"Hi-ooh!" The sound resonates through the years. Often copied, no one found it as effective as did Ed McMahon.
McMahon spent 30 years, on the "Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson." As Carson walked out, to the applause, of the audience, McMahon shouted, "Hi-ooh," in a drawn out way. He was sidekick, second banana and cheerleader.
When a joked bombed, as did many Carson jokes, McMahon yelled, "Hi-ooh," through his laughter. That was the audience cue to respond, to laughter, to shout catcalls and applaud. Carson would glance at McMahon, his eyes saying, "We did it again; got a bigger laugh from a groaner than great joke."
The yell is as distinctive as the man who made it famous. Ed McMahon is an entertainer, in the old sense of the world. He began calling bingo games, at age 15. He worked as a local and network television host and announcer. He pitched products, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. He acted, on-stage and in movies. Most of all, McMahon created the talk show sidekick role, on the "Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson."
Among many assignments, McMahon, in 1957, replaced Bill Nimmo as announcer and sidekick on "Who Do You Trust," a television game show. Hosting the show was Johnny Carson. McMahon played the sidekick role to Carson for the next 35 years, uninterrupted.
"He created the role of talk show sidekick," says Howard Lapides, CEO of Lapides/Lear. "Knowing his place was his speciality. What people don't realize that he could always take 'first chair'; he was the vice-president of the "Tonight Show."
The model sidekick, McMahon wit was quick and his humour uproarious. What he knew best was how not to show up the boss, Carson. In this sense, McMahon set the tone for future sidekicks: know how to be flat, but encouraging.
McMahon was the top sidekick, better than Hope to Crosby or love to marriage. "His timing was lock step, with Caron," says Lapides, who manages several comedians. "He could measure his words and elevate the comedy. He rarely missed a beat or the chance to rally the audience."
"McMahon had a place in the limelight by doing his best to remain out of the limelight," says Lapides. "He guest hosted, the "Tonight Show" once. It was in a pinch, a last, last-minute call. He pulled it off, flawlessly, but he wisely chose to make guest hosting a habit."
Freddy de Cordova produced the "Tonight Show." He once said to McMahon, "I've been producing this show for twenty years. I still don't know exactly what it is that you do. Whatever it is you do, you're the best at it."
"Carson and McMahon were bread-and-butter. A Carson joke or comment could bomb, and often did, but worked because McMahon added the 'Hi-ooh," the cue for the audience to react. The one-two was so well-oiled," says Lapides, "that he and Carson turned bombing a receipt for success. This was comedy perfection.
"Carson always gets top billing, as he should," Lapides says. "Yet, McMahon was essential. No McMahon, no "Tonight Show" franchise, today." McMahon set the rules for all sidekicks to come, and made the "Tonight Show" a huge success.
Paul Schaffer, bandleader and sidekick to David Letterman, knows the role well. He may be the sidekick, after McMahon. Other talk show hosts avoid sidekicks, fearing competition.
At one point, Andy Richter was sidekick to Conan O'Brien, on 'Late Night." He had the sidekick role down, if not as well as Schaffer, then better than did anyone else. Richter left "Late Night" to pursue other interests, but returns as sidekick when O'Brien takes over the "Tonight Show," on 13 September 2009.
The laughter, of Ed McMahon, is always genuine as is his caring for others. "McMahon is one of the kindest people I met in show business," says Howard Lapides. "He would always remember to ask about my family. I don't think he ever turned down a request, to help out, if time permitted." McMahon lends his celebrity and his time to St. Jude's Ranch for Children, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the United Negro College Fund, among many other charitable causes.
Born Edward Leo Peter, in Detroit, Michigan, in 1923, he was the only child of Edward McMahon and Eleanor Russell. His father, the consummate entrepreneur, worked mostly as a travelling salesperson. McMahon says he got his size, sturdy work ethic and ability to tell a story from his father. From his mother, says McMahon, I learned ethics, grace and style.
During his childhood, the McMahon family was always on the move. A transient lifestyle, and an inherent shyness, made these years difficult. McMahon suggests his lousy childhood contributed to his wish for a show business career.
I wanted acceptance and love, he says, beyond my parents. Show business offered what I wanted. I was lucky enough to spend my adult life do exactly what I spent my childhood dreaming of doing.
The one highlight, of his childhood, was spending summers, in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the home of his grandparents, Joseph McMahon and Katherine Fitzgerald. His grandfather had a successful plumbing business, where Ed helped. It didn't take long, he says, to decide crawling under the Elk Club hall, to unclog bathroom pipes, was not a career for me.
His grandmother, Katie, was his best friend. She was cousin to Rose Fitzgerald, mother of US President, John Kennedy. My grandmother, says McMahon, had class and style that resembles the Kennedys and I tried to copy.
During summers in Lowell, radio was an escape. McMahon learned the introduction to most radio shows. He repeated the commercials from memory, and mimicked the on-air celebrities. His favourite radio celebrities included Paul Douglas, a character actor and sometimes sidekick, and Fred Waring, the bandleader and always a sidekick.
At age 15, the booming McMahon voice and radio mimicking paid off: a bingo hall hired him to call games. Then he worked summers as a carnival barker. After graduating from Lowell High, McMahon spent a year at Boston College before enlisting in the US Marines.
During World War II, McMahon was a Marine pilot, stationed in Florida. He was a test pilot and flight instructor, training new pilots to land on and take-off-from aircraft carriers. He did not see any combat.
In Florida, McMahon met and married Alyce Ferrell. After the war, he moved, with wife and daughter, Claudia, to Washington, DC, to attend Catholic University. To pay for college and support his family, McMahon sold vegetable slicers, on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, pots and pans door-to-door and ran a dry-cleaning service, called Dutch Cleaners. The McMahons spent summers in Lowell, where he worked on WLLH-AM, doing the overnight shift. In 1949, he received a BA, majoring in speech and drama.
Almost the day after graduation, WCAU-TV, in Philadelphia, hired McMahon. That job was interesting, he says. A major television station hired me and never asked if I had a set. I didn't. We couldn't afford it. Alyce and I offered free babysitting, to our friends, in exchange for the chance to watch television.
I co-hosted a local show, WCAU-TV, called "The Take Ten Show." Someone said, "We need to fill three hours." Someone else said, "Give it to McMahon and Bob Russell." When we asked about the content of the show, yet another person said, "Do whatever you want." We did, and it worked.
More local shows came his way. In 1950, McMahon worked as a clown on "Big Top," a Sunday morning circus show, and co-hosted "Home Highlights," on WCAU-TV. He also hosted the prototype breakfast show, called "Strictly for the Girls."
The war in Korea took McMahon away from television. He flew 85 combat missions, without a scratch. Back in Philadelphia, in 1952, he found all his shows, on WCAU-TV, cancelled.
McMahon joined WFIL-TV, also in Philadelphia. From 1952 to 1958, he was the announcer on "American Bandstand," hosted by Dick Clark. When the ABC network picked up the show, I was gone, he says.
Starting in 1956, I commuted every day from Philadelphia to New York City, he says. I was looking for work in a much larger market and, maybe, on network television. As luck had it, I got my network break at home, in Philadelphia.
One weekend, says McMahon, I hosted a party for Dick Clark. I did a little impromptu emceeing, during the party. Dick Reeves, a producer for NBC, liked what I did and offered me a job, that night.
Bill Nimmo was leaving "Who Do You Trust." Reeves needed an announcer. I accepted, on the spot. A few weeks later, I met Carson, for the first time.
"Who Do You Trust" was a hit. NBC let Carson run wild, 1950s style. Any idea about limiting Carson would have doomed the show. Mostly, Carson needed to use saucy "double entendres." If the studio audience missed the double meaning, McMahon didn't and he kept Carson going.
When Carson moved to the "Tonight Show," I seemed the logical choice for sidekick, says McMahon. Carson and McMahon worked together for most of their careers, almost half their lives. We had something that bordered on ESP, says McMahon.
Although the "Tonight Show" was a network hit, the money wasn't good, says McMahon. I did a great many television commercials to pay the bills. Budweiser beer and Alpo dog food may be the best know commercials and, years later, I showed up, in the flesh, at front door of winners of the American Family Publishing sweepstakes.
McMahon hosted several games shows, on NBC, during the 1960s, as well as the annual "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." He hosted "Star Search," for its thirteen-year run. From 1982 to 1998, McMahon and Dick Clark hosted "TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes."
Dinner theatre holds special interest for McMahon, who performed in "Guys and Dolls," and "Annie Get Your Gun," among others. He had roles in several movies, including "The Incident," "Full Moon High," "Butterfly" and "Fun with Dick and Jane," and a cameo in "Love Affair," with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.
His nightclub show played Las Vegas for five years. More recently, McMahon hosted a weekend talk programme on USA Radio Network called, "Lifestyles Live." Most recently, McMahon rapped, in series of television commercials, which made light of his personal financial problems.
McMahon married Alyce Ferrill, in 1949. They had four children, Claudia, Linda, Jeffery and Michael, who passed away, in 1995, at age 44. Celebrity status and growing demands of his work led to family problems. When the "Tonight Show" moved to Los Angeles, the McMahons separated; their marriage ended, in divorce, in 1976.
Late in 1976, McMahon married Victoria Valentine. They adopted Katherine Mary, but divorced in 1989 after he discovered she was having an affair with a Los Angeles police officer. It was painful time, he openly admits.
On a blind date, in 1992, McMahon met fashion designer, Pamela Hurn. They married shortly after meeting. After their marriage, McMahon adopted Lex Hurn, the son Pamela.
In 2002, the McMahons and several members of their household staff became ill. The culprit was toxic mould caused by improperly repaired plumbing. McMahon sued the contractors, eventually settling for $7 million.
Walking up a poorly aligned ramp, at the home of friends, Robert and Kelly Day, McMahon fell, breaking his neck. The first examination, of his injury, missed the broken neck. The misdiagnoses lead to two surgeries, both improperly performed. A suit against Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for fraud, battery, elder abuse and emotional distress awaits a court date.
The McMahon malpractice suit against Cedars-Sinai Medical Facility and a physician associated, with the hospital, settled on 4 May 2009, but his suit against the Days continues. On 4 May 2009, lawyers for McMahon filed a motion to exclude evidence, testimony or arguments, offered in the Cedars-Sinai case, from use in his case against the Days. The motion suggests a "significant danger" exists that the jury, in the suit against the Days, may conclude the Cedars decision sufficiently compensated McMahon.
Unable to work, full-time, since 2002, McMahon fell into debt. Donald Trump offered to buy the McMahon home, in 2008, leasing it back to them for one dollar a year. The house has not sold and rumours persist the McMahons accepted the Trump offer, after the publicity about their circumstances settled down.
In February 2009, McMahon entered hospital for pneumonia. News he suffers bone cancer and related complications was leaked. According to his publicist, Howard Bragman, McMahon is not at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, remains optimistic and hopes to return to work. He passed away, in the early morning hours, of 23 June 2009.
Click here to view the most television commercials featuring Ed McMahon. The spots are for Free Credit Report and mock his financial problems, in a rap. As everything McMahon did in his 70-year career, the spots are entertaining and then some.
Christine Grail, aka the Script Consultant, is a Los Angeles-based writer.
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