Johnny Carson is widely considered to be one of the greatest showmen in history – not only in television, but in any medium. After hosting the immensely popular Tonight Show for 30 years, Carson went on to almost completely disappear from public life between his retirement in 1992 and death in 2005.
Few things are as tantalizing to screenwriters as men of power and influence with mysterious private lives. As such, a movie about the life of Johnny Carson probably should have seemed like a foregone conclusion. Yesterday, word arrived that such a film, Carson the Magnificent, may be coming soon to a multiplex near you.
According to Deadline, writer John McLaughlin (Black Swan) and producer Tom Thayer (Hitchcock) have begun shopping a script for Carson the Magnificent, a close examination of the influential comedian’s life. Working closely with both Johnny Carson’s estate and biographer Bill Zehme, the film will apparently explore the rise to fame and personal life of the notoriously private entertainer. The movie’s script is based on Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait, a yet-to-be-published biography by Zehme.
This will not be the first time that Johnny Carson has been portrayed in a pseudofictional context. In the 1996 television movie The Late Shift, Carson was portrayed by Rich Little in a recounting of the events surrounding his retirement and the bitter struggle for The Late Show‘s hosting spot. However, that role was a small one – the movie instead focused on the feud between Jay Leno and David Letterman. Carson the Magnificent will be the first fictionalized biography of Carson.
Though contemporary audiences’ memories of Johnny Carson are no doubt fading (and in the case of some Millenials, nonexistent), his influence is still strongly felt throughout the entertainment industry. The current crop of late-night interview and variety shows owe a considerable creative debt to deadpan showman. Countless comedians and show hosts derive their rhythms and routines from the foundations laid by Carson. When considered in light of this immense shadow cast across multiple formats, a cinematic tribute to the man seems like a logical step.
Yet, one has to wonder what the eventual product will actually portray – and how it will go about doing it. Since Carson’s comedy work stands well enough on its own, one can only imagine that Carson the Magnificent will take a more traditional, dramatic approach to depicting his life. Little is known about Carson’s personal life except that he married several times, had three children, and was quietly devoted to social justice issues of his day. Unless Zehme’s upcoming biography contains some serious revelations, one can only imagine that a focus on Carson’s private life might come off a bit like a snooze-fest.
Of course, any speculation on the content and tone of Carson the Magnificent is foolhardy at this point. Without a solid studio backing, the proposed film may not even see production. However, given film and television’s immense debt to Carson, it’s not a stretch to a assume that there will be takers for the script. News outlets are already buzzing about who should play the Tonight Show host, with Kevin Spacey as the current favorite. If the movie does end up taking off, it will be interesting to see if it becomes a full-on prestige flick a la Walk the Line and Ray.
Carson the Magnificent has no announced release date.