LOS ANGELES – Ed McMahon, a television pioneer who warmed the couch on “The Tonight Show” for nearly 30 years as Johnny Carson’s jovial sidekick and announcer, died early Tuesday. He was 86.
McMahon died at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, according to his publicist, Howard Bragman. The cause of death was not announced, but McMahon had been in failing health for some time, with a number of problems that required hospitalization.
Initially unable to work after breaking his neck in a fall in 2007, McMahon made news a year later when he defaulted on $4.8 million in mortgage loans and was facing the possible foreclosure of his Beverly Hills estate, which had been on the market for two years. An outside party purchased the mortgage, and the McMahons were still living in the home.
“If you spend more money than you make, you know what happens. A couple of divorces thrown in, a few things like that,” McMahon, in a neck brace, explained in June 2008 on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” where he was accompanied by his wife, Pam.
McMahon’s health and financial woes marked an unexpected turn for the TV celebrity whose career began in 1949 and spanned more than half a century. He was the host of the syndicated “Star Search” for 12 years and a co-host of “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” with Dick Clark on NBC for nine years.
He played a clown for eight years on the “Big Top” live circus show on CBS in the 1950s and co-starred with Tom Arnold in a sitcom, “The Tom Show,” on The WB in the late 1990s.
There also were stints as host of the game shows “Missing Links,” “Snap Judgment” and “Whodunnit?” in the 1960s and ’70s.
In between, McMahon did commercials for Budweiser beer, Alpo dog food and hundreds of other products and services.
At one point in the early 1980s, he reportedly was the spokesman for no fewer than 37 U.S. banks. For years he also served as the spokesman for American Family Publishers’ national sweepstakes, famously informing Americans: “You may already have won $10 million!”
More recently, McMahon turned up in commercials for FreeCreditReport.com that poked fun at his financial woes. He appeared with MC Hammer in a Cash4Gold commercial that aired during the 2009 Super Bowl.
But there’s little doubt that McMahon will be best remembered as the prototypal late-night talk-show announcer and second banana, who enthusiastically boomed out in his rolling baritone these familiar words: “And now, heeeeere’s Johnny!”
When Carson died in 2005 at 79, McMahon described his longtime friend and colleague as “like a brother to me.”
Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was born in Detroit on March 6, 1923.
As a boy, he fell in love with radio. But it wasn’t the stars of the shows he most identified with; it was the announcers – men such as Paul Douglas, Bill Goodwin, Harry von Zell and Don Wilson.
By age 10, having made up his mind that he wanted to be a radio announcer, McMahon would practice doing commercials and creating his own radio shows using a flashlight for a microphone.
At 15, he landed his first announcing job of sorts: manning the microphone in a sound truck to promote a small circus that had come to town. From the start, McMahon displayed a natural talent for creating his own sales patter, which would pay off handsomely after World War II.
By then he had married his first wife, Alyce, and served four years as a stateside fighter-pilot instructor in the Marine Corps. After the war, he majored in drama at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He returned to the service during the Korean War as a pilot of spotter planes.
After graduating from Catholic University in 1949, McMahon was offered a $75-a-week job at WCAU, a new television station in Philadelphia.
Within two years, McMahon was Philadelphia’s “Mr. Television,” serving as host of 13 programs, including a cooking show, a quiz show, the “Million Dollar Movie” and a pioneer breakfast-hour show called “Strictly for the Girls.”
In 1958, McMahon met Carson, the man who would forever alter his career and fortunes. He was a rising young comedian who hired McMahon to be his announcer on “Who Do You Trust?,” a half-hour afternoon comedy quiz show on ABC.
McMahon’s job on the show consisted of introducing the contestants, doing the commercials and occasionally talking briefly to Carson at the beginning of the show. From the start, Carson made McMahon his comedy foil and in so doing established an on-air relationship that would continue for nearly 34 years.
When Carson moved to NBC to be host of “The Tonight Show” in October 1962, he took McMahon with him.
McMahon said that his role on the show was never strictly defined: “I was there when he needed me, and when he didn’t, I moved down the couch and kept quiet.”
On the duo’s last “Tonight Show” broadcast, on May, 22, 1992, Carson paid tribute to his sidekick.
“Ed has been a rock for 30 years, sitting over here next to me. … We have been friends for 34 years. A lot of people who work together on television don’t necessarily like each other. This hasn’t been true. … We’re good friends; you can’t fake that on television.”