Don’t worry kid,” he said reassuringly. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. Trust me.”
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