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So What Do You Do, Henry Bushkin, Attorney and Author of Johnny Carson?
Johnny Carson's longtime confidant on how his tell-all book came to be- October 16, 2013
Before any NBC miniseries about Johnny Carson, before Bill Zehme's long-gestating biography and before Jimmy Fallon grabs the mantle from Jay Leno, there is Henry Bushkin's book. And what a book it is.
Released this week by Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the recollections of Carson's longtime former attorney and close friend have already made major media headlines. Bushkin's no-holds-barred look at the mercurial personality of Carson is not designed to celebrate the late-night NBC franchise. Rather, it's a deeply personal and often shocking account of the off-air Carson. As such, it is destined to provoke very different reactions from Carson's fans.
Bushkin is based on the West coast, but when we spoke, he was in the midst of a busy New York visit. He began by explaining how the book project grew beyond his original plans to self-publish under the title A Hard Act to Follow.
Name: Henry Bushkin
Position: Lawyer and author
Resume: For 18 years, Bushkin was Johnny Carson's "personal legal adviser, fixer, confidant and close friend." In the years since, he has continued to practice law in Los Angeles while also investing in real estate, running a large computer distribution business and working for several international concerns. During Carson's run on The Tonight Show, he became affectionately known as "Bombastic Bushkin."
Birthdate: August 8
Hometown: New York
Education: LL.B Vanderbilt University
Marital status: Single, but soon to be otherwise
Media mentor: Johnny Carson
Best career advice received: Don't back down (Tom Petty)
Guilty pleasure: Sleeping late
Last book read: George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Deplored, Admired, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals -- And a Few Unappreciative Observers by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.
Twitter handle: @henrybushkin
In the book's acknowledgments, you explain how the impetus for the book came in 2008 from fellow (and subsequent) Carson attorney Ed Hookstratten. Can you explain a bit how you got from there to here?
Some time ago, I was about to self-publish the book. The book that has come out this week is essentially the same book. Frankly, when I was going to do it on my own with a small staff, it became apparent that Carson wasn't relevant in the eyes of New York publishers vis-a-vis New York editors. They thought he was just irrelevant.
When I had the manuscript in polished form, I sent it to a friend of mine in New York. She then immediately sent it to a friend of hers at Vanity Fair, and then she asked if she could send it to a friend of hers, an agent in New York. I said yes. And all of a sudden, there were five publishers bidding for it. So it had quite an evolution that took quite some time, with the book going through several gestation periods.
Did you ever cross paths in your efforts to get published with Bill Zehme, who has been working for a long time now on a separate biography of Carson?
Yes. Bill Zehme called me and emailed me countless times, hoping I would help him [with] his book. To be perfectly honest, he was [a] delightful and smart guy; he writes very well. But I had no interest in participating in his project. As far as I know, the book isn't even written yet. I'm not sure of the status, but I've heard various stories at various times about where it stands.
I'm quite surprised by the amount of attention my book has received. But nonetheless, we talk about it in terms of, "OK, now that this book is out, who would want to publish another Carson book? What would the other Carson book say?" Zehme's book was meant to be the homage to Carson.
|"Journalists just accepted whatever was put out by the sort of Carson machinery that was already well in place. I was well aware of that machinery, because I basically helped create it."|
One of the most telling chapters in your book is the final one, "The End," about how your relationship with Carson ended. You write at one point about how inaccurate and one-sided the media coverage was then of your parting and how no reporters bothered to contact you directly. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Well, whatever that moment in time was, journalists just accepted whatever was put out by the sort of Carson machinery that was already well in place. I was well aware of that machinery, because I basically helped create it. But that machinery spit out these things that the media picked up upon and they all of a sudden, because they were printed, became true.
And what happened with me, I found it very difficult to combat that. It was almost like sour grapes if you tried to combat it. So when the book was sold to Houghton Mifflin, they bought it as is; they had no right to change any of it. However, some of those last few things about how it ended with Carson, I didn't have that in the original manuscript. My ending ended with me and Johnny shaking hands after a three-minute conversation. That was my ending.
They insisted because of all this regurgitation of reportage about what happened in 1988 to '89, "Look, this is going to come up, so you better put something in there about what really happened at the end." I didn't think the story necessarily gained anything by having it in, but Houghton Mifflin insisted on it. And I didn't have to put it in, by the way. But ultimately, I agreed.
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Your book received a lot of advance attention and coverage in the media in connection with Chapter Two, which recounts you and Carson breaking into his second wife Joanne's NYC apartment in 1970 to find out who she was cheating with at the time. How was that orchestrated?
I'll tell you the genesis of that. First of all, it has nothing to do with me. At one point, Vanity Fair, People magazine and some others were talking about running a chapter or chapters of the book. The powers-that-be at the publisher decided that Entertainment Weekly would be the best spot to sell books.
They were given the right of first publication, meaning no other reviews could run until they ran whatever it was they were going to run. Their deal was they got one chapter, pick-the-chapter they want. And they picked that chapter.
That, by the way, is not the entire story. Because prior to that, I had done a phone interview with Jeffrey Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal. The response to the interview was such that the online interview then went to the front page of the online edition, and then it went in the newspaper, which they never do. He called me to tell me this never happens. He was amazed at the reaction that his interview was getting, picked up by so many people. The same thing happened with Entertainment Weekly.
And what it proves is that these publishers in New York were idiots, they really were. But maybe the timing is right now. Maybe Johnny is doing his renaissance now, who knows? But I'm happy that the book is attracting attention.
Did you read Kathie Lee Gifford's reaction to Chapter Two?
No. As far as the media coverage of Chapter Two, that's something that happened 43 years ago and the point of me writing that chapter was not to create controversy between Carson fans and myself, or between Frank Gifford and me, or whoever. It was to really show how I met the guy. That's how I met him! What am I supposed to do, not write it? I don't know what more to say other than to me, Gifford was not the punchline of the chapter at all. The punchline of that chapter is the bar scene, where we're sitting in the corner of the place at 3 a.m., and there's nobody else there "except you and me." That's what I thought the telling part of that chapter was. And the fact that the media focused on Joanne Carson and Frank Gifford, to me that was like the "So what?" part of it.
|"Everybody pays attention to that [chapter], and it's not comforting to me. That's like sensationalizing something I never intended to be sensational."|
Everybody pays attention to that, and it's not comforting to me. That's like sensationalizing something I never intended to be sensational. That's what they go for and that's what annoyed me. Because that had really nothing to do with what I intended in the chapter. The controversy bothers me because it's so ridiculous. What am I supposed to think, that I didn't go into Joanne's apartment?
And listen to this. The CEO of Houghton Mifflin gets a communiqué from Joanne Carson's personal assistant at the time, saying that Joanne Carson is a liar, please call me, I'll give you all details if you need them. To the publisher! And I say to myself, "How silly is this? Who cares? Why do they care now about this kind of thing?"
Do you have any thoughts on who should be cast as Johnny in that proposed NBC miniseries?
Look, I'm in New York. This week we're talking about the book, of course. But it was actually mostly devoted to other things. We are in the midst of some very interesting and confidential discussions about a Broadway play with music centered around a particular year, like 1980, in Carson's life and my life. Like a snippet. All I can say is that there's compelling interest in that. The Broadway audience is Carson's sweet spot. The entertainment value of it is going to be significant.
As far as the NBC miniseries, it's based on the Zehme book. Now we don't know if that book exists, so we don't know if the miniseries exists. But to the extent that it does, God bless. We have a very appealing way of approaching the subject matter because of the intimacy of the characters, versus showing Carson on The Tonight Show doing Aunt Blabby. That's fun and funny, but there's no brilliance there.
Finally, what are your thoughts about Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show?
I'm not really astute when it comes to that. But what I would say is I think it's a terrific move coming back to New York. Because when you think about The Tonight Show, most of the energy to that show was derived in New York. When it went to California in 1972, it was very successful. He was very much in command of that show. But the real creative energy, I would say, went into it when it was in New York. So I think Fallon is making the right move.
Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlNY.
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