Tag Archives: The Tonight Show

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINZE

29 Jan

NBC publicity photo of Freddie Prinze, circa 1975.

34 years ago today, on Saturday, January 29, 1977 actor, comedian Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The young star of NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was just 22 years old.

The death certificate of Freddie Prinze.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way… or this soon. Three and a half years earlier Freddie Prinze was an unknown teenager working the comedy clubs of New York City. Then came an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Producer James Komack was watching that night and asked Prinze to audition for a new sit-com called “Chico and the Man.”

Script for “Chico and the Man” episode that was taped on January 21, 1975. Once Prinze was cast as mechanic Chico Rodriguez he became a star – even before a single episode had been broadcast. Freddie Prinze moved to Los Angeles and, with veteran actor Jack Albertson, made “Chico and the ManNBC’s newest hit. The show premiered on Friday, September 13, 1974.

Freddie’s first L.A. apartment was in this building on N. Laurel Ave. Photo taken in 1989.

Over the next few years, as Freddie Prinze grew in popularity, he recorded a comedy album, starred in a TV movie, headlined in Las Vegas, and guest hosted “The Tonight Show.” But Prinze had a drug problem… and his marriage was on the rocks. In fact, as January 1977 rolled around Prinze was living apart from his wife at the Beverly Comstock Hotel.

Freddie’s last apartment was at the Beverly Comstock Hotel, where he shot himself. Photo taken in June 1979.

On January 20th Prinze performed at the Inaugural Gala for new President Jimmy Carter, but a week later his world came crashing down. While under the influence of narcotics and reportedly despondent, Freddie Prinze shot himself in the head on January 28, 1977 at 3:30am. He was taken to the UCLA Medical Center where he lingered for more than 33 hours.

At 1:00pm on Saturday, January 29, 1977 Freddie Prinze died from his injuries. He was 22 years old.

Freddie is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

Freddie Prinze’s death was ruled a suicide. Several years later his mother, Maria Pruetzel, went to court to argue that Prinze was not responsible for his actions due to the influence of narcotics. She was honest in admitting that part of her reason for doing so was that she needed the money from his life insurance policy. Prinze’s death was ruled accidental and Pruetzel was able to collect the money.

This writer paying his respects to Freddie Prinze in 1989.

From the day of Prinze’s first “Tonight Show” appearance to the day he died just 3 years and 2 months had passed. But, in that short time, the talented, lovable actor and comedian entertained us and, when he left us, millions grieved for him and pledged to remember him always. Freddie Prinze was just 22 years old.

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GOOD NIGHT JOHNNY!

23 Jan

6 years ago today, on Sunday, January 23, 2005 Johnny Carson, the “King of Late Night” died of complications from emphysema. He was 79. But before he died, Johnny Carson put his stamp on “The Tonight Show” and the television industry.

Early publicity photo of Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show”

Carson was born to Homer and Ruth Carson on October 23, 1925 in Corning, Iowa.  After several moves to other towns in Iowa, the Carsons settled in Norfolk, Nebraska, where Johnny grew up idolizing comedian Jack Benny. It’s also where 14-year old Johnny Carson started performing as a magician; The Great Carsoni.

Johnny Carson in the U.S. Navy.

Carson served in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania during World War II. After the war Carson attended the University of Nebraska and began working on WOW radio in Omaha. By 1950 he had moved to Los Angeles and on to television, eventually getting hired as a writer for Red Skelton.

Red Skelton with one of his writers, Johnny Carson.

One night, during rehearsal for the show, Skelton was injured and they asked Carson to fill in for the star. In one of those “only in Hollywood” stories Johnny Carson shined and started moving up in the world of TV.

Tickets to see "Do You Trust Your Wife?" and “Who Do You Trust?”

After several other programs, Carson seemed to hit it big in 1957 as the host of the ABC game show “Do You Trust Your Wife?” (later called “Who Do You Trust?”) That’s also where he was first partnered with announcer Ed McMahon. But the big time really came 5 years later when Carson replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Jack Paar as host of NBC’s “Tonight.”

A photo personally autographed to this writer by Johnny Carson in the 1970s.

Johnny Carson began his run as host of “The Tonight Show” on October 1, 1962 and didn’t leave until May 22, 1992… almost 30 full years. He turned himself into a superstar and “The Tonight Show” into an institution.

Front gate at the Beverly Hills home Johnny shared with his third wife Joanna. Photo taken in June 1979.

Once Carson left “The Tonight Show” in 1992 he pretty much retired from public life. He died on this date in 2005 after suffering from emphysema.

MERV TO SAJAK TO LETTERMAN

9 Jan

22 years ago, on Monday, January 9, 1989 Pat Sajak’s self-titled late night talk show premiered on CBS. It was yet another try by the network to put a dent into Johnny Carson’s ratings.

Billboard in Los Angeles promoting "The Pat Sajak Show" circa 1989.

The Pat Sajak Show” was a traditional late night talk show with bandleader Tom Scott and announcer/sidekick Dan Miller, who Sajak had worked with on news broadcasts in Memphis in the 1970s.

Besides competition from “The King of Late Night,” Johnny Carson, Sajak also had to contend with Arsenio Hall, whose own late night talk show had debuted just six days earlier. With Carson holding on to his older, loyal audience and Hall pulling in a younger, hipper audience, there just weren’t enough viewers tuning in to Sajak.

The Pat Sajak Show” ran for only 15 months and went off the air in April 1990.

IT’S A LATE NIGHT DAY

9 Jan

16 years ago tonight, on Monday, January 9, 1995 “The Late Late Show” with host Tom Snyder premiered after David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS’s late night lineup.  It would make Snyder the first and only person ever to follow both Johnny Carson and David Letterman on the late night schedule.               

1970s bumper sticker for "Tomorrow" (Between Tonight and Today).

Tom Snyder previously hosted “Tomorrow” (aka “The Tomorrow Show”) on NBC from October 1973 until January 1982. It aired right after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Both “Tomorrow” and Snyder’s version of “The Late Late Show” were unlike today’s post-11:30 talk shows. They had no audience and no band.  They were talk shows, with the emphasis on TALK, although “Tomorrow” expanded its format in its later years. But let’s not talk about that disaster.

Tomorrow” went off the air in 1982 partly to make room for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Perhaps that’s why Letterman selected Snyder to host the new program slated to run after his “Late Show” in 1995. “The Late Late Show” was, and still is, produced by Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants.

Snyder would host “The Late Late Show” until March 1999, when he was replaced by Craig Kilborn. Kilborn left the show in August 2004 and current host Craig Ferguson took over in January 2005.

CBS must have picked January 8th to premiere “The Late Late Show” because the network had had such good luck with the date 6 years earlier. That was when “The Pat Sajak Show” hit TV screens across America.

I, TINY TIM, TAKE THEE, MISS VICKI

17 Dec

41 years ago tonight on Wednesday, December 17, 1969 an unprecedented spectacle took place on television when novelty singer Tiny Tim married his teenage bride, Miss Vicki (Victoria Budinger), during a telecast of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

The show was taped at 6:30pm in New York City and broadcast in “The Tonight Show’s” regular 11:30pm timeslot. The non-denominational ceremony was performed by the Reverend William Glenesk of Spencer Memorial Church in Brooklyn Heights. Tiny Tim’s manager, Joseph Cappelluzzo, was the best man. The bride’s sister, Mrs. Gene Bramlett was Matron of Honor.

According to the December 29, 1969 issue of VARIETY, that episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” scored a 39.4 rating and an 84 share in New York City. Nationwide nearly 40-million people tuned in to see the “wedding of the century decade year.”

The marriage would produce a daughter, Tulip, now 39, but the couple split in 1972, and finally divorced in 1977. Tiny Tim died in November 1996. Miss Vicki now lives a simpler life in Tennessee, which you can follow on her blog; missvickinow.blogspot.com.

THE PRINZE OF COMEDY

6 Dec

37 years ago tonight, on Thursday, December 6, 1973 Freddie Prinze became a star.

Freddie Prinze with Johnny Carson on a later "Tonight Show" appearance, circa 1975.

That was the night the young comedian made his first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Throughout Carson’s 30 year reign, stand-up comedians vied for a coveted spot on “Tonight” because one good performance could literally give you a career. And while Carson rarely invited a new comedian to sit down after their first appearance, a simple “OK” sign from the “King of Late Night” was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Publicity photo of Freddie Prinze sent to fans of "Chico and the Man"

On December 6, 1973 Sammy Davis Jr. was seated to Johnny’s right as 19-year old Freddie Prinze came on stage for the most important performance of his life. While the audience loved him, and Carson was impressed, some say it was Davis’s fawning over the comic that prompted Johnny to wave Freddie over to the chair.

Publicity photo of Freddie Prinze sent to fans, circa 1974.

While better gigs and more money did follow for Prinze, it was more important that producer James Komack, was watching “The Tonight Show” that night.  Komack was in the process of creating the sit-com “Chico and the Man” and that confluence of circumstances would change Prinze’s life. Nine months after that fateful “Tonight Show” appearance “Chico and the Man” starring Freddie Prinze and veteran actor Jack Albertson premiered on NBC.

Letter to fans that accompanied the previous photos.

And so, a good performance on “The Tonight Show” literally gave Prinze a career. I don’t mean to suggest that he didn’t earn it; rather I’m trying to emphasize the power of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” especially in the 1970s.

Autograph sign by Freddie Prinze on September 27, 1974, after a taping of "The $25,000 Pyramid"

Freddie Prinze became a sit-com star, a Vegas headliner, and a guest host on “The Tonight Show.” He recorded a comedy album and starred in a TV movie. Prinze also had a drug problem. And in January 1977 Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. 

Publicity photo of Prinze in "Chico and the Man" that was sent to NBC stations.

Few know that Prinze was not making his network debut that December evening. Months earlier he had performed on Jack Paar’s late night show on ABC without much notice. But it was “The Tonight Show” that mattered and Prinze would always refer to his December 6, 1973 appearance as his TV debut. Sadly, viewers only got to enjoy Freddie Prinze for a little more than 3 years before his career and his life came to a tragic end.

But that story, dear friends, is best saved for another date in TV history.

MEETING CONAN, 1988

4 Nov

Closeup of Conan from the Happy Happy Good Show, 1988

I first met Conan O’Brien and saw him perform in the summer of 1988 in Chicago. He was in town to do a sketch comedy show with my old college friend, Robert Smigel and several other former members of the local improv group All You Can Eat. With the Writer’s Guild on strike at the time, Smigel combined part of his old improv group with fellow SNL writers, Conan O’Brien and Bob Odenkirk to create the Happy Happy Good Show

Program from the Happy Happy Good Show (including Conan O'Brien), 1988

In the program for the show (above), which was performed at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Studio Theater, you’ll see a photo of the cast with an arrow pointing to Conan.

 Inside the program (below) you can read Conan’s bio, in which he refers to his rich uncle Conius C. Coneworthy, and the bios of Bob Odenkirk and Robert Smigel which are also highlighted by arrows. In addition to this trio of now well-known performers, several others in the cast have continued their careers in entertainment. Dave Reynolds, in fact, went on to co-write the classic Disney film “Finding Nemo.” 

The inside of the program from the Happy Happy Good Show, 1988

In a review of the show that appeared in the July 15, 1988 edition of “The Reader,” a Chicago alternative weekly newspaper, critic Tom Valeo wrote, “If any television executives see Happy Happy Good Show, they may decide to let the writers’ strike go on forever.” He also declared the show “remarkably unfunny” and said “almost nothing works.” On the bright side Valeo does call the performances “pretty skillful.” And in referring to one sketch with Conan and Bob Odenkirk, the critic says they are “wonderfully manic as ‘bithespians’ who team up to give a single performance.” 

Conan fans may remember that this was the summer Conan famously roomed with another unknown comedian named Jeff Garlin, now on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” On another occasion I will describe my 1987 encounters with Garlin and perhaps show a clip of the standup video I hired him to host that year.

NBC bio given out at the Press Conference introducing Conan O'Brien to the media, May 3, 1993.

 When he was selected to host “Late Night” in 1993 Conan O’Brien was best known as a writer and not a performer, so NBC included his Happy Happy Good Show experience in his official bio (see above). Months before his version of “Late Night” premiered I showed Conan the old program from Happy Happy Good Show and he was excited to see it. Apparently he never saved a copy for himself. So if he still wants one… he knows where to find me.

All items are from the collection of Paul Messina. ©Paul Messina

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