Johnny Carson, the quick-witted Tonight Show host who became an American institution putting his viewers to bed for 30 years with a smooth nightcap of celebrity banter and heartland charm, has died. He was 79.
Carson died early Sunday morning, according to his nephew, Jeff Sotzing.
"He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable," Sotzing said.
He did not provide further details, but NBC said Carson died of emphysema -- a respiratory disease that can be attributed to smoking -- at his Malibu home.
Carson often had a cigarette in hand in the early years of Tonight, eventually dropping the on-air habit when smoking on TV became frowned on. But he remained a heavy smoker for some years afterward, said a former associate who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The boyish-looking Nebraska native with the disarming grin, who survived every attempt to topple him from his late-night talk show throne, was a star who managed never to distance himself from his audience.
His wealth, the adoration of his guests -- particularly the many young comics whose careers he launched -- the wry tales of multiple divorces: Carson's air of modesty made it all serve to enhance his bedtime intimacy with viewers.
US President George W. Bush described Carson as "a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment."
"Heeeeere's Johnny!" was the booming announcement from sidekick Ed McMahon that ushered Carson out to the stage. Then the formula: the topical monologue, the guests and the broadly played skits.
But the US never tired of him; Carson went out on top when he retired in May 1992.
McMahon said on Sunday that Carson was "like a brother to me."
Carson's personal life could not match the perfection of his career. Carson was married four times, divorced three times. In 1991, one of his three sons, 39-year-old Ricky, was killed in a car accident.
Nearly all of Carson's professional life was spent in television, from his postwar start at Nebraska stations in the late 1940s to his three decades with NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Carson chose to let Tonight stand as his career zenith and his finale, withdrawing into a quiet retirement that suited his private nature and refusing involvement in other show business projects.
Carson spent his retirement years sailing, traveling and socializing with a few close friends including media mogul Barry Diller and NBC executive Bob Wright. He simply refused to be wooed back on stage.
"I just let the work speak for itself," he told Esquire magazine in 2002.