Ed McMahon, the greatest second banana in show biz history, died Tuesday morning in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 86.
A big, convivial man known for his booming laugh, a sort of yodel ("Hi-YOOO"), and the most famous two words in television history - "Heeeeere's Johnny!" - he spent the last months of his life a visible symbol of a collapsed economy and the housing crisis that precipitated it.
- PHOTOS: Ed McMahon through the years
After the bank foreclosed on his $4.8-million mansion in Beverly Hills, McMahon did what he always did - he turned pitchman. Among other things, he rapped for a dot-com credit service's commercial: "I had money and glory / I bought a house for 6 mill / I thought nothing could touch me / Until my credit went south, and debt started to crunch me / Next thing I know, instead of playing gin rummy, / I was scrambling just to make ends meet / It wasn't funny."
Not funny at all, but this bit job at a perilous moment was also vintage McMahon. Over a long and particularly resourceful Hollywood career, there were many other credits, including commercials (American Family Publishers sweepstakes and Budweiser beer) and the host of "Star Search."
They also came about because of McMahon's ties to just one man. Johnny Carson defined Ed McMahon and returning the favor, McMahon helped to define Johnny too, starting on "The Tonight Show" in 1962 and ending 30 years later. Carson's quips always seemed brighter, lighter and sharper when accompanied by McMahon's booming laugh.
Sometimes McMahon was just the voice off-screen - friendly, without guile - who fed fat straight lines to Carson, who whacked them whenever and wherever he chose.
Simply put, Carson was the greatest performer in TV history thanks in some measure to McMahon. He softened his boss' edge, adding warmth when Carson exuded cool. He wasn't (of course) a naturally funny man, but he was the perfect foil to a naturally funny man.
"He was a star in his own right. Being a sidekick didn't mean he was any less," Doc Severinsen, "Tonight" band leader during some of the Carson years, told CNN Radio. "Johnny defined what the host should be and Ed defined what the sidekick was."
In a statement, David Letterman said, "Ed McMahon's voice at 11:30 was a signal that something great was about to happen. Ed's introduction of Johnny was a classic broadcasting ritual - reassuring and exciting."
Carson, who could be notoriously short with associates or colleagues whom he determined were faithless, rewarded McMahon with his friendship until the day he died. McMahon reciprocated. He was Carson's ambassador and loudest cheerleader. What made his cheering both welcome and charming was that it was, in fact, sincere. He even wrote a book on Carson - uncritical, with no secrets revealed - and told Bob Costas during a CNN interview, "everywhere I go I'm signing the book, it's 'you and Johnny, Johnny and you!' People stop me in airports and it's not just the celebrity thing. They just want to tell me how much they loved Johnny Carson."
Born Edward Peter Leo McMahon in Detroit, he was raised in Massachusetts, studied drama at Boston College and the Catholic University and - if his next career steps were any indication - promptly discarded all that he had learned. He was a carnival barker, and bingo caller, later flew missions - many of them - for the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II and Korea. In the late 1950s, ABC dumped Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and replaced them with Carson and McMahon. Carson made jokes. McMahon laughed at them.
When Carson took over "Tonight" in 1962, McMahon tagged along. For both men, it was the longest professional - and in some respects, longest personal - association of their lives. A television treasure was the result.
"Ed McMahon was a friend from the day I first walked on a stage on the Johnny Carson show and sat down between Johnny and Ed," said Don Rickles Tuesday. "That kind of fun will never be repeated. Ed was the best at what he did and will never be replaced. Another giant is gone."
McMahon is survived by his wife, Pam, and Claudia, Katherine, Linda, Jeffrey and Lex.
No funeral arrangements have been made.
- Click here to see photos of Ed McMahon through the years
- An inside look at Ed McMahon's mansion
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