The Tragic 1991 Death Of Johnny Carson's Son, Richard

Johnny Carson was the king of late-night TV for decades as the host of "The Tonight Show." He began his reign in 1962, taking over for Jack Paar, according to The New York Times. Quick-witted and funny, Carson became one of America's most beloved entertainers. He was also known as a deeply private man away from the cameras who preferred to keep his own company and stay out of the spotlight. Carson did, however, sometimes joke about his many marriages.

Carson retired from the show in 1992, letting comedian Jay Leno fill his shoes. Carson's retirement came not long after he suffered a terrible personal tragedy. His son, Richard "Rick" Carson, had died the previous year. Rick Carson was one of three sons born to Johnny and his first wife Joan "Jody" Wolcott. The couple had met while they were students at the University of Nebraska. He had gone to college after serving in the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II, according to CNN.

Carson married Wolcott in 1949, the same year he graduated from college. By this time, he had already launched his broadcasting career. He had landed a job as an announcer with a local radio station (via The New York Times). The couple soon welcomed the first of their three children. Their oldest son Christopher was born in 1950, followed by middle child Richard in 1952, and finally, their youngest, Cory, was born in 1953.

Carson reportedly more focus on career than kids

The Carson family moved around, following the path of Johnny's career. They lived in Los Angeles where Carson worked on a variety of projects, including serving as a writer for comedian Red Skelton, per the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. He even had his own radio program after college — The Johnny Carson Show," which aired on weekdays. After the stint with Red Skelton, CBS gave Carson his own TV show, but it was canceled after about eight months on the air. The next stop for the family was New York where Carson started out as a substitute host for quiz shows. He eventually became the host of "Who Do You Trust?" in 1957.

While Carson was a rising star on television, his marriage to Jody was about to crash into the ground. The couple separated in 1959, and they finalized their divorce in 1962, according to a United Press International report. One of the apparent issues was Carson's devotion to his career over his family. Jody once said, "Like anybody else on the way up, he was too busy for us."

Rick Carson followed in dad's footsteps

It's unclear what Johnny Carson's relationship with his sons was like after he and his first wife split. He remarried not long after the divorce was final, tying the knot with Joanne Copeland in 1963, per CNN. His son Rick did try to follow in his father's footsteps in several different ways. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but that move proved to be a disaster. Rick reportedly had a drinking problem and developed some mental health issues while stationed in Alaska, according to the Buffalo News. He ended up in Bellevue Hospital in New York City for treatment, but his father allegedly never came to visit.

Rick Carson also spent some time in the entertainment industry. He worked as a production assistant on "Tomorrow," according to People magazine. The show was hosted by Tom Snyder, and it was originally taped in the same NBC building as "Saturday Night Live" in New York City, according to an article on NextTV written by Andy Friendly, a friend of Rick's. He wrote that Rick had been the show's stage manager and eventually became an associate director. The show moved from New York to Los Angeles during its run. Friendly said that Rick had struggled professionally after "Tomorrow" ended.

Rick Carson died in a car crash

Rick Carson eventually became a photographer, and he was especially interested in capturing images of landscapes and the natural world, according to the Los Angeles Times. In June 1991, he was driving along Cayucos Drive, a service road that runs alongside California's Highway 1, which is near the Pacific Ocean. Carson's car went over the edge of the road and fell down an embankment. Carson was thrown from the car, which had rolled over several times as it fell, per a UPI report. He died of his injuries.

It was believed that Carson had become distracted while driving. He may have been trying to take some photographs when the accident occurred. Camera equipment was found at the site. The official cause of the accident was listed as the vehicle making an unsafe turn.

Rick Carson was only 39 years old when he died. In his grief, his father Johnny Carson took four weeks off from his TV show after the accident. In his first TV appearance after his son's death, Johnny Carson shared photos of Rick and photos taken by his son with his viewers. 

He spoke of his son, saying "When Rick was around, you wanted to smile. He had a laugh that was contagious as could be. He tried so darn hard to please," according to Esquire magazine. Carson went on to say that the loss of his son reminded him of what was really important in life.