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According to his biography on the International Movie Database website, imdb.com, Ed McMahon got his start as an announcer at the age of 15, calling out letters and numbers at a bingo game in Maine.

Throughout his career McMahon gave off the air of a carnival barker, willing to shill for almost anything. This image was a bit unfair, but as he admitted in the interview that follows, even in the best job of his life — as second banana to Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" — he was loyal to and protective of sponsors.

He made 6,395 appearances on "The Tonight Show," but managed to do other things, as well, hosting parades, helping Jerry Lewis on the late comedian's annual Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy, hosting "Super Bloopers and Practical Jokes" (1984-86), making guest appearances in several prime time shows — sometimes as himself, sometimes as various characters — and occasionally taking on supporting roles in films ("The Incident," "Fun With Dick and Jane," "The Last Remake of Beau Geste").

When I met him he had been doing "The Tonight Show" with his good friend, Johnny Carson, for about a year, but was spending some time doing summer stock.

Akron Beacon Journal, August 18, 1963
One of the today's most frequently shown commercials shows a man coming home from a hard day’s work, and when he enters his house, his wife yells, “Hurry, honey, there’s a PTA meeting in 45 minutes,” and the husband shouts back, “Hey, Alice, you wanna knuckle sandwich? F’r crying out loud, I just got home; don’t rush me!”

And then the guy’s conscience butts in. “Clyde, grab ahold of yourself. You’re tense and irritable, but don’t take it out on Alice.”

Last week I saw a situation perfectly tailored for that commercial, but the guy involved did not explode. He was restless — with good reason — but managed to keep smiling through what probably was one of the longest, most apprehensive afternoons of his life.

THE MAN WAS Ed McMahon and the situation was a rehearsal for his appearance in the Kenley Players production of “Wildcat,” which closes today at Warren’s Packard Music Hall.

McMahon, whose importance on TV’s “Tonight Show” is becoming more and more apparent, arrived in Warren last Saturday, giving himself just three days to rehearse a new play (for him) with a cast he had never seen.

On top of that, he was waiting for a call from NBC to confirm one of his fondest dreams —a fall program of his own.

And in the midt of the hurry-up rehearsal and anticipation, McMahon found time to be an extrlemely pleasant interview subject. (Not once did he shout, “Don’t rush me!”)

McMAHON HAS COME a long way since last October 1 when he moved over from ABC with Johnny Carson to become second banana on “Tonight.”

NBC didn’t want McMahon, preferring instead to string along with Hugh Downs, the pseudo-scholar who did the commercials for Jack Paar when Paar was the “Tonight Show” host.

But Carson insisted on McMahon (1) because the two men had become close friends during several seasons on the daytime quiz show, “Who Do You Trust?”, and (2) because Carson considered McMahon better suited for the job than Downs.

The problem was solved when Downs moved to “The Today Show” and NBC gave in to Carson’s wishes.

“Even then it was on the basis of a 13-week contract, with options,” said McMahon. “I didn’t feel comfortable until the
network renewed me after the first 13 weeks.”

McMahon not only had to gain the network’s acceptance but, like Carson, had to gain public favor. McMahon admitted he and Carson were somewhat uneasy about the task of following the Paar-Downs routine.

“IT TOOK about four months for Johnny, Skitch Henderson and I to develop the necessary closeness with our audience. Those four months didn’t hurt, though. Not only did we hold our viewers, but later began to increase our audience,” McMahon declared.

“The comparisons between Paar and Carson have died. I rarely heard a comparison between myself and Downs; the lack of such comparisons was a pleasant surprise. ‘The Tonight Show’ is our show now, and the people on it belong to our family.”

The Carson-McMahon combination hasn’t attracted the headlines which spolighted the Paar era, but other yardsticks indicate “Tonight” is more popular than ever. These yardsticks — ratings, sponsor interest and fan mail — have given Carson and McMahon a tremendous vote of confidence.

“Recently Johnny criticized a commercial on the air,” said McMahon. “I thought to myself when he did it, ‘Now Johnny is in complete command of the program.’ ”

McMAHON CREDITS the show’s success to Carson’s personality.

“He’s all-American, just like that corny stuff about ma’s applie pie and baseball. He’s from the Midwest, which also is very American. He’s got an angelic face, but underneath he’s a mischievous little brat. Beyond that, Carson is unusually intelligent witty and honest. How can you beat that combination?”

McMahon’ role is that of a big brother. The six-foot-four-inch announcer is frequently the only thing between Carson and an embarrassing moment

So it was when a guest from England criticized the notion of instance iced tea only moments after McMahon did a commercial for such a product.

Carson hesitated to stop his guest, but McMahon applied the stifler. “Salada Tea wants to thank you Johnny, and your guest, for these comments on its first AND LAST night as a sponsor for this program.”

McMAHON KEEPS his ears tuned to possible conflicts. Thus when a guests begins a sentence, “I always fly on . . . ” McMahon is ready to interrupt with “Eastern Airlines.”

McMahon’s cool head prevailed on another occasion when guest Phil Foster lost control of a mock tirade.

“I forget the subject,” said McMahon, “but it was funny up to a point. Phil would spring to his feet, wave a fish and shout something to the audience, and they’d shout back, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ in agreement.

“Finally, when I thought it was getting out of hand, I tackled Phil and shouted, ‘It’s okay, Phil; everything will be all right.’

“He thanked me for it later. He said he couln’t think of a way to end the bit.”

McMAHON'S SELF-CONTROL and his increasing self-confidence on “Tonight” make him a logical choice to handle the program whenever Carson is on vacation. He did have the program for a week recently, but got the job be default. Bill Cullen was supposed to do it, but was forced to cancel because of a sponsor conflict. Arlene Francis got the call next, but backed off because of illness.

Only then did the assignment fall to McMahon, and NBC held its breath, but the announcer did a good job as host. The success was a surprise to everyone except McMahon’s friends and the folks in Philadelphia, who remember his local late night show which used the “Tonight Show” format long before Jack Paar made it famous.

NBC was delighted with the mail response to McMahon’s performance. “In all the letters,” he exclaimed, “there asn’t a single unfavorable comment.”

The network changed its evaluation of McMahon from “excess baggage” to “hot talent,” and is considering giving him the job of hosting a morning game show, “Missing Links,” which begins in September.

WHEN I MET HIM, McMahon was waiting for a call from the network. It didn’t come, and when our interview ended, he resumed rehearsing “Wildcat,” a musical that starred Lucille Ball on Broadway three years ago. McMahon is working with another redhead, Carmel Quinn.

He’s a person accustomed to working in stresslful situations. For seven year he commuted from a Philadelphia suburb to New York City. Finally, last month, he moved his wife and four children to Bronxville,, New York.

His workday runs from noon to 9:30 p.m.

“We hold our first meeting at noon to discuss the night’s show. Then Johnny and I rehearse our skits. We have another meeting at 6, then tape the show at 7:30 p.m.”

Somewhere during his day there is spare time, he said. Enough spare time to do a daytime game show. And if “Missing Links” falls through, he’ll look for another program. Obviously, the man enjoys being busy.

Despite the positive feedback after he was the guest host of "The Tonight Show" a few weeks before our interview, he was only asked to fill-in for Carson twice after that. When people talk about McMahon's biggest contribution to the show, the first thing usually mentioned is his introductory line, "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" which soon took on a life of its own.

He was a great audience for Carson's jokes, and also known for his loud, "Hi-ooooo!" that became almost as well-known as "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" It was spoofed on "The Larry Sanders Show" by Jeffrey Tambor who played Garry Shandling's sidekick, Hank Kingsley, who began every episode of the fictitious talk show by shouting, "Heeeeeey Nowww!"

McMahon and Carson were drinking pals, though it was McMahon's drinking that became fodder for a lot of jokes on "The Tonight Show." Later Carson and McMahon would claim there was only one program that McMahon did while under the influence, and a clip of that show was presented in at least one "Tonight Show" retrospective.

As for "Missing Links," the daytime game show mentioned during the interview, he did get that show, but kept it only briefly before Dick Clark took over as host and the program moved to a different network.

McMahon was married 61 years — but to three different women (Alyce Ferrill, (1945-76), Victoria Valentine (1976-89), and Pamela Hurn (1992-2009). He had four children by his first wife, one by his second wife.

During his third marriage McMahon had a series of financial problem, and reportedly was nearly broke when he died in 2009 in Los Angeles, at the age of 86.

 
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