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Perry Cross, Johnny Carson’s first ‘Tonight Show’ producer, dies at 95


Perry Cross, who was Johnny Carson’s first producer The tonight show before leaving to head an ABC program hosted by Jerry Lewis that came and went after 13 episodes, has passed away. He turned 95.

Cross died of kidney cancer at a Los Angeles hospital on March 9, his son Larry Cross said The Hollywood Reporter.

Cross began producing Ernie Kovacs’ weekday morning show in 1952 and also worked The Red Skelton Hour, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Soupy sales show, Living with Linkletter, The Garry Moore Show and several Jonathan Winters live specials throughout his career.

Cross had produced The tonight show in the immediate aftermath of host Jack Paar’s departure on March 30, 1962, he supervised the NBC program in Hollywood and New York with guest hosts for six months until Carson took over.

NBC wanted Cross to be Carson’s producer, while the new host preferred Art Stark, who had produced his ABC daytime quiz show. Who do you trust? To test the chemistry, Cross, Carson, sidekick Ed McMahon and a few others spent a week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“We went out every night, we went to different places, we laughed,” Cross told Mark Malkoff on a 2015 episode of The Carson Podcast. “We were all good drinkers at the time. That didn’t hurt.”

Cross said they danced onstage wearing hula skirts — “that’s after about four mai tais,” he recalls — and rode speedboats. Carson also created characters during the journey, including Aunt Blabby and Carnac the Magnificent.

Cross got the job and said he got on well with Carson when Lewis — one of the guest hosts on that post-Pair, pre-Carson stretch — offered him a “massive” salary to come to Los Angeles to do a . ​weekly two-hour variety/talk show he was curating at ABC.

Cross told Malkoff that he didn’t really want to go and would have stayed had NBC given him a raise, but the network refused. Carson was upset and angry that he quit, Cross noted, and at a farewell party organized by the staff, he raised a glass to toast the producer and said, “Perry, here’s to you. I have one thing to tell you. Fuck you.”

Forty episodes of The Jerry Lewis Show were planned, but the program proved to be a disaster from the start and was canceled after the 13th episode aired on December 21, 1963.

“I’ve often thought, to tell you the truth, that I made a big mistake in leaving, but that’s hindsight,” said Cross. “Who knows what would have happened later if I got too stubborn and he got mad at me.”

Maybe Cross was on to something – Stark was mentioned Tonight Show producer in March 1963, but fired four years later.

Perry Cross with actress Jo Anne Worley on the set of NBC’s ‘Laugh-In’ in the 1970s.

Thanks to Larry Cross

Born in Brooklyn, Cross was the son of vaudevillian Alan Cross. He attended Fort Hamilton High School and began television as an NBC page at Rockefeller Center in 1949, showing visitors around the building.

“It gave me a chance to talk to people,” he said. “At that time I had some ambitions to become a comedian. I had no place to practice my jokes. I kept it a secret from all the guides’ supervisors.”

Cross later turned it into a trainee program that taught participants how to produce TV shows. “We went to school at NBC,” he said.

He worked at NBC as a production coordinator before Kovacs, fresh from Philadelphia, hired him in 1956 to produce his five-day-a-week CBS show.

A year later, Cross became a producer at Paar’s Tonight Show, but he said the host didn’t like him, so he left. But when Paar shut down in March 1962, Cross received a phone call asking him to keep things going until a new host could be found.

“We went on air the following week and it was madness,” said Cross. “I had to quickly set up a staff in Hollywood, about 50 people I could add, and they had never done that before. The tonight show over there. It was chaos, but it was fun.”

Cross produced and lined up the guest hosts including Lewis, Groucho Marx, Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Mort Sahl, Art Linkletter, Robert Cummings, Merv Griffin, Arlene Francis and Jimmy Dean until Carson arrived.

Before Carson welcomed Marx, Mel Brooks, Tony Bennett, Rudy Vallée and Joan Crawford as his first guests on October 1, 1962, he and Cross drank a gin and tonic, the producer recalls.

Years later, Carson and Cross met again at a studio in Burbank afterwards The tonight show moved from New York. “I came in and knocked on his door and surprised him,” said the producer. “He was a little withdrawn… there was an edge to it. He does not forgive people for his perception of infidelity. He never had from the start. Once Johnny turned on you, it was goodbye.

Cross also produced game shows hosted by Bert Parks, Emmy Awards broadcasts, and the wacky filmed segments for Laugh before effectively leaving the TV business in the mid-1970s. He then had a flourishing career in real estate.

In addition to his son, the survivors are also his grandchildren, Kara and Jaime.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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