Here's Who Inherited Johnny Carson's Money After His Death

Hosts of late night television shows include an ever-growing handful of stars like Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman, and Lilly Singh. These shows combine comedy, games, gags, celebrity guests, and musical performances. Late night talk shows date back to the early days of television itself. Such shows have also branched out from network channels like CBS and NBC to include cable channels. For example, "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" aired on TBS, as did "Conan" for over 10 years. The roots of the talk show entertainment genre spring from deep roots in the history of television itself.

Not all of these contemporary shows follow the same format that we've all come to associate with a late night talk show, but those on network stations like "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" grew from earlier shows with lighthearted content. PBS credits "The Tonight Show with Steve Allen" as the first variety-show-meets-talk-show format. It originated from New York City, airing nationally beginning in autumn 1954 (via IMDb).

Celebrity A-listers frequented The Tonight Show

Steve Allen's "Tonight Show" only ran from 1954 to 1957. Jack Paar took over for five years, but it was Johnny Carson who became a staple of late night programming for more than 40 years (per CNN). He continued the comedy monologue, celebrity interviews, and musical performance schedule that Paar made routine. Carson hosted "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" on NBC from 1962 to 1992 (per TV Guide). The show received multiple Emmy nominations. Among his Emmy wins was one for outstanding variety, music or comedy program in 1992. The show featured some 22,000 guests over these decades (per the Los Angeles Times), including A-listers like Betty White, Steve Martin, Desi Arnaz, and Olivia Newton-John. 

Carson's show also allowed for new entertainers to receive exposure. Jay Leno performed stand-up on Carson's show years prior to taking over as host, making it "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (per Celebrity Net Worth). It's widely accepted that Ellen DeGeneres, herself a major player in the talk show game, got a life-changing break in her career after performing her standup act on "Tonight" in 1986 (per Us Weekly). David Letterman, another talk show powerhouse, said simply, "He gave me a career" (via the Los Angeles Times).

Johnny Carson's last wife was Alexis Maas

According to PBS, ratings for Johnny Carson's version of "The Tonight Show" skyrocketed, nearly doubling those of the already successful Steve Allen and Jack Paar iterations. Running a popular television show for decades easily makes for some great paychecks. Celebrity Net Worth states that Carson was the highest paid television-based celebrity in the 1970s. His salary peaked at $25 million per year by the early 1990s. When he died in 2005, around 13 years after retiring from "The Tonight Show," his net worth was $300 million. However, Carson was generous and established his own charitable foundation, The John W. Carson Foundation (also known as the Johnny Carson Foundation, per Preqin). The foundation was the beneficiary of Carson's trust, valued at $156 million, which later grew to $200 million; its purpose is to "support children, education, and health services particularly in Los Angeles and in Nebraska," the state where he grew up. Carson left another $4 million to the Los Angeles Children's Hospital.

Carson did not forget entirely about his family in his will, however. He had a private, but complex family life. Carson married four times. When Lucille Ball was a guest on his show, she joked, "You get married a lot." In between marriages, he briefly dated Sally Field, among others. Eventually, he settled down again. He was married to his last wife, Alexis Maas (above), from 1987 until his death in 2005. This was by far his longest relationship marriage (per Showbiz CheatSheet).

Carson left most of his money to charity and to his family

As Johnny Carson's widow, Alexis Maas inherited the money that Carson did not leave to charity and to his foundation. She split the inheritance with Carson's remaining sons Chris and Cory (per CelebAnswers). Carson's son Richard died in a car crash in 1991. All of Carson's children were with his first wife, Jody Morrill Wolcott. Today, Carson's descendants keep low profiles. None of his children followed in his footsteps to Hollywood. Biographer Henry Bushkin (2013's "Johnny Carson"), Carson's former attorney, stated that Carson's children "never gave him anything to be particularly proud of" (per Closer Weekly). Maas also inherited the Malibu estate where Carson had lived from the 1980s until his death. The Dirt reports she sold the four-acre property in 2007 for $36.5 million.

Though he did leave part of his estate to his surviving sons, it is clear that he did not necessarily have close relationships with any of them. Even so, the death of Richard made him "conscious of what's important." He retired from television just a year later. During his signoff he addressed his sons: "I realize that being the offspring of someone who is constantly in the public eye is not easy. So guys, I want you to know that I love you" (per the Los Angeles Times). He lived the rest of his life rather privately.

Not only does Carson's legacy live on in his philanthropic work, but also in the present-day late night talk shows. Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show" in 2014 (per Britannica). It is up to everyone's own opinion which host was the best of the three, but Carson definitely holds a place in late night history and in the hearts of his fans for his humor and humanity throughout his life.