I remember watching “The Tonight Show” when I was in grade school. I didn’t get much out of the show at the time because I was too young to understand the jokes, but I knew Johnny Carson was already a well-known TV personality. And he continued to be the host for a whopping 30 years.
This biography of Carson is written by Henry Bushkin, who became his lawyer in 1970, eight years after his version of “The Tonight Show” premiered. The program was already a big hit, and Carson was being paid quite handsomely for each show. But he didn’t have much money or assets to his name at the time because his previous lawyer and money manager, Sonny Werblin, was pocketing most of his money himself, leaving the star with very little to show for all his hard work.
When Bushkin came on the scene, he was appalled to see how badly Carson was being treated by Werblin and the terrible shape his finances were in. Werblin was fired, and Bushkin used his legal expertise to help Carson get his finances back in order. From then on, and for the next 18 years, Bushkin was the man who helped Carson turn his fame into a real fortune. During their time together, they teamed up to form Carson Productions, made other investments, and spent a great deal of time in each other’s company.
"This biography is unlike any I’ve ever read before.... very well-written, and Bushkin doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the full story."
Bushkin paints Carson as a man of great wealth, talent and generosity, who had a quick temper and was prone to bouts of surliness. Carson grew up with a mother who was unable to show him any love and a father who let his wife trample all over him. He was married four times yet was never really happy with any of his marriages. He liked to “be married” but was unable to make the emotional commitment that was necessary to sustain a lasting relationship. His many affairs and dalliances are testimony to that fact.
When Bushkin met Carson, Bushkin was an associate in the law firm of Beldock and Kushnick. Shortly after Carson hired him as his attorney, Bushkin started his own law firm. Carson told him that he could have other clients, but that he, Carson, must always be his “number one” client. Both took that seriously, with Carson expecting Bushkin to drop everything at a moment’s notice and Bushkin complying. While this earned Bushkin millions in fees and profits from deals with Carson, it also cost him his marriage and his self-esteem, as he allowed himself to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of Carson’s world.
Bushkin gives the reader a lot of inside information about the life and character of Carson. His narrative basically starts when the two were introduced and, for the most part, ends when they parted company. However, since their relationship ended on a sour note, Bushkin uses a few extra pages to explain the circumstances of that split and the actions that followed, as well as adding a bit about Carson’s subsequent years in show biz and his death in 2005.
This biography is unlike any I’ve ever read before. It’s more the story of Bushkin and Carson, not just of Carson himself. It easily could be called “My Life with Johnny Carson” or “Johnny and Me.” Still, the book is very well-written, and Bushkin doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the full story.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on October 25, 2013