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PBS looks back at Johnny Carson

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Talk show host Johnny Carson, right, with show announcer Ed McMahon during the final taping of ‘The Tonight Show.’

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Johnny Carson is one of the most iconic figures in TV history. Yet the man who became a cultural fixture by hosting The Tonight Show for three decades was also an intensely private man who shunned the limelight off camera and was extremely protective of his personal life.

And when he said goodbye to America on his final Tonight Show, he declined to do interviews and rarely appeared again in public. The complex personal and professional nature of Carson is the focus of an upcoming two-hour American Masters documentary, Johnny Carson, King of Late Night, which premieres May 14 on PBS, and was the subject of a panel discussion at the Winter TV Press Tour being held in Pasadena this week.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Carson taking over The Tonight Show and the 20th anniversary of his retirement. Peter Jones, who directed the project, interviewed several members of Carson's family and inner circle, in addition to several performers including Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Don Rickles, Steve Martin, and Conan O'Brien.

In the panel, Jones revealed that he wrote a letter every year for 15 years to Carson seeking his cooperation for the film. In 2003, he finally got a call from the entertainer: "Peter, you write a damn fine letter, but I'm not going to participate in anything about my life because I don't give a (expletive) ... I've done everything I wanted to do. There may be something done on me, but it will never be while I'm alive."

Drew Carey, who hosts The Price Is Right, recalled being awed by Carson, when he was a stand-up comic who scored a spot on the show.

"It was like being in a dream. It was like being called over by Jesus," said Carey during the panel about being invited to the couch after his routine.

Angie Dickinson, also a panelist Thursday, and a frequent guest on the show, said that Carson wasn't cocky, "and he was extremely shy. That's sort of a Midwest trait."

She added that appearing on the show greatly boosted her popularity. "I had a great deal of success due just to that. It enhanced everything I did."

Dickinson also spoke about how Carson largely retreated from public view after he exited the late-night show in an emotional farewell.

"That final show was pure Johnny -- he had said it all and done it all and he really was finished," said the actress.

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