Johnny Carson, in three decades as host of "The Tonight Show," became one of America's most influential entertainers as well as one of television's most powerful figures.
Known for his deadpan expressions and wry delivery, Carson proved that late night could be profitable for the networks, and the wee hours are now crammed with talk shows inspired by his success on "The Tonight Show."
Carson kept growing his audience throughout the 1960s and '70s, even as NBC's competitors cooked up rival shows designed to end his dominance. But TV viewers developed a bond with Carson that others could neither duplicate nor shatter.
In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson, writer Kenneth Tynan observed that this was "a feat that, in its blend of staying power and mounting popularity, is without precedent in the history of television."
Virtually every figure of importance from show business and politics eventually wound up on "The Tonight Show," from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bill Clinton to Tom Cruise.
All told, Carson was host to 22,000 guests during his 30 years on "The Tonight Show."
The late-night host became an extraordinarily private figure after he retired, given the national stage he commanded for three decades. He seldom appeared in public and — other than a few cameos on David Letterman's late-night show and a tribute to Bob Hope — completely eschewed television after leaving "The Tonight Show" on May 22, 1992, with a retrospective that drew an audience that rivaled ratings for the Super Bowl.