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Fred de Cordova On Carson,

The Tonight Show

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Publicity photo of Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show
The Man Who Directed And Produced The Show From 1970 Onward, de Cordova Was A Multi-Talented Individual Who Kept The Ball Rolling On The Iconic Program From Behind The Camera


By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 27, 2014 — Longtime producer of The Tonight Show Fred de Cordova enjoyed the distinction of being personal advisor to two of America’s leading men: President Ronald Reagan and “King of Late Night,” Johnny Carson.

He directed Reagan in the camp cult movie Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) in which “The Gipper” starred opposite a chimpanzee. More memorably, de Cordova directed Carson on The Tonight Show from 1970 until Johnny’s stint as host ended 21 years later. De Cordova died at the age of 90 in 2001.

With Carson fresh in our minds after realizing he would have celebrated his 89th anniversary Oct. 23, we thought we’d share some sage wisdom from an interview we had with de Cordova in his The Tonight Show office in Burbank, Calif., in 1981.

“Johnny is a totally dedicated man whose professional life is culminated each evening on The Tonight Show,” de Cordova summated for us while seated in his executive-style high-back chair. “It is very important for him to do each night’s show as well as that show can be done. That is what he cares about from the moment he comes into work until
the moment he leaves. We have a little talk after each show to evaluate it. He is no slave-driver in the tantrum sense like Jackie Gleason was. Johnny will say: ‘That joke didn’t work. Why didn’t it work?’”

De Cordova also dispelled any myth about the hiring and firing practices of the show.

“There have been four producers of The Tonight Show; I am the fifth,” he said. “I have a cherished photograph of Johnny at home which is inscribed, ‘To my favorite producer,’ with the names of the previous producers crossed off underneath. There is no rancor. The producer that preceded me was actually of enormous help. Instead of leaving me adrift in this new job when I was first hired, he gave me three weeks of intensive training.”

The job of producing The Tonight Show adhered to a strict schedule from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. De Cordova gave us a rundown – his duty roster, he called it.

“In the morning, the staff meets in my office to go over what we have learned since yesterday. Through newspapers, magazines and press agents we see who will be available for future bookings. We try to book the show as far in advance as possible. We evaluate prospective guests – good or bad, mediocre or wonderful, and how they might fit into Johnny’s personality.

“Then there is a production meeting with all the people involved in the show. We discuss who is going to sing that night, how many musicians are needed, etc. Next we go into birthday last week (Carson died in 2005) and to mark rehearsal. After that there is another meeting in my office to discuss the details of the rehearsal.

“Then comes the actual taping of the show. In the meantime, Johnny has had discussions on his written material and monologue. Is it okay to make a joke about a bomb explosion? Yes, if no one was hurt. We welcome presidential campaign years even at their dullest. They always provide humorous fodder.

“We go home happy if the show was a hit that night or dejected if it wasn’t.”

Finally, we asked de Cordova a FAQ that’s he’s heard a million times before from showbiz hopefuls just starting out: “How do you break into show business?”

“I have a stock answer for that,” he told us. “It is totally impossible, but someone does it every day.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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