"Mr. Carson passed away peacefully early Sunday morning," his nephew, Jeff Sotzing, told The Associated Press. "He was surrounded by his family, whose loss will be immeasurable." Sotzing would not give further details, including the time of death or the location.
Carson had apparently been battling emphysema for years. He often had a cigarette in hand in the early years of Tonight, eventually dropping the on-air habit when smoking on TV became frowned on. But he remained a heavy smoker for some years afterward, a former associate who spoke on condition of anonymity told AP.
President Bush described Carson as "a steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades. His wit and insight made Americans laugh and think and had a profound influence on American life and entertainment."
Carson made his debut as Tonight host in October 1962, soon impressing audiences with his boyish grin, charm and easy wit, becoming a late-night staple. Brought onstage every night by his sidekick, Ed McMahon, announcing "Heeeeere's Johnny!," his Tonight Show monologues, celebrity banter and the corny but hilarious shenanigans had the right mix of poignancy and humor, just on the polite side of risque.
McMahon said Sunday that Carson was "like a brother to me…When we ended our run on The Tonight Show and my professional life continued, whenever a big career decision needed to be made, I always got the OK from 'The Boss.'"
The TV icon taped his final Tonight Show on May 22, 1992, seen by 55 million. "I am one of the lucky people in the world. I have found something I liked to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it," a teary-eyed Carson said as he closed the show for the last time. "I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."
Actress-singer Bette Midler, who memorably serenaded Carson on his next-to-last show with "One More For My Baby," recalled him warmly Sunday, AP reports. "I was his last guest, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. He had it all. A little bit of devil, a whole lot of angel, wit, charm, good looks, superb timing and great, great class," Midler said in a statement.
Carson's graceful exit from Tonight, however, created a messy, bitter tug-of-war between Jay Leno and David Letterman on who would take over his throne. Leno was the winner, assuming the job in May, 1992 and becoming the fourth man to hold the job after Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Carson. Letterman landed on rival CBS as the host of his own Late Show.
"No single individual has had as great an impact on television as Johnny. He was the gold standard," Leno said. "All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again," added Letterman.
After retiring, Carson rarely ventured from in his Malibu, Calif., home, and made very few public appearances. In 1999, Carson had a quadruple bypass heart operation, and had to cut back on his extracurricular activities, including his life-long love of playing tennis and his annual treks to Africa, the French Riviera and the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
His nephew said there will be no memorial service.