Book Excerpt: An Unforgettable Bond with Johnny Carson’s Son, Rick

As a teenager, I was enamored of Johnny Carson’s funny, witty, hip-for-the-times late night show. When my dad was able to get me tickets to a taping, my world changed. The exhilaration of being in Studio 6B for the taping at 5:30 p.m. is something I can feel all over again just thinking about it.

Ten years later, I’d be transported back to age 14 when I worked in that same studio on the local WNBC news and then across the hall in Studio 6A on The Tomorrow Show.  And 12 years after that first Tonight Show taping, I was thrilled to find myself playing tennis, swimming and playing drums with Johnny at his home in Bel-Air (The Tonight Show had moved to L.A. in 1972).

I was there because his middle son, Rick, had become one of my closest friends. Rick, the spitting image of his dad except with the longish hair of the mid-70s, was our stage manager and then associate director on Tomorrow.  Along with Bruce McKay, Debbie Vickers, Pam Burke and a few other 20-somethings who worked with us, Rick was part of the nucleus of our inseparable gang.

(Pictured left: Tom Snyder, Rick Carson and Andy Friendly prepare to tape a Tomorrow show at former New York nightclub Studio 54.)

We worked together all day and hung out pretty much every night and on weekends, often joined by our larger-than-life host, Tom Snyder. Rick was a sweet, fun, talented guy who in addition to his other jobs picked all of the show’s great music, which became one of its signatures. The group shared all the ups and downs of our young careers and relationships with girlfriends or boyfriends. We shared vacations and maybe a little too much partying.

In New York, we were taping in the same building (30 Rock) as Saturday Night Live and eventually moved to Studio 8G, just down the hall from their famed Studio 8H. John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and the gang were frequent guests on our show and often just came around to hang out at our “prop bar” after tapings. 

It was a different time. Every night before the show, which we taped at 6 p.m. for air later that night, Rick and I and our friends went downstairs to a bar in the bowels of 30 Rock near the skating rink for a pre-show cocktail. I can’t even imagine any network or production entity allowing that now.

After the show, we’d open the “prop bar,” so called because we kept a full bar in the show’s moveable prop cabinet and Tom would hold court with us for a post-show drink and a smoke. We all smoked Marlboros, including Tom, who did so famously in the middle of shows as Ed Murrow had done in his day. Another thing that is unimaginable today.

Rick and I were inseparable. When the show moved to L.A., we got apartments in the same building. Our whole gang hung out there. It was very much like the show Friends, but 70s-style and very L.A. We taped our show right after Johnny finished his in Studio 1 at NBC in Burbank.

For the first time I had a couple bucks and bought my first nice car. We could afford to eat at nice restaurants once in a while. We’d go to the beach and get together every Saturday night at Bruce and Debbie’s house in Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills to watch SNL and party into the night. We’d spend Sunday recuperating, then it was back to the studio for five more shows starting Monday.

On a few occasions, Rick invited me to go to his dad’s estate in Bel-Air on St. Cloud Road. I’ll always remember how nice Johnny was to me, on and off the tennis court. Rick and I would swim, hang by the pool and drink beers. Johnny would sit with us for a bit. He was relaxed and funny as hell as opposed to the many accounts I’ve read of him being distant and withdrawn in private.

Johnny invited us into his pool house, where he had his drum set, and played for us along with some great jazz on his state-of-the-art stereo. We did this on several occasions. To this day it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I’ll always be grateful to Rick for including me.

Rick and I remained close for years, but when I left Tomorrow and we stopped working together, we went in different directions. We had long moved from our shared first apartment building to different parts of Los Angeles. Our group kind of split up and while we remained friends we grew apart.

I married Pat and became very involved with our family and several consuming projects, like Entertainment Tonight, This is your Life and the Richard Pryor movie. Rick remained single and had a tough time finding his next meaningful work experience after The Tomorrow Show ended its run. His love of partying also caught up with him and he struggled with that as well.

Occasionally we’d talk or get together but when I headed east to work at CNBC in 1990, we rarely saw each other. Our lives had gone in different directions.

I was exec producing shows at CNBC with Tim Russert, Tom Snyder, Geraldo, Phil Donahue and Dick Cavett, among others. On June 25, 1991, I was sitting in my office going over upcoming shows with the TV on in the background when I learned some of the most terrible news. I wasn’t paying much attention to what was on the TV until I heard a promo for the local news.

“Johnny Carson’s son killed in car accident…tonight at 11,” the announcer said.

My heart started racing. I held my breath.

Rick had two brothers. From the promo that ran, I didn’t know if it was Rick or one of his brothers, Corey or Chris, who had died. I asked one of our production assistants to check the wire services for more info. My emotions and fears ran wild while I waited, for what seemed like hours for confirmation.

A couple minutes later, a staffer brought me the wire copy reporting Rick’s death in a car accident while taking photographs near the Pacific Coast Highway in California. He was 39.

My eyes filled with tears. I called Tom Snyder, Debbie Vickers, Bruce McKay and Patty Mann, who had worked with us and had been Rick’s girlfriend. We all cried.

They told me there would be a memorial for Rick at a church in the San Fernando Valley near his apartment in L.A. a few days later.

I was in the middle of prepping a live primetime special to air the day after Rick’s memorial. I had recently gone from consulting at CNBC to VP and executive producer of all of the network’s primetime shows.

In a few days, I would be exec producing my first, high-profile primetime special. I lay awake that night thinking through how I could work ahead and delegate the rest of what needed to be done.

I tried to convince myself I could make it work but there was too much to be done. The timing was just too tough. Ultimately I determined I could not make the cross-country trip without jeopardizing the show. So I didn’t go.

I have regretted that decision ever since.

I do think Rick would have understood my decision, but looking back, I wish I had gone. While we were no longer close, at one time we were best friends and I still cared about him a great deal.

His death, following a difficult time in his life, was devastating to me, and to all of his friends and Tomorrow Show colleagues. I wrote a long letter to his dad expressing my sympathy and describing the kind, fun-loving, great person and colleague Rick was.

Upon returning to the show, a few days later, Johnny closed The Tonight Show with a heart-wrenching, tear-filled tribute to Rick. A few days later, I received a brief note from Johnny thanking me for my note and being a friend to Rick.

It was a life lesson and a mistake I would not make again. As much as I despise going to funerals and memorial services, I have not missed another for someone I was close to.

Andy Friendly, the son of CBS television pioneer Fred Friendly, is a producer and former executive. He headed production at King World and primetime programming at CNBC and produced shows such as Entertainment Tonight. This piece is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Willing to Be Lucky: A Life in TV.

©Andy Friendly