How Back-to-Back Deaths Shook up Johnny Carson’s Plan for Retirement

After Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show in 1991, the host suffered two major losses which some believed would encourage him into early retirement. What made some spectators think the host would bow out before his scheduled date of departure?

Johnny Carson on 'The Tonight Show'
Johnny Carson | Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank

Johnny Carson announced his retirement from ‘The Tonight Show’ in May 1991

In May 1991, Carson announced the rumors were true and he was indeed leaving the desk at The Tonight Show. The icon was the staple of the show with co-host Ed McMahon since 1962. But when he signed his one-year contract in 1991, he told his audiences it would be his last.

In Carson’s monologue, he joked Jay Leno was eager to replace him, as reported by The Washington Post. “Jay’s a good friend. I like Jay Leno, and as a matter of fact, he is very concerned for my health. In fact, he suggested that I jog through Central Park about midnight tonight.”

Though Carson announced his retirement in joking spirits, he faced two big losses a little more than a month later. And some spectators guessed Leno would be taking over early.

Johnny Carson’s friend Michael Landon died in the week after his son Rick Carson died, both in the months after Carson announced his 1-year retirement plan

About a month after Carson announced his last year on The Tonight Show, his son, Richard “Rick” Carson, died at 39 when his vehicle went over an embankment in California. According to AP, something seemed to distract him, and some guessed it was his eye for photography.

″It appears as though he was taking photographs. There was camera equipment alongside the road,″ an officer said at the time. ″It appears his attention was just diverted. He wasn’t traveling at a high rate of speed or carelessly.″

In July 1991, only ten days after the death of one of Carson’s three sons, his friend Michael Landon also died. The Little House on the Prairie star appeared on The Tonight Show weeks before and spoke about having terminal cancer.

Some anticipated Carson would end his run earlier than he anticipated following the two deaths, but he was back on the late shift by the end of July.

Johnny Carson returned to ‘The Tonight Show’ until May 22, 1992

In July 1991, Carson returned to his desk at The Tonight Show to complete his time as planned. But he didn’t hide his pain from the audience. He started by thanking them for their compassion and thoughtful letters.

“I’m going to show you a picture of Rick,” he told them per Buffalo News, “because the picture in papers after the accident was the one on his driver’s license. I don’t think any of you would want to be remembered by the photo on your driver’s license.”

“A week later Michael Landon was dead. These have not been the most happy several weeks,” the generous host added. Despite the losses, Carson remained until May 22, 1992, when he tucked American late-night T.V. watchers in for his last time.

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