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Longtime friends: McMahon was a 'rock' and 'a star in his own right'

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed McMahon, who died Tuesday, was known as a sidekick -- but also a "star"
  • His outgoing public persona was in contrast to that of his boss, Johnny Carson
  • "Tonight" bandleader Doc Severinsen: "Ed defined what the sidekick was"
  • Joan Rivers: "When you needed him, he was a rock"
By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- When it came to second bananas, Ed McMahon was second to none.

Ed McMahon turned being a sidekick into art.

Ed McMahon turned being a sidekick into art.

McMahon, known to generations of Americans through "Tonight," "Star Search," "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" and as a commercial pitchman, died Tuesday. He was 86.

For 30 years on the "Tonight Show" -- and several years more beforehand -- he was Johnny Carson's trusty sidekick, introducing him, feeding him straight lines, making the guests comfortable on the couch.

It was a job that generally aimed the spotlight at Carson, the host. But it made McMahon a star nonetheless.

"He was a star in his own right. Being a sidekick didn't mean he was any less," Doc Severinsen, the longtime "Tonight" bandleader, told CNNRadio. "Johnny defined what the host should be and Ed defined what the sidekick was."

David Letterman, whose "Late Night" followed Carson's show on NBC from 1982 to 1993, said in a statement: "Ed McMahon's voice at 11:30 was a signal that something great was about to happen. Ed's introduction of Johnny was a classic broadcasting ritual -- reassuring and exciting. Ed was a true broadcaster, and an integral part of Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show.' We will miss him." Photo Gallery: Ed McMahon through the years »

McMahon, known to generations of Americans through "Tonight," "Star Search," "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" and as a commercial pitchman, died Tuesday. He was 86.

While Carson could be insular and shy off camera, McMahon was always possessed of an outsized, hail-fellow-well-met attitude, comedian Joan Rivers -- a frequent "Tonight" guest and guest host -- told CNN.

"I remember him with great affection, and I remember him [as] very solid whenever I hosted the show. ... When you needed him, he was a rock. A real rock," recalled Rivers. "He went beyond the 'Tonight Show' and had his own identity and America liked him very much. He was a good guy. He was the neighbor." Video Watch Rivers' memories of McMahon »

Dick Clark -- who really was McMahon's neighbor in 1950s Philadelphia, when Clark hosted "American Bandstand" and McMahon was a local TV star -- remembered his "Bloopers" co-host as a man with "a really big heart."

"Fifty years ago, Ed and I were next-door neighbors. Over the years, our friendship grew while he became one of America's favorite television personalities," he said in a statement. "We were together for years. Ed was a big man, had big talent and a really big heart. We'll all miss him."

Rivers remembers McMahon as someone who was always willing to reach out. After she left the Carson show -- which she had hosted frequently in Johnny's absence -- for her own late-night show, she remembered becoming persona non grata with many in Hollywood. But not McMahon.

"Ed McMahon always, whenever he would come in a restaurant or see me anywhere, would make it his business to come over and say hello," Rivers said. "And that was going against, quote-unquote, 'boss' orders.' " Video Watch McMahon recall the invention of "Carnac the Magnificent" »

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The boss, however, knew his sidekick's value. In vaudeville vernacular, a "second banana" was the guy who played off the star comedian (the "top banana"). He was the straight man, the set-up guy, the performer who smoothed the way and occasionally got in his own line, all in the service of the lead. And few were better than McMahon.

"Ed was the best at what he did and will never be replaced," said Don Rickles, a longtime friend, in a statement. "Another giant is gone."

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