I knew before almost anyone this morning that Ed McMahon, known for 30 years as Johnny Carson’s sidekick with the hearty laugh, had passed away because I had a 6:30 a.m. call scheduled with TMZ EP Harvey Levin that he had to skip due to this news. I am deeply not a morning person, so my first reaction was to be somewhat annoyed at McMahon for dying so inconveniently. (Note to self: the early reporter gets the scoop. I’m a late sleeper so that explains a lot.)
Last I wrote about Mr. McMahon, he had starred in that much-ballyhooed Cash4Gold commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. In it, he recommended that people send in their gold to be evaluated and then exchanged for cash. The commercial was cheesy but funny, with both McMahon and MC Hammer riffing on the fact that they had faced serious financial troubles in their own lives, and now were sending in such items as “my gold medallion with me on it wearing a gold medallion!” “my gold hip replacement” “my gold golf clubs!”
You have to appreciate a man who worked in Hollywood for as long as McMahon and still maintained such a sense of humor and humility.
McMahon was 86 when he passed at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and had long been suffering from various ailments, including a recent bout of pneumonia and rumored bone cancer. In March 2007, he fell at his home and broke his neck, on which he’d had to have several surgeries.
The New York Times was ready with this incredibly detailed obituary, including McMahon’s interesting childhood as the son of a peripatetic vaudevillian. He started his own career in entertainment as a bingo announcer and boardwalk pitchman – a skill that would later serve him well. According to the Times, Carson used to kid McMahon that after he left a taping, he would run off to sell “jams and jellies in the elevator.”
McMahon’s budding showbiz work was interrupted by the Korean War. McMahon had enlisted in the Marines at the end of World War II, but he didn’t see combat. He was recalled when war broke out in Korea, where he flew 85 combat missions and emerged a decorated hero.
When he came back from Korea, he went back to work in entertainment while also acquiring several companies and speculating in real estate. His big break came when he met up with Carson, with whom he first worked on a show called “Who Do You Trust?” in the late 1950s.
McMahon had several long-running TV gigs, although none of them as well-known as his 30 years on The Tonight Show. He hosted the syndicated show Star Search from 1983-95, co-hosted Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy for 40 years, and co-hosted Dick Clark’s TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes on NBC with Clark from 1982-98. He was the pitchman for Publisher’s Clearing House, Budweiser and other brands, and wrote four books.
After all of that success, McMahon ran into financial trouble later in life, blaming it on two divorces and poor money management. He ultimately married three times and had six children.
In McMahon’s last book, “Here’s Johnny,” published in 2005, he called his relationship with Carson a marriage of sorts. “For 40 years, Johnny and I were as close as two non-married people can be.”
In the ego-driven world of television, that’s really an accomplishment.