With so many talk show hosts elbowing for our late night TV viewing attention — Jay and Dave and Jimmy and Jimmy and Craig and Conan and Jon and Stephen and Chelsea and Carson — it’s hard to remember that there was a time when there was just Johnny. For 30 years on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson dominated the late night landscape along with his stalwart sidekick Ed McMahon, putting the nation to bed with a formula of monologue, celebrity interview, occasional skit, and musical guest that remains more-or-less intact to this day.
But while Johnny was a fixture of American culture, part of his legend is that he remained essentially a mystery — an intensely private man who granted few interviews and all but disappeared from public view from when he retired in 1992 to when he died in 2005. That may soon change. Deadline is reporting that a biopic about Carson is currently in the works, with screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan, this month’s Hitchcock) adapting journalist Bill Zehme’s forthcoming biography Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait. There is no studio or director yet attached to the project — and since the book has yet to be released, everything remains in the embryonic stages. But with a subject who looms so large in American pop culture, all producer Tom Thayer (Hitchcock) would likely need to do is hook an A-list star to play Carson — and perhaps another A-lister as McMahon — and he could be well on his way to a greenlight.
So who could play Carson and McMahon? We held several envelopes to our heads and came up with a list of prospective actors, some more obvious than others.
Kevin Spacey: It’s actually kinda unfair to start with Spacey, because anyone who saw his Carson imitation on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon knows the Oscar-winner has the guy nailed. Watch it here, and marvel. Basically, this role is Spacey’s to lose.
Robert Downey Jr.: Crack comic timing and a wry deadpan delivery? Check. Plus, it would be really nice to see Downey in a film where the biggest fight scenes involve Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Jim Carrey: He understands the power of Carson better than most: He bombed in very first appearance on American television doing a meta Elvis Presley impression on The Tonight Show. Plus, Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon has already proven he can bridge the gap between an imitation and a lived-in performance.
Bill Hader: There may not be a better impressionist working today, and the SNL MVP is long overdue for a breakout feature film role.
Will Ferrell: Especially if producers go with a non-comedian for the Carson role, Ferrell could bring some welcome comedy chops to the production.
Josh Brolin: As George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W., Brolin showed he is a crackerjack mimic — and his SNL hosting gig earlier this year proved he’s no slouch at comedy either.
Jeffrey Tambor: He knows this role better than most, having played hapless sidekick Hank Kingsley on HBO’s brilliant late night send-up The Larry Sanders Show. Plus, his baritone would be perfect saying “Herrrrre’s Johnny!”
Bill Hader: He’s such a versatile impressionist, Hader could play both Carson and McMahon.