TCM is re-running classic movie-star-interview segments from "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" on Monday nights this month. Last night's guest list included Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase. Several things struck me as I watched them.
Unlike today's late night hosts, Carson wasn't in a hurry to get his guests to tell some story they'd prepared in a pre-interview with one of his producers. While he was happy to help them plug their book or movie, he made it a conversation rather than a promotional setup. Carson talked to Doris Day about porn and her virginal image, to Charlton Heston about working with Cecil B. DeMille on "The Ten Commandments," to Tony Curtis about fathering six kids with three wives, and to Steve Martin about each of them starting out as a magician. In each instance, Carson took his time, giving the show a pace remarkably different than anything on TV today, where nothing unplanned ever occurs.
Carson and Chase had an interesting history. During their conversation that night in 1986, Carson mentioned that Chase had recently filled in for him as a guest host and asked how it went. Chase said it was one of the hardest things he'd ever done, and laughed in remembering that there was time when lots of people had predicted he'd take over "The Tonight Show" from Carson.
That was in 1976, when Chase had exploded in TV popularity on the first season of "Saturday Night Live," then left the show to pursue a movie career. At the time, amid all the speculation, an interviewer asked Chase if he wanted Carson's job, and Chase reportedly answered something to the effect that he'd be bored sitting there every night telling jokes and interviewing dumb starlets, implying that the job was below his talent level. The reply from Carson (who was not a big fan of "SNL") was "Chevy Chase couldn't ad lib a fart at a baked bean dinner."
It took several years and an apology from Chase before Carson allowed him onto "The Tonight Show" to promote his movies. By the time he showed up to promote "The Three Amigos," Chevy and Johnny had become friends, and it led to an extraordinary "Tonight Show" segment.
By "extraordinary," I don't mean it was great, though it was. I mean it was out of the ordinary, in that the guests who followed Chase were movie reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Carson began their segment by asking them what they thought of Chase's movies -- while Chase was sitting next to them on the couch. As Conan O'Brien (who introduces each Carson segment on TCM) pointed out last night:
Something like this would never happen on television today. No publicist would allow a major movie star to share the couch with two notoriously tough movie critics. This segment traces its direct lineage to early Christians being fed to the lions.
I remember watching that night in 1986. It was both hilarious and uncomfortable to see Siskel and Ebert first praise Chase for "Fletch" and "Vacation" and then lambaste him for "Three Amigos" -- Chevy sat there and took it while Gene and Roger didn't hold back in their contempt for the movie. After several minutes Carson, while obviously enjoying the moment, realized how awkward it was and lightened the mood with a simple suggestion...
Extraordinary indeed, considering the back story, and when you consider how right Siskel and Ebert were about "The Three Amigos" -- and how Chase's movie career suffered from that point on, with nothing but lame sequels and bad ideas for the next 20+ years.
Heads-up: next Monday (7/15), TCM will air Carson interviews with Robin Williams in 1981 and Robin's hero Jonathan Winters in 1988.