Fred De Cordova, Johnny Carson's longtime producer and sometime butt of his jokes, dies at 90

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Fred De Cordova, who produced ``The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson&#39;&#39; for 22 years and called it ``the best job in television,&#39;&#39; has died. He was 90. <br><br>De Cordova

Monday, September 17th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Fred De Cordova, who produced ``The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson'' for 22 years and called it ``the best job in television,'' has died. He was 90.

De Cordova died Saturday of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills, said Carla White, a hospital spokeswoman.

A suave, elegant man who remained strikingly handsome in his 80s, De Cordova proved the perfect overseer for Carson's brand of entertainment. De Cordova could make split-second decisions to keep the show moving. He kept a close eye on the broadcast from his station offstage, where he was often seen on camera answering Carson's questions or serving as the butt of a joke.

``I can't think of anything else that would be as interesting and as much fun as this,'' he once said. ``It's the best job in television.''

He wouldn't hesitate if a guest needed to be bumped off the show for time reasons. He even bumped himself twice when he was scheduled to appear and plug his 1988 autobiography, ``Johnny Come Lately.''

``He cares,'' de Cordova wrote of Carson. ``He does not phone it in. He works very hard and he wants everyone else to work as hard as he does.''

He started his show business career in the theater, then came to Hollywood in 1942 as a dialogue director at Warner Bros. He moved up to director in 1945, but most of his films involved medium-size budgets and lesser stars.

Among the titles: ``That Way with Women,'' ``The Countess of Monte Cristo,'' ``The Gal Who Took the West,'' ``Here Come the Nelsons'' (with Ozzie and Harriet and sons) and ``I'll Take Sweden'' (Bob Hope).

His 1951 comedy ``Bedtime for Bonzo,'' with Ronald Reagan as a college professor who experiments with raising a chimpanzee, became a target for satirists when Reagan turned to politics.

``I thought it then and I still think it is a good movie,'' De Cordova said in a 1988 interview with The Orange County Register. ``But until Ronald Reagan became governor of California, it was just another picture. Now it's all anybody talks about, including Johnny.''

When television was booming in the 1950s and 1960s, De Cordova produced or directed such series as ``December Bride'' and ``My Three Sons'' and variety shows starring Jack Benny, George Gobel, Burns and Allen and the Smothers Brothers.

He began as producer of ``The Tonight Show'' in 1970, eight years after Carson became the show's star, and became executive producer in 1984. After Carson retired in 1992, De Cordova remained as executive consultant for Jay Leno.

De Cordova was born Oct. 27, 1910, in New York City and spent a childhood on the move. As he revealed in his memoir, his parents were con artists, living in posh hotels and dining in top restaurants, then skipping town without paying.

``My father made up for his aberration by bringing me up scrupulously honest ...,'' De Cordova said. ``He sat me down and admonished me as to how vitally important it was.''

De Cordova was studying law at Harvard when he decided on a life in the theater. In 1933 he joined the Shubert theatrical organization in New York and worked his way up to director and producer.

Over the years De Cordova and his wife, Janet, remained highly popular in Hollywood society. Expectably, he had little derogatory to say in his autobiography about any of the stars he worked with, and certainly not Carson.

``I'm a great fan,'' he admitted, ``so it wasn't likely I would say Johnny is a star but not a nice guy. ... We've had our differences, but we've never carried anything over to the next day.''

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