Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon Dies at Age 86

BY Arts Desk  June 23, 2009 at 12:14 PM EST

Ed McMahon, television’s most famous late-night sidekick, died Tuesday in Los Angeles, surrounded by his wife Pam and others. The cause has not been released, though a friend reported he had been suffering from bone cancer, as well as other illnesses, for the last few years. He was 86.

Edward Leo Peter McMahon, Jr., was born in 1923 in Detroit. His father was a vaudeville performer and the family moved frequently, including stints in San Francisco and Bayonne, N.J. As a child McMahon wanted to be a performer and did imitations for his dog. He finished high school in Lowell, Mass., and stayed with his grandmother. In his early days as a bingo announcer and product demonstrator, he developed a style he’d later use as the announcer on the ‘Tonight Show’ every time he bellowed his trademark opener, “H-e-e-e-e-e-ere’s Johnny!”

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Before pursing a career in entertainment, he joined the Marine Corps and became a fighter pilot, but saw no combat, having joined at the tail end of World War II. He got a degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, before moving to Philadelphia to begin a career in broadcast, starting first on radio, then on television as a clown.

But he is best known for being the affable straight man on the “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Their 30-year, on-screen partnership began on a game show called “Who Do You Trust?” (originally called “Do You Trust Your Wife?”) In 1962, after five years on the game show, they got their big break when Jack Paar left NBC’s late night show, opening the door for Carson. According to McMahon, the only advice he ever got from Carson before the premiere was, “Let’s just go down there and entertain the hell out of them.” Their Tonight tenure ended in 1992, when Carson retired. After Carson’s death in 2005, McMahon said Johnny had been “like a brother to me.”

Ed McMahon appeared in a couple of movies in the ’60s and ’70s, and was the host of “Star Search,” the TV talent competition after leaving the “Tonight Show.” He was also a spokesman for Budweiser, Alpo, Sara Lee and Mercedes-Benz, among others. In recent years, however, he had serious financial troubles, having to sell his Beverly Hills mansion last year after falling nearly $5 million behind in payments. In 2007, he fell and broke his neck, which required several operations and kept him from working and earning an income.

McMahon was married three times and leaves behind his five children, Claudia, Katherine, Linda, Jeffrey and Lex.