UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — It's a measure of what a TV giant Johnny Carson was that his death was greeted like the loss of a family member by people whose job it is to cover television.

As the news spread Sunday morning among members of the Television Critics Association — gathered here for the semiannual press tour — some reacted with audible gasps. All reacted with the kind of respect and admiration seldom seen directed toward anyone from a group of cynical journalists whose job it is to criticize television.

Frankly, there aren't many left among us who had actually interviewed Carson. He retired almost 13 years ago, and he didn't do interviews the last few years he reigned over "The Tonight Show."

He didn't have to. After almost three decades on the job, he was a legend before he retired. When I was a kid, I never thought of it as "Tonight." It was always just "Johnny Carson."

Friends who did have a chance to interview Carson back in the '80s recall him as a courteous, engaging man who never displayed the ego that might have accompanied his huge success. And his success was so big for so long that everyone seemed to take it for granted.

While it might come as a shock to younger generations, for three decades there were no late-night wars. You couldn't even call them skirmishes when the likes of Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall and Pat Sajak hosted competing programs.

There aren't many personalities who would be welcome in millions of American homes for nearly 30 years. There aren't many stars who shine brightly for that many years, period.

But Carson was unique — a genuinely funny man who was at his best when he was trying to work his way out of a joke that fell flat or a comedy sketch that wasn't so comical. A great interviewer who wasn't afraid to let his guests take center stage.

He also wasn't afraid to leave the bright lights behind. After his retirement in 1992, he was rarely seen in public and almost never on television, with the exception of receiving a much-deserved Kennedy Center Honor in 1993 and a couple of brief visits to David Letterman's late-night talk show.

Unlike so many stars who try to remain in the spotlight long after their careers are over, Carson said goodbye and never looked back — an exit as classy as was his career.

It's a measure of the shadow that he continued to cast over late-night television that it was big news here a few days ago when his former executive producer, Peter Lassally, revealed that Carson sometimes sent jokes Letterman's way and got a "big kick" out of it when the "Late Show" host used that material on the air.

We knew his health wasn't great. We knew he had emphysema, which claimed his life.

Somehow, Johnny Carson was one of those people you thought would be around forever. And, even though we've seen so little of him since 1992, his passing revived the feelings of loss we had when he told us goodnight for the last time.


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