Carson, who retired from television in 1992, had been in poor health for several years and underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1999.

He interviewed scores of actors, singers, politicians and other celebrities during his years on the ground-breaking programme, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland.

Carson’s 10-minute opening monologues, which were preceded by announcer’s Ed McMahon’s cry of “Heeeerreees Johnny!” set the standard for late night comedy.

A number of comedians, including Joan Rivers, David Letterman, Robin Williams, George Carlin, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Carson’s eventual successor Jay Leno, got their start appearing on the “Tonight Show.”

Aspiring comedians knew that being motioned over to the guest couch by Carson after performing their stand-up routine could instantly transform them from virtual unknowns to stars.

“This is the end of an era,” Rivers, a frequent guest host on the show, told Reuters.

“With Carson you went on once. You had his blessing, and the world knew you were funny.”

His very first guest in 1962 was Groucho Marx.

Seven years later, 45 million viewers tuned in to the on-air wedding of the falsetto-singing Tiny Tim to flower-child bride Miss Vicki.

Married four times, his three divorces left his personal fortune somewhat diminished but provided him with a wealth of comedy material.

He was a master ad-libber, and many of the show’s most celebrated moments were unscripted

Carson said one of his favourites was a segment in which actor Ed Ames, who played Daniel Boone’s Indian sidekick on a 1960s TV show, threw a tomahawk at a cowboy target, landing the weapon in the crotch area of the drawing.

As sustained peels of laughter died down, Carson quipped, “I didn’t even know you were Jewish,” igniting another round of laughter from the audience.

When he eventually retired in 1992 at the age of 66, 55 million Americans tuned into watch his final show.

In later years, Carson rarely ventured into the public eye.

In a 2002 Esquire magazine interview, he said he was content spending his retirement occupied with boating and playing poker with friends.

An on-air smoker for many years in an era before cigarettes were taboo on TV, he was diagnosed with emphysema in 2002.

Carson, once described as the last face millions of Americans saw before drifting off to sleep, was inducted into Television Hall of Fame in 1987 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992.

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