I don’t want to pretend I knew Ed McMahon really well. I was on his Star Search a few times as a judge, and I frequently ran into him at Morton’s, Mister Chow, and other Hollywood watering holes. He always used to tell me he wished he had paid more attention to my articles about personal finance, and I guess he wasn’t kidding.
But I knew him really well the way 200 million Americans knew him — as a calming, friendly, affable pal whom we could tune into almost every night along with the world’s most likable guy, Johnny Carson.
He was from a different era, the era when Hollywood people were supposed to be likable grownups, not drug-snorting, obscene brats. He was the guy you would want as your next door neighbor, the one who would listen to you without judging you, and who would, at the end of your rant, just smile, shake your hand, say, “Pal, that’s life,” and offer you a beer. He was also the guy who was a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and in Korea, flying incredibly dangerous missions in artillery observer aircraft. Naturally, he never bragged about it. Never.
He wasn’t snarly or snarky and I don’t remember him ever saying a mean word about any guest or anyone. He was just there to be America’s best friend’s best friend.
I like many of today’s late night hosts, and Jimmy Kimmel is one of my closest friends, but he’s a kid. To me, Ed McMahon, about 25 years older than I am, was what an adult should be — confident, diffident about his fame, just a regular guy, when being a regular guy was a good thing.
Many years ago, before I came to Hollywood myself, I lived in New York in a penthouse with an astonishing view. That was before apartments in New York were prohibitive. But anyway, it was the loneliest time of my life. The only time I felt as if I had any friends at all was when I switched on The Tonight Show, and I felt as if I had a crackling fire and pals in my life, instead of no one. When the show was over, I had the distinct feeling that the fire was out, but it would be lit again the next night.
Now, both Johnny and Ed are gone, and the fire is out for good, and it’s lonely again. By the way, I don’t want to hear another word about his personal finances. He was hired by America to be our pal, not to teach home economics. And he was darned good at his job.