New documentary airs on PBS tonight on Iowan Johnny Carson


May 14th, 2012 by Ric Hanson

A documentary debuts tonight (Monday) on Iowa native Johnny Carson, who was once the king of late night television. Carson was born in Corning in 1925 and his family moved to Norfolk, Nebraska, when he was eight.

Corning native Johnny Carson

Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones worked for 20 years to get permission to do the documentary. Jones says the two-hour film shows Carson at his best — and his worst.

“America, when they see this, may even love Johnny Carson more because they see he is a flawed man, just as everyone is in various ways,” Jones says. “I think they’ll come away feeling, perhaps, a connection to him in a way they didn’t when he was the host of ‘The Tonight Show.'” Carson hosted the program for three decades, from 1962 to 1992, and he died in 2005.

The documentary includes interviews with 45 individuals and family home movies of Carson’s childhood. Jones says it explores the life, career, complexities and contradictions that were Johnny Carson. Jones first proposed the idea to Carson more than 20 years ago and wrote to him every year, asking for an on-film interview. He says every year he got a letter or call from Carson’s assistant, denying his request.

“In 2003, I wrote my annual letter and received a call at my office from Johnny Carson,” Jones says. “He said, ‘I admire your persistence and style but I’m not going to do anything because I’m going to let the work speak for itself.” Jones says he was finally able to convince the Carson family that Johnny would be forgotten if something was not done to preserve his memory. The documentary, “American Masters – Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” can be seen tonight at 8 on P-B-S.

(Matt Kelley/Radio Iowa)