Johnny Carson Once Interrupted Frank Sinatra’s ‘Religious Experience’ to Curse at Him

Television icon Ed McMahon co-hosted The Tonight Show alongside Johnny Carson for three decades, and they shared memories with some of Hollywood’s most recognizable celebrities, like icon Frank Sinatra. McMahon recalled how Carson “burned” his courage into his memory when he interrupted Sinatra’s “religious experience” to curse at him. But who else was brave enough to butt in on Sinatra in an important moment?

Frank Sinatra in a windbreaker and standing beside Johnny Carson, whose in a plaid jacket and holding a microphone.
(l-r) Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson | Gary Fine

Ed McMahon: Frank Sinatra’s appearance was a ‘religious experience’

In McMahon’s 2005 book, Here’s Johnny, he recalled how he and Carson ended up “in the piano bar of a Manhattan restaurant called Jilly’s.”

It was a night early in their run on The Tonight Show, which began in 1962. To set the scene, McMahon and Carson were preparing for a “two-man jam session of voice and drums” after “basking in the glow of vodka sours.”

However, their impending performance was interrupted when Sinatra arrived.

“Suddenly, Frank Sinatra came in and the congregation fell silent, for Sinatra’s appearance in Jilly’s was a religious experience,” McMahon noted. He described how onlookers watched as the awe-inspiring singer moved by them, and “no one would dare to speak unless he spoke first.”

That is, no one but Carson, whose voice soon carried through the restaurant. “Dammit Frank,” he said, interrupting the supposedly sacred silence. “I told you ten thirty.”

Don Rickles interrupted Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra on ‘The Tonight Show’

Though Sinatra momentarily interrupted Carson’s time in the spotlight in Jilly’s that night, someone else interrupted them both when he stopped by The Tonight Show for an interview. In a clip now available on YouTube, they were surprised by comedian and Toy Story voice actor, Don Rickles, who said he was in the hallway and couldn’t resist the chance to join them.

According to Rickles, Carson spent years asking him if he was really friends with Sinatra. Perhaps to prove their bond to the host, he looked in the singer’s eyes, showered with him adoration, called him a “powerhouse,” and then closed it all with kisses.

But Sinatra revealed it wasn’t the first time Rickles had made an unexpected appearance while he was out and about. He shared a story about seeing the comedian at a restaurant where he approached to ask a favor.

Like Carson, his date didn’t believe that he knew Sinatra and he was hoping his famous friend would stop by the table to say hello. So, the icon agreed and eventually made his way over to where Rickles sat. When he greeted him, the comedian replied, “Can’t you see I’m eating, Frank?”

Johnny Carson interrupted Don Rickles on set

Sinatra interrupted Carson’s barroom performance and Rickles interrupted Sinatra’s Tonight Show interview. But Carson also stormed onto the set of Rickles’ show while recording to confront him.

In another Tonight Show clip on YouTube, Carson noticed his old cigarette box was broken. “What the hell happened to this?” he asked. “Do you know how long I’ve had this cigarette box on this desk?”

Once the long-running host was made aware that Rickles had broken the box the night before and was also taping C.P.O. Sharkey across the hall, he moved the show for a hilarious confrontation.

“Stop the taping,” Carson shouted as he walked onto the other set. “Somebody broke my cigarette box.”

He explained to Rickles exactly why he was there: “I just started the show. I picked my box up off my desk that I’ve had [there] for nine years. My box is broken. They told me you broke it on the show last night.”

Rickles promised Carson he’d come up with something to make it up him before introducing him to the audience.

“They know who I am!” Carson shouted after effectively stealing the scene. So, Carson wasn’t the only star with courage enough to interrupt Sinatra, and Sinatra wasn’t the only star he had enough courage to interrupt.

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