Time to reminisce a bit and remember the impacts people have
on our lives.
The recent death of Johnny Carson was to me, more than just
the loss of a television icon, it had a personal connection
I hadn't often thought about.
People who are NOT in the media don't realize that after
a while, people in the "business" sometimes forget
about all the famous folks they have interviewed or met and
it's "no big deal" to have been around celebrities.
I guess I have to please guilty to that kind of snobbishness,
if that's the appropriate term.
Until I was reminded last summer by a former classmate, I
had forgotten about my appearance on the Tonight Show with
Johnny Carson in 1987. So I felt an extra twinge when the
news of Johnny's passing hit the news. It was the same kind
of feeling I experienced when former President Richard Nixon
died in the mid-90s. I realized how fortunate I had been to
be around such important people, and glad that I never let
the rubbing elbows with great people like them go to my head
and worsen an already heavy load of ego.
Both my media career and my business career have taken me
to planned and unplanned meetings with Hollywood and professional
sports celebrities, Governors, three Presidents, a King and
some foreign dignitaries, but it was just a part of the work.
However, my encounters with Nixon and Carson were special.
I won the right to interview President Nixon as a result
of winning a high school journalism writing contest and I
was petrified at the thought of making a total fool of myself
in the White House. I wanted to back out because it was so
foreign for me to accept that a as a former gang member growing
up in the federal housing projects at the waterfront, I was
going to sit face to face with the most powerful man in the
My late, great mother Blanca, a die-hard Democrat who despised
Republicans, would NEVER allow me to back out. She used a
little psychological trick to motivate me and at the same
time, get a little partisan dig into Nixon. It worked and
to this day, it helps me get through tough interviews and
She started by reminding me that Richard Nixon was just another
guy puts his pants on one leg at a time so I shouldn't fear
him. That wasn't enough, I told her. "What if I panic
or get intimidated by his stare?" Mom had all the answers.
"Just imagine him sitting on the toilet with his pants
up around his knees," she said. "He's no different
than you." It worked. The interview was easy and the
one time I started to panic, I envisioned the 37th President
of the United States sitting on the crapper.
When Nixon died the night of April 22, 1994, I was preparing
to do my commentary at KCOP, Channel 13 in Los Angeles. I
dropped my prepared commentary and instead, focused on not
only the quixotic life of Richard Nixon, but also my own brief
experience with him. My interaction with him had been a rare
opportunity, but an especially good one that left a lifelong
impression on me.
The Johnny Carson experience was a lot different than with
Nixon, but it was also very remarkable for me because it took
me to a new level of risk-taking in my life.
It was 1986 and I was the chief negotiator for a deal to
build a stadium for the then-Los Angeles Raiders NFL team
in a small town in the San Gabriel Valley called Irwindale,
known only in industrial circles as the home of gravel pits.
It was a Latino community controlled by five families but
with a tremendous amount of wealth from the rock quarries
that dotted the landscape. The city council had approved giving
the team a non-refundable, $10-million deposit for the right
to negotiate exclusively on the new stadium, and I was the
lucky one who actually handed the check to Raiders' owner
The deal became a national story and the notion that a city
of 1,040 could take the Raiders from Los Angeles shocked so
many in the sports and business worlds and it opened the way
for a lot of media opportunities for me. From the Today Show
to Nightline, I had a great time. But when the Johnny Carson
show called, I was so shocked I was sure someone was playing
a joke on me.
It was no joke. Johnny himself, I later learned, thought
it would be a hoot to interview me not in the studio like
he usually did with his guests, but behind a desk on a ledge
INSIDE the gravel pit where we wanted to build the new Raider
I met the camera crew at the pit, they wired me with a microphone,
and shortly after 6:30 p.m. on a warm summer night, the Tonight
Show with Johnny Carson got underway. I was the first interview
after Johnny's monologue because no one wanted to be in the
pit once the sun went down.
The interview started easy enough until Johnny started banging
on the small town that was "stealing" the Raiders
from L.A. Johnny's writers had given him a lot of nasty ammo
and I was not happy about it. Unfortunately, at the time,
I took some umbrage at seeing a small successful city of Latinos
being ridiculed on national television.
So I launched into a spontaneous comedy-like routine that
totally caught Johnny off-guard and was fed by his shock at
my conduct. I recall him saying to me, somewhat miffed or
bewildered (I never knew which) "Hey, who's in charge
here?" and I quickly replied, "Me, if you think
you're going to slam a wonderful little city like Irwindale."
Johnny didn't miss a beat, of course, and before I could
complete my sentence, he came back with "Well, I guess
all that dirty air in that gravel pit has gone to your head."
He was right and it drew a big laugh from his audience.
With the last punch line I will probably ever be able to
claim in my life in the media, I fired back: "Well being
in this gravel pit beats 'Beautiful Downtown Burbank' where
life is really the "pits'."
For those of you who remember, Johnny always referred to his
studio digs as being in "Beautiful Downtown Burbank."
I got one last laugh out of the audience but Johnny decided
he'd had enough of my one-liners and he deftly hung up the
phone connection and feigned a technical problem. I thought
my first AND last appearance on the Tonight Show had been
a bust. I later learned from Johnny's booking producer, the
late Jim McCawley, that the legend of television comedy had
SLIGHTLY enjoyed being caught off guard and appreciated my
quick retorts upon further reflection.
I later met Johnny Carson face to face at a party at the
Malibu home of another famous celebrity and when I reminded
him of my gravel pit challenge to him, he smiled and told
me,"That's okay. You'll never make it in comedy because
you can't take a joke." He was right that I would never
make it as a comedian, but my wife and kids have been telling
me that for years.
Nevertheless, when news of Johnny's death reached me during
a business trip to North Carolina, I reflected on a big lesson
I learned from him and from being on his show. I learned it's
good to take risks, but not to let your ego or a knee-jerk
reaction get you in over your head.
I also learned from Johnny Carson that when you have arrived
at the pinnacle of your life, as he had, you can feel comfortable
being on top, being in charge, and politely telling some buffoon
that he's really not that funny. And Johnny could say it with
the greatest of respect and the greatest of ease.
And though he may never have realized it, like Richard Nixon,
he taught me to be grateful for lessons learned from great