Ed McMahon dies at 86

LOS ANGELES Tue Jun 23, 2009 7:03pm EDT

1 of 6. 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' host Johnny Carson (C) poses with band leader Doc Severinsen (L)and sidekick Ed McMahon, in an undated photo.

Credit: Reuters/NBC/Handout

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Ed McMahon, a fixture on U.S. late-night television for 30 years as the full-throated announcer and sidekick for Johnny Carson on NBC's "The Tonight Show," died on Tuesday at 86 after battling a series of illnesses in recent months.

The veteran TV personality best known for his nightly introduction of Carson in a deep, booming voice with the drawn-out line, "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!" died at a Los Angeles-area hospital, and was immediately hailed by friends and former colleagues as an icon of American popular culture.

"He died early this morning with his wife and loved ones by his side," his spokesman Howard Bragman said. McMahon had been battling pneumonia, among many other illnesses.

Outgoing, affable and possessing a robust, baritone voice, McMahon began his career with stints as a bingo caller, carnival barker and boardwalk pitchman before becoming a broadcast announcer and TV host.

Trained as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot during World War II, he flew missions in Korea in the 1950s.

He went on to become one of the most celebrated sidekicks in TV history as Carson's right-hand man on "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992, when Carson retired as host.

The gregarious McMahon, a frequent comic foil for the Carson during ad-libbed banter at the top of the show, was familiar even off camera for his "Hi-oooooh!" and frequent guffaws at Carson's monologue jokes, especially when a punch line fell flat. Carson died in 2005 at age 79.

"Ed's introduction of Johnny was a classic broadcasting ritual -- reassuring and exciting. Ed was a true broadcaster, and an integral part of Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show.' We will miss him," talk show host David Letterman said on Tuesday.

ENDURING CATCHPHRASE

McMahon's signature introduction of Carson endured as a catch-phrase. Jack Nicholson's maniacal character in the 1980 movie thriller "The Shining" announced "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" as he burst through a door to menace his wife with an ax.

McMahon was a leading figure on several other TV shows, too, including the talent show "Star Search" in the 1980s.

He was a long-time co-host of Jerry Lewis' annual telethon benefiting the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and he became well-known as the presenter of the American Family Publishing sweepstakes, as well as a pitchman on numerous TV commercials.

Lewis said McMahon was "a dear, dear friend. We were always making jokes, cracking each other up ... It's hard to imagine doing the (telethon) without him."

California governor and former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger said America had lost "one of its greatest and most memorable television personalities."

"From 'Star Search' to the 30 years he spent in our living rooms as an integral part of the 'Tonight Show,' Ed brought joy and laughter to millions of Americans," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

McMahon made headlines a year ago when he defaulted on a $4.8 million mortgage on his six-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion, although he later found a buyer and avoided foreclosure.

The star blamed his financial woes on having broken his neck about 18 months earlier, leaving him unable to work. He also sued Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, accusing it of failing to diagnose the neck fracture and botching two operations.

(Additional reporting by Dan Trotta, Bob Tourtellotte and Jill Serjeant; Editing by Patricia Zengerle)

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