Known as the ‘King of Late Night’, Johnny Carson helped to establish the late-night chat show format as we know it, and ran as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ for 30 years. The beloved host passed away in 2005, but who did he leave his money to?
On his death, Johnny Carson’s fortune was divided between his widow, Alexis Maas, and his two surviving sons, Cory and Chris. The entertainer also left a large amount of money to various charities, the biggest donation of $156 million going to The Johnny Carson Foundation, which he established years before his death.
Read on to learn more about the entertainer himself, and his philanthropic contributions.
The ‘King of Late Night’
The show business legend and household name delighted viewers across America with his late night antics and timeless skits.
He had graduated from the University of Nebraska with a degree in speech and radio in 1949, before beginning his intended career in radio presenting.
As the television business emerged however, he crossed over into the medium and after hosting several game and talk shows, landed firmly on his feet as the host of NBC’s ‘Tonight’.
He became a firm fixture on the nation’s screens, reigning as the host of ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ from 1962 to 1992.
On Carson’s death David Letterman said “I don’t know of a person in comedy or television who didn’t sort of grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model”, such was his influence.
Watch one of the entertainer’s most iconic interviews with Joan Rivers, in the YouTube video below.
Carson’s career was paramount and seemed to take priority over his family life, in many ways. His biographer and lawyer said of Carson’s relationships with his sons, “all of Johnny’s kids suffered because of his devotion to his career”, adding “maybe that was his first love”.
Carson said himself in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1979 that over time he’s been able to understand what’s important to him, adding “to me my work is important”.
Carson struggled to find love away from the TV studio, and found himself in and out of relationships, married four times. He had three sons with his first wife, Jody Wolcott, but the relationship would end in divorce in 1963.
His subsequent two marriages, first to Joanne Copeland and then to Joanna Holland, ended in a similar fashion and one of his friends reportedly told People Magazine in 1983, “he can communicate with millions, but not one-on-one. He’s the loneliest man I’ve ever known, nobody can get through the wall”.
His final marriage to socialite Alexis Maas in 1987, would endure until his death and she would become heiress to much of his fortune, along with his sons, Christopher and Cory. His middle son, Richard, had died in a tragic accident in 1991, when his car plunged off a cliff.
The Johnny Carson Foundation
Carson established his trust in 1981, with the primary intention of supporting “children, education and health services” in the Los Angeles area and Nebraska.
Whilst Carson made numerous private donations in his lifetime, alongside annual contributions to the foundation, the massive fortune he left to the foundation was revealed in 2010 to be $156.5 million.
The foundation has also continually supported Carson’s alma mater, and the University renamed their theatre department to the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film in 2005.
As The Smoking Gun reported, there’s no way of knowing what percentage the sizable donation represented of Carson’s estate, as there was never a public accounting. Regardless, his bequest was a huge and final act of philanthropy.