Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. (March 6, 1923 – June 23, 2009) was an American announcer, game show host, comedian, actor and singer. McMahon and Johnny Carson began their association in their first TV series, the ABC game show Who Do You Trust?, running from 1957 to 1962. McMahon then made his famous thirty-year mark as Carson's sidekick, announcer and second banana on NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992.
He also hosted the original Star Search from 1983 to 1995, co-hosted TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes with Dick Clark from 1982 to 1998 and also presented sweepstakes for the direct marketing company American Family Publishers (not, as is commonly believed, its main rival Publishers Clearing House). McMahon annually co-hosted the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon from 1973 to 2008. In the 1970s and 80s, he anchored the team of NBC personalities conducting the network's coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
McMahon appeared in several films, including The Incident, Fun With Dick and Jane, Full Moon High and Butterfly, as well as briefly in the film version of Bewitched. He also performed in numerous television commercials. According to Entertainment Weekly, McMahon is considered one of the greatest "sidekicks".
McMahon was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Edward Leo Peter McMahon Sr., a fund-raiser and entertainer, and Eleanor (Russell) McMahon. He was raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, often visiting his paternal Aunt Mary Brennan at her home on Chelmsford Street. After three years as a carnival barker in Mexico, Maine, McMahon served as a fifteen-year-old bingo caller in Maine. He put himself through college as a pitchman for vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk. His first broadcasting job was at WLLH-AM in Lowell, television career launched in Philadelphia at WCAU-TV.
McMahon hoped to become a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot. Prior to the US entry into World War II, both the Army and Navy required pilot candidates to attend at least two years of college. McMahon studied at Boston College from 1940 to 1941. On The Howard Stern Show in 2001, he stated that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the college requirement remained in effect and he still had to finish his two years of college before applying for Marine Corps flight training.
After completing the college requirement, McMahon began his primary flight training in Dallas. This was followed by fighter training in Pensacola, where he also earned his carrier landing qualifications. He was a Marine Corps flight instructor in F4U Corsairs for two years, finally being ordered to the Pacific fleet in 1945. However, his orders were canceled after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan's unconditional surrender.
As an officer in the reserves, McMahon was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He flew an OE-1 (the original Marine designation for the unarmed single-engine Cessna O-1 Bird Dog) spotter plane, serving as an artillery spotter for Marine batteries and a forward controller for Navy and Marine fighter bombers. He flew a total of 85 combat missions, earning six Air Medals. After the war, he stayed with the Marines as a reserve officer, retiring in 1966 as a colonel. In 1982, McMahon received a state commission as a brigadier general in the California Air National Guard, an honorary award to recognize his support for the National Guard and Reserves.
After World War II, McMahon studied at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., under the GI Bill and graduated in 1949. He majored in speech and drama while studying under Rev. Fr. Gilbert Hartke and was a member of Phi Kappa Theta fraternity. After graduation, McMahon led the effort to raise funds for a theater to be named for Hartke and attended its dedication in 1970 with Helen Hayes and Sidney Poitier. While working as Carson's sidekick during The Tonight Show, McMahon served as the president of the national alumni association from 1967 to 1971 and would often return to campus, especially for homecoming. During the university's centennial celebration in 1987, McMahon and Bob Newhart performed. He received an honorary Doctor of Communication Arts in 1988.
"I owe so much to CU," McMahon once said. "That's where my career got its start." Today, the Ed McMahon Endowed Scholarship helps outstanding students and provides scholarship assistance to juniors and seniors who are pursuing a bachelor's degree in either the Department of Drama or the Department of Media Studies within the School of Arts and Sciences.
McMahon and Carson first worked together as announcer and host on the ABC daytime game show Who Do You Trust? running from 1957 to 1962.
The pair joined The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on October 1, 1962, on NBC. He describes what happened when the pair first met, the whole meeting being "about as exciting as watching a traffic light change". For almost 30 years, McMahon introduced the show with a drawn-out "Heeere's Johnny!" His booming voice and constant laughter alongside the "King of Late Night" earned McMahon the nickname the "Human Laugh Track" and "Toymaker to the King". As part of the introductory patter to The Tonight Show, McMahon would state his name out loud, pronouncing it as /mɪkˈmeɪ.ən/, but neither long-time cohort Carson nor anyone else who interviewed him ever seemed to pick up on that subtlety, usually pronouncing his name /mɪkˈmæn/.
Aside from his co-hosting duties, it also fell upon McMahon during the early years of Carson's tenure (when the show ran 105 minutes) to host the first fifteen minutes of Tonight, which did not air nationally. McMahon also served as guest host on at least one occasion, substituting for Carson during a week of programs that aired between July 29 and August 2, 1963, and again for two nights in October 1963. McMahon served as a counter to the notoriously shy Carson. Nonetheless, McMahon once told an interviewer that after his many decades as an emcee, he would still get "butterflies" in his stomach every time he would walk onto a stage and would use that nervousness as a source of energy.
His famous opening line, "Heeere's Johnny!", was used in the 1980 horror film The Shining by the character Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) as he goes after his wife and child with an axe. He did in-program commercials for many sponsors of The Tonight Show, most notably Budweiser beer and Alpo dog food, and also did commercials for them that ran on other programs.
McMahon was also host of the successful weekly syndicated series Star Search, which began in 1983 and helped launch the careers of numerous actors, singers, choreographers and comedians. He stayed with the show until it ended in 1995 and in 2003, he made a cameo appearance on the CBS revival of the series, hosted by his successor Arsenio Hall.
His long association with brewer Anheuser-Busch earned him the nickname "Mr. Budweiser" and he used that relationship to bring them aboard as one of the largest corporate donors to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Since 1973, McMahon served as co-host of the long-running live annual Labor Day weekend event of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. His 41st and final appearance on that show was in 2008, making him second only to Jerry Lewis himself in number. McMahon and Dick Clark hosted the television series (and later special broadcasts of) TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes on NBC from 1982 to 1993.
In 1967, McMahon had a role in the film The Incident and appeared as Santa Claus on The Mitzi Gaynor Christmas Show. From 1965 to 1969, McMahon served as "communicator" (host) of the Saturday afternoon segment of Monitor, the weekend news, features and entertainment magazine on the NBC Radio Network. The 1955 movie Dementia, which has music without dialogue, was released as Daughter of Horror in 1970. The newer version, which had a voice over by McMahon, still has music without dialogue, but with an added narration read by him. McMahon had a supporting role in the original Fun with Dick and Jane in 1977.
He then played himself in "Remote Control Man", a season one episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. In 2004, McMahon became the announcer and co-host of Alf's Hit Talk Show on TV Land. He has authored two memoirs, Here's Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship as well as For Laughing Out Loud. Over the years, he emceed the game shows Missing Links, Snap Judgment, Concentration, and Whodunnit!.
McMahon also hosted Lifestyles Live, a weekend talk program aired on the USA Radio Network. Additionally, he also appeared in the feature documentary film, Pitch People, the first motion picture to take an in-depth look at the history and evolution of pitching products to the public. In the early 2000s, McMahon made a series of Neighborhood Watch public service announcements parodying the surprise appearances to contest winners that he was supposedly known for. (In fact, it is not clear whether the company McMahon fronted, American Family Publishers, regularly performed such unannounced visits, as opposed to Publishers Clearing House and its oft-promoted "prize patrol".)
Towards the end of the decade, McMahon took on other endorsement roles, playing a rapper for a FreeCreditReport.com commercial and in a Cash4Gold commercial alongside MC Hammer. McMahon was also the spokesman for Pride Mobility, a leading power wheelchair and scooter manufacturer. His final film appearance was in the independent John Hughes themed rom-com Jelly as Mr. Closure alongside actress Natasha Lyonne. Mostly in the 1980s through the 1990s, McMahon was the spokesperson for Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company.
McMahon married Alyce Ferrell on July 5, 1945, while he was serving as a flight instructor in the Marines. The couple had four children: Claudia (b. 1946), Michael Edward (1951–1995), Linda and Jeffrey. They separated in 1972 and divorced in 1974. McMahon married Victoria Valentine on March 6, 1976. They adopted a daughter in 1985, Katherine Mary. The couple divorced in 1989. McMahon paid $50,000 per month in spousal and child support. On February 22, 1992, three months before his Tonight Show run came to a close, in a ceremony held near Las Vegas, McMahon married 37-year-old Pamela "Pam" Hurn, who had a son named Alex. McMahon's daughter Katherine served as best person at the wedding. McMahon was a longtime summer resident of Avalon, New Jersey.
In June 2008, it was announced that McMahon was $644,000 behind on payments on $4.8 million in mortgage loans and was fighting to avoid foreclosure on his multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills home. McMahon was also sued by Citibank for $180,000. McMahon appeared on Larry King Live on June 5, 2008, with his wife to talk about this situation. In the interview, McMahon's wife Pam said that people assumed that the McMahons had very much money because of his celebrity status. Pamela McMahon also commented that they do not have "millions" of dollars. On July 30, 2008, McMahon's financial status suffered another blow. According to Reuters, McMahon failed to pay divorce attorney Norman Solovay $275,168, according to a lawsuit filed in the Manhattan federal court. McMahon and his wife, Pamela, had hired Solovay to represent Linda Schmerge, his daughter from another relationship, in a "matrimonial matter", said Solovay's lawyer, Michael Shanker.
On August 14, 2008, real estate mogul Donald Trump announced that he would purchase McMahon's home from Countrywide Financial and lease it to McMahon, so the home would not be foreclosed. McMahon agreed instead to a deal with a private buyer for his hilltop home, said Howard Bragman, McMahon's former spokesman. Bragman declined to name the buyer or the selling price, but he said it was not Trump. In early September, after the second buyer's offer fell through, Trump renewed his offer to purchase the home.
On April 20, 2002, McMahon sued his insurance company for more than $20 million, alleging that he was sickened by toxic mold that spread through his Beverly Hills house after contractors failed to properly clean up water damage from a broken pipe. McMahon and his wife, Pamela, became ill from the mold, as did members of their household staff, according to the Los Angeles County Superior Court suit. The McMahons blamed the mold for the death of the family dog, Muffin. Their suit, one of many in recent years over toxic mold, was filed against American Equity Insurance Co., a pair of insurance adjusters, and several environmental cleanup contractors. It sought monetary damages for alleged breach of contract, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
On March 21, 2003, the long legal battle ended with McMahon being awarded $7.2 million from several companies who were negligent for allowing toxic mold into his home, sickening him and his wife and killing their dog. McMahon was injured in 2007 in a fall and, in March 2008, it was announced he was recovering from a broken neck and two subsequent surgeries. He later sued Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and two doctors claiming fraud, battery, elder abuse, and emotional distress, and accused them of discharging him with a broken neck after his fall and botching two later neck surgeries.
On February 27, 2009, it was reported that McMahon had been in an undisclosed Los Angeles hospital (later confirmed as Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center) for almost a month. He was listed in serious condition and was in the intensive care unit. His publicist told reporters that he was admitted for pneumonia at the time, but could not confirm nor deny reports that McMahon had been diagnosed with bone cancer.
McMahon died on June 23, 2009, shortly after midnight at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. He was 86 years old. His nurse, Julie Koehne, RN, stated he went peacefully. No formal cause of death was given, but McMahon's publicist attributed his death to the many health problems he had suffered over his final months. McMahon had said that he still suffered from the injury to his neck in March 2007.
Tributes and legacy
- Ed McMahon's Barside Companion (World Publishing Company, 1969), Library of Congress #70-94527 ISBN 0671772155
- Here's Ed: The Autobiography of Ed McMahon With Carroll Carroll (Putnam; 1976) ISBN 0399116915
- Ed McMahon's Superselling by Ed McMahon with Warren Jamison (Prentice Hall Press, Copyright 1989 by Ed McMahon), ISBN 0-13-943366-X
- For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times (Warner Books, 1998), co-written with David Fisher ISBN 0446523704
- Here's Johnny! My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship (Berkley Publishing Group – Penguin Group, 2005) ISBN 0425212297
- Backstage at the Tonight Show by Don Sweeney, Ed McMahon (Foreword) (Taylor Trade Publishing), 2006 ISBN 978-1589793033
- When Television Was Young: The Inside Story with Memories by Legends of the Small Screen With David Fisher (Thomas Nelson 2007) ISBN 1401603270