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Johnny Carson and Charles Nelson Reilly on the Tonight Show

The new American Masters documentary on Johnny Carson debuted last night and it reminded me of a story that I was told by the late, great Charles Nelson Reilly. It was 2004, and Johnny was still alive. We were filming a documentary on CNR and some of us who were working on the film were hanging out at CNR’s house in Beverly Hills, discussing the film.

Charles liked to tell Johnny Carson stories.  He loved the man. In fact, a significant scene in the film, The Life of Reilly, revolved around Charles appearing on the Tonight Show doing the “To be or not to be” scene from Hamlet:

When Charles told stories, you have to realize that he always put the story first… even if it involved a bit of a… let’s just say, evolution of the truth.  One time he would say he had been on the show 103 times.  The next time he would say 105 times.  We settled on 104 times for the movie, but as best we could tell, it was actually 99 times.  I guess he thought 100-plus something had a better ring to it.

Charles lived near the NBC studio, he told us, and he had a tux hanging in his closet standing by just in case Johnny called.  When a guest was a no-show, Johnny called Charles and he came right over.  The conversation was genuine and funny. Johnny would always ask about Charles mother. The clips are a riot.  The loose, rambling, improvisational comedy seems very different than today’s late night world.

But the story Charles told us that night in his house came to mind when I was reading about the American Master film — the complication that was Johnny Carson. We asked Charles why he hadn’t appeared on the show for the last couple of years that Johnny was on the air.  Johnny, Charles explained, had banned him from the show.

The reason?  Charles had gotten a call from his good friend Joan Rivers, asking him to appear on her new show.  He did so. And that was it for Charles on The Tonight Show.

I asked Charles if he ever saw or heard from Carson again?  He had not.  It was the late night death penalty.  Charles didn’t seem upset about it. It was just show biz. Charles mixed us up another Manhattan and went on to tell some pretty good Joan Rivers stories.  “My Joanie” he called her.

But when it came to making the film, we contacted Carson Productions to ask for clips to use in the movie.  Their reply was swift and gracious.  “We love Charles.  Anything we can do to help.”

They sent over several great clips, free for us to use, although the one Charles talks about in the movie was gone… part of an NBC snafu where they bulk erased video copies of several years worth of material.

In the end we barely used the clips in the film, but several can be found on YouTube.  They remind me of good times with Charles Nelson Reilly — a great and complicated talent himself. And his friend, the great and complicated Johnny Carson.

We miss them both.

-bap