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Ed McMahon: Sidekick on ‘Tonight’ for 30 years famous for his cry of ‘Heeeeeere’s Johnny!’

A second banana is not merely a straight man, though being a straight man is part of the job. For 30 years, as Johnny Carson’s foil on The Tonight Show, Ed McMahon, who has died aged 86, defined second banana, and, with Carson, remade the talk-show format.

McMahon warmed up audiences, then introduced the host with a drawn-out, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” which, as a cultural catchphrase, found its way into Stephen King’s novel The Shining, and, famously, Jack Nicholson’s murderous parody in the Stanley Kubrick film.

McMahon provided guffaws during Carson’s monologue, played his foil in sketches and chatted with the host before giving up his place to the first guest and moving progressively further away as the show went on. “I laugh for an hour and then I go home,” was how he described “the best job in television”.

Carson’s predecessors on Tonight worked alone, but producers worried that Carson, a mid-western stand-up turned game-show host noted for his close-mouthed delivery, lacked the erudition of the more urbane Jack Paar or Steve Allen. McMahon’s avuncular Irish charm – his drinking provided the butt of many quips – counterpointed Carson’s tightly-wrapped control.

Unlike many comic partnerships, the two remained close friends; McMahon likened it to a marriage in which he was Carson’s “insignificant other”. This owed much to McMahon knowing his place. Carson was notoriously touchy; McMahon described him as “packing a tight suitcase”. Once, he anticipated Carson’s punchline about mosquitos preferring “hotblooded” targets by slapping his own arm; Carson had to be restrained from firing him immediately.

The producers knew that McMahon was more than an announcer: his primary role was selling Johnny to the audience. And he was a natural-born pitchman. McMahon was born 6 March 1923 in Detroit. The family moved frequently as his father, a vaudevillian, salesman, entrepreneur and carny operator found and lost work; McMahon claimed to have attended 15 schools before settling with his grandmother in Lowell, Massachusetts to finish high school. He was already selling door-to-door and spending summers as a carnival barker and bingo caller in Maine resorts.

He enlisted in the Marines after graduation, qualifying as a pilot and serving as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida. After the war, while gaining a degree in speech and drama at Washington’s Catholic University, he spent summers selling vegetable slicers on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After graduating in 1949, he started with a fledgling television station in Philadelphia, and within two years was the city’s top TV personality, hosting variety programmes, films, and a breakfast talk show called Strictly for Girls. Recalled to active Marine duty in Korea, he flew 85 combat missions as an artillery spotter.

Back in America, he began voicing commercials for network television in New York, and soon was hosting game shows, including an early version of Concentration, and playing a clown in the long-running circus variety show Big Top. He joined Carson as the announcer on ABC’s Who Do You Trust? in 1957; they moved together to NBC’s Tonight in 1962 and enjoyed a 30-year run before handing the show to Jay Leno.

During his time on Tonight he continued to host game shows, acted in films as diverse as Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) and Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), and did summer stock theatre. He spent 17 years announcing Dick Clark’s TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes, and 13 as host of Star Search, a talent show which discovered Justin Timberlake, Rosie O’Donnell and Drew Carey, but missed the boom when reality television remade this hoary old format with massive success.

He took advantage of his high profile to become America’s pitchman, by his own estimate doing some 60,000 commercials – everything from dog food to the ubiquitous sweepstakes attached to magazine subscription offers. For 41 years he hosted or appeared on Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy charity telethon, an institution on America’s Labor Day holiday, a run second only to Lewis himself.

He published four books, including his Barside Companion (1969), an autobiography, For Laughing Out Loud (1998), and two memoirs. McMahon’s reputation as a jovial drinker helped to sell Budweiser beer and his own brand of vodka, but also hid a problem with alcoholism. He speculated in bad investments, had two expensive divorces and even faced a lawsuit from consumers alleging that the magazine sweepstakes he promoted were a fraud.

In 2008, he appeared on Larry King Live to explain his financial woes, saying: “I made a lot of money, but you can spend a lot of money”. Donald Trump offered to buy his Beverly Hills mansion, which faced foreclosure, and lease it back to him. He died in Los Angeles, never having regained his health after breaking his neck in a 2007 fall.

Michael Carlson

Edward Leo Peter McMahon, Jr, entertainer: born Detroit 6 March 1923; married firstly Alyce Ferrell (divorced 1976, three children, and one son deceased), secondly Victoria Valentine (divorced 1989, one adopted daughter), 1992 Pam Hurn; died Los Angeles 23 June 2009.