Back when Johnny Carson still hosted The Tonight Show, I was in LA for the first time spending time with my friend Tracey. We were meandering in some souvenir store and there was a book with the addresses of famous LA celebrities. She got excited and thought her Michigan tourist would get a kick out of seeing those houses. When I told her I wasn’t interested, she pointed to one page in the book and said “Ok, but look, here’s the address to Johnny Carson’s house and it’s really close to us. You love that guy. Let’s at least go there.”
That much was true. I did love Johnny Carson. I had been a huge fan for years; all my friends knew that about me. It might be kind of cool to see where my hero lived, I thought. Tracey kept pushing hard to do it — and back then I basically did what she wanted — so I told her, sure, what the heck, let’s do it.
She wrote down the address (401 St. Cloud, Bel Air, I weirdly still remember) and in no time we were actually making a beeline straight to Johnny Carson’s house. What a crazy LA thing to do, I kept thinking.
We wound our way through the mansions and manicured lawns of Beverly Hills and then through Bel Air. My jaw didn’t stop dropping.
I was definitely not in Oak Park anymore.
Soon we arrived at our destination. But one small problem — we couldn’t see a thing because of all the trees and bushes covering the fence.
“Get out of the car and take a look through the fence”, she said.
“Are you crazy? No way I’m doing that.”
“Hurry! It’ll take a second. You’re right here. Do it!”
I, of course, did what she said — stepped out of the car, looked around, saw no one, quietly walked up a small patch of grass, and took a peek through the bushes. The house was nice, not quite a mansion, but very beautiful. There were a number of cars in a big driveway and I could see a tennis court on the side. Nice place, Johnny.
Suddenly I hear a car behind me pulling up into the driveway. I turn around and Here’s Johnny — I’m face to face at close range with a livid Johnny Carson screaming at me like a deranged lunatic.
“Get the f#$k off my property! You’re going to get your ass shot up! Do you hear me? You’re going to get your ass shot up”. (Those words, by the way, are an exact quote. They’re forever seared into my brain.)
I immediately went into a Twilight Zone mind warp. Is this really happening? Am I imagining this?That can’t possibly be Johnny Carson! But, yet, it’s his face, which I’ve seen a thousand times. And this is his house.
And the guy is literally going berserk on me, a huge fan.
Just then my friend, apparently panicking, takes off in the car. She drives down the street and I see she’s waiting by a stop sign about 30 yards away. I look at Carson, who was in the midst of a non-stop raging tirade, and say “I’m leaving.”
But Johnny would not let it go. As I shamefully walked down the street — trying to retain some semblance of composure, if not dignity — Johnny decided to slowly drive his Mercedes right beside me, just a few feet from my face, so he could continue to berate me with threats and insults that would have never made it past the network censors.
“What the f#&k is the matter with you?! You’re going to get your ass shot up. You hear me — you’re going to get your ass shot up.” (He really liked that line; it was evidently his go-to threat).
“I’m leaving,” I said again, but to no avail. He was undeterred. My walk of shame was about 45 seconds — an eternity when your hero is repeatedly threatening to “shoot your ass up.”
As he shouted and I silently walked, I recall the one thought I just could shake:
No one’s ever going to believe this.
Finally I reach Tracey's car and sheepishly get in the passenger seat. Johnny was on the driver's side and now, for the first time, my fleeing friend got a direct look at him.
“That’s him! That’s him!” she kept saying to me, as he kept shouting.
“I know, I know, let’s just get the hell out of here.”
But she finally summoned her courage and decided to defend me. I remember her exact words.
“Mr. Carson, he’s a big fan of yours and he came out here from Michigan and-”
Johnny had heard enough of her.
“Shut up, dammit!” (Exact quote) “He’s going to get his ass shot up.”
With that, he sped away and I was numb and speechless. I had finally “met” Johnny Carson, a man I kind of idolized, and he threatened my very existence.
That night we went to a huge LA party at some fancy house. I was still shell-shocked and it didn’t help things when Tracey told everyone what happened to the Michigan tourist that day. Now I had about 100 strangers laughing at me, and I felt like a stupid country bumpkin, which I guess I was. So much for making a good impression in Hollywood.
For several years I refused to watch Johnny Carson on tv. My logic was that because he hated me so much, I couldn’t possibly laugh along with him as if nothing had happened. (I generally have a policy of not liking anyone that doesn’t like me, so what choice did I have?)
But as the years went by I slowly began to forgive him and started watching the Tonight Show again. Johnny Carson and I have a bond, I figured. We had a moment together. I visited his house and he wanted to kill me. I was the trespasser and he was the would-be murderer. Ok, maybe it wasn’t a warm, loving bond, but it was something.
Years later, after Carson died, I read the tell-all book about Johnny by Henry Bushkin. Buskin had been Johnny’s personal lawyer, fixer, confidant and friend for 18 years. The book details Johnny’s volatility and ugly temper and includes his home address — 401 St. Cloud, not that I needed to be reminded.
But most shockingly, it said that Johnny always kept a pistol in the glove compartment of his car. So, as Johnny was going off on me — while driving about 4 miles an hour — had a weapon within easy reach. He had a temper tantrum and the means to shoot me at the time. Not a good combination.
And now, many years later, I strangely feel a bit of sympathy for Johnny. Maybe I just caught him on a bad day. Maybe real trespassers at 401 St. Cloud had made him fear for his family.
He may have given me a good scolding, but at least he had the good sense to not shoot me (up).
So thank you for not killing me, Johnny Carson.