'The Tonight Show' with Bob Newhart instead of Johnny Carson? 'I think I was being groomed'
The veteran comedian and star of two classic sitcoms was a frequent substitute when Carson had time off from NBC's "The Tonight Show," and Newhart -- one of the many Carson friends and peers who appeared in last week's PBS "American Masters" profile of the late-night-TV icon -- believes his 87 rounds in the host's chair might have led to many more.
"I didn't know it at the time, but I think I was being groomed" to take over "Tonight" permanently, the famously mild-mannered Newhart tells Zap2it. "Johnny and NBC were in one of their perennial fights. He was saying he was walking, and they were saying, 'We're not paying him any more! He's holding us hostage. We'll find somebody else.'"
Not that Newhart would have agreed to replace close friend Carson: "I had no interest in doing the show. I'd done it for three weeks in New York, and I was a zombie after that. And that man did it for 30 years!"
As a guest, Newhart -- whose 1970s "Bob Newhart Show" gets a 12-hour marathon Sunday (May 27) on Hallmark Channel -- enjoyed the time he frequently spent on "Tonight," though he allows Carson would do something that "drove me crazy, because he felt he could do it, and Johnny never made anyone look bad.
"I'd be scheduled to do the show, and you'd have the pre-interview where I'd tell the staff something like, 'Well, we took a trip with the Rickleses, and there's a funny story about Don and the video camera in Italy.' And they'd tell that to Johnny, and I'd walk out on the show and sit down. And he'd look over at me with that bad-boy look and say something like, 'Hey, you ever go skeet-shooting?'
"And I'd look at him like, 'You know I don't have anything on skeet-shooting! What are you doing to me?' I remember that one time, the monologue didn't go well at all ... and I'd be hysterical when that happened, because he 'died' better than anybody. He'd pull down the microphone and hit it, to make sure it was on."
After that part of the show didn't click, Carson went to his next resort, as Newhart relates. "Johnny said, 'And now, my first guest, Bob Newhart.' And I wouldn't come out. I refused to. They just had a shot of the curtain, with nobody coming through it. And he finally brought me on, and I told him why I didn't come out sooner: 'When the monologue doesn't work, it's like we're all going down together.' And he said, 'Yeah. That's the way it pretty much works.'"