Friday, August 08, 2014

Adventures In Lawyering

I just read Henry Bushkin's book on Johnny Carson.  Those who remember Carson may also remember the many jokes about his lawyer, "Bombastic Bushkin" (the nickname came from comedy writer and Carson favorite Pat McCormick). Is anyone still interested?  Bushkin says people still care, but, with Letterman retiring, Carson feels further away than ever.  And while we still watch old movies, or old sitcoms like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, nothing dates faster than old talk shows.  Still, Bushkin was Carson's lawyer for almost two decades when Johnny was at the top, and he has plenty of stories to tell. (Actually, the book is selling quite well, so I guess there still is an audience.)

It's one of those odd show biz stories how Bushkin was hired in the first place. In 1970, he was a 27-year-old entertainment lawyer of little note working in New York. He met Johnny through a mutual acquaintance, and Carson, who didn't trust people, liked him enough to give him a shot. Of course, this wasn't a normal assignment.  The first thing he had to do was go along with Johnny and break into the secret apartment of his second wife, since Carson suspected he could find evidence of a tryst. (They found it--she was having an affair with Frank Gifford.) Bushkin helped handle the divorce, though he had no expertise in family law, and soon was Johnny's guy.

The first thing he did was look at Carson's finances, which were a mess. His agents, manager and network were all screwing him, as far as Bushkin was concerned.  Johnny fired a lot of people and Bushkin took over.  Bushkin did a good job (according to Bushkin).  The biggest moment was in 1979, when Johnny was the king of late night with no serious competition.  He was ready to quit when his contract was up, and Bushkin (with leverage from a secret ABC offer) was able to get Johnny one of the richest TV contracts ever.  Not only was he paid millions every year, he also got to own his show as well as the hour after, was required to produce only three new hours a week, and got to take 13 weeks off each year.

Not so successful was Johnny's third marriage. Johnny liked getting married, though he didn't seem to know what to do after the ceremony. Bushkin pushed for a pre-nup, but at the last second Johnny said no.  That decision would cost him $35 million when the inevitable divorce came a bit over a decade later--a lot of money to cough up even for someone as rich as Carson.

Bushkin talks plenty about deals, but he did a lot more than that. He was a close advisor, a hand-holder, a tennis partner (making sure the boss usually won)--whatever was required.  He accompanied Johnny on trips to Vegas, and their adventures there helped break up Bushkin's marriage.  Once free, he had relationships with Joyce DeWitt of Three's Company and Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight, among others.

Bushkin had nothing to say about how the Tonight Show was run--that was Johnny's gig--but almost everything else he helped set up.  He got Johnny invested in a lot of projects, including show biz--with Carson Productions--as well as real estate and clothes manufacturing.

Johnny himself was quite mercurial.  In fact, it's often a negative portrait Bushkin paints.  Carson was a lousy husband and cold to his kids. Apparently Johnny's father never said anything and his mother always held back her approval, so he wasn't an easy guy to please.  And while he could be charming, he usually didn't like to meet people, and could turn nasty with almost no provocations.  He smoked four packs a day (which led to bad health) and drank an awful lot--enough to be called a functional alcoholic, I'd say.

Unfortunately, the relationship, like so many in Johnny's life, ended in acrimony.  In 1988, Bushkin made a deal to sell Carson Productions (which Johnny no longer seemed interested in--he lost interest in many projects along the way) behind Johnny's back.  Johnny got wind of it and that was that.  Johnny prized loyalty above all and, even after 18 years of service, Bushkin was out.

Johnny retired soon after, but he and Bushkin were done.  Still, Bushkin gives the impression he wouldn't have traded those wild years for anything.


Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

The wild years and the money. Don't forget the money.

5:05 AM, August 08, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May a weird holy man exchange underwear with your grandmother.

6:08 AM, August 08, 2014  

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