Twenty-one years after the King of Late Night retired from NBC's "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson is back on television, thanks to Turner Classic Movies' new weekly series, "Carson on TCM," which premieres at 5 p.m. Monday.
TCM will air selected interviews this month featuring some of the biggest stars who appeared during Carson's 30 years behind the desk at "The Tonight Show." Most of these interviews have not been seen in their entirety since they originally aired.
Unabashed Carson fan Conan O'Brien, the host of TBS' late-night "Conan" series whose short-lived stint as the host of "The Tonight Show" ended in 2010, emcees the 25 interviews that will be shown. They include a debonair Fred Astaire in a 1979 chat, one of Henry Fonda's last TV interviews from 1980, a wild 1981 encounter with Robin Williams, and a flirtatious Elizabeth Taylor, who made her only appearance on the show in 1992.
The highlights of Monday's premiere episode feature Carson making 7-year-old Drew Barrymore feel so at home in a 1982 interview that she takes out her bridge to reveal her missing front teeth. Tough guy Kirk Douglas lets down his guard when Carson asks him about his affairs in a freewheeling 1988 interview.
Though there have been many successful late-night hosts since Carson's era — including Jay Leno, who took over the reins from Carson and will be relinquishing them next year to Jimmy Fallon — nobody has really duplicated the magic that made Carson, who died in 2005 at age 79, so special.
"The thing about Carson is that he had all the exemplary skills needed for a late-night host," said Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York City. "Everyone who has followed has skills, but they don't have every skill. Probably the most difficult skill is the ability to interview someone and be passionate about it and elicit responses you haven't heard before. Carson was a master of that."
Charlie Tabesh, TCM's senior vice president of programming, who grew up watching Carson, said that he's developed a mythical aura.
"Nobody could touch him," he said. "He was the only late-night game in town."
One of Tabesh's favorite interviews, airing July 15, is a 1975 visit with Ronald Reagan, who had just completed his two terms as governor of California.
"He's obviously a movie star — we feature him on TCM — but he doesn't talk about movies at all," said Tabesh. "He talks about politics. He's sort of laying his platform [for the presidency] out there. It's interesting to see that as a time capsule."
Peter Jones, who produced the 2012 "American Masters" documentary "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night," approached TCM about doing a series of extended Carson interviews.
"Johnny Carson was a big fan of TCM," Jones said.
"After watching so many of the interviews [for the documentary], I thought people needed to see Johnny doing what he did best," he said.
"What came out of Johnny Carson's mouth was truly a reaction to what he had just heard," Jones said. "He was absolutely in the moment with the person he was talking to. Over and over, people told me when I interviewed them they did forget about the camera, the audience of 500 and the audience of 15 million on TV when they were talking to this guy who made them feel so comfortable."
The series is a joint effort between Jones and Jeff Sotzing, Carson's nephew, who is the president of Carson Entertainment Group, which controls Carson's archive.
Carson, said Sotzing, never thought his legacy would endure.
"We used to talk about how we could preserve the library, and he told me once, 'Make guitar picks out of it. Nobody is going to watch it.' I said, 'No, they will.' "
After the series concludes, the interviews will be used as interstitial programming on the cable network. And next year, Tabesh promises, "we are going to premiere a new batch of 25."
"Carson on TCM" airs at 5 p.m. Mondays in July on TCM.