On Tuesday, TV personality Ed McMahon died at 86 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Most famous for his 30-year run as Johnny Carson's couchwarmer on NBC's Tonight Show, McMahon's affably goofy presence -- providing a human laugh track as he chortled heartily at the boss's wry (and often very lame) jokes -- set the tone for the program. Later, McMahon became known as the public face of the direct-mail advertiser American Family Publishers sweepstakes.
But in the final year of his life, his celebrity role took on a darker, more complex, more bittersweet tint, when the foreclosure of his Beverly Hills mansion made him the first celebrity poster child for the subprime-mortgage bust.
For decades, McMahon's job was simple: "I laugh for an hour and go home," he once said. "I've got the world's greatest job." Exuding a Rat Pack cool that later morphed into a slightly sleazy older stylishness, McMahon's loud suits and louder bonhomie -- and his willingness to take a backseat -- encouraged the impression that he was, perhaps, a bit simple. But McMahon was no buffoon. Today's crop of talk-show hosts -- and sidekicks, like Andy Richter -- reveals how easy it might be for designated sidekicks to grow bored or resentful.
For McMahon, getting swept into the foreclosure vortex was only the latest move, however inadvertent, in a career that always seemed to reflect changing cultural trends. After flying 85 combat missions in the Korean War, he quickly ascertained that TV offered the most opportunities to an aspiring actor. He tried a few announcing jobs before getting paired with Carson on a daytime game show, Who Do You Trust? On the Tonight Show, Carson and McMahon ruled the night from 1962 to 1992.
But McMahon's other career interests, while cheesy, were eerily prescient. His work as the American Family Sweepstakes pitchman cemented his brand as a harbinger of good news and happiness. TV spots showing him as he welcomed big winners at their front doors segued nicely into his prime positions on Star Search and TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes, which predated American Idol by decades.
But he was also an entrepreneur, and one of his side interests -- real estate speculation -- proved his undoing in the twilight of his life. Ahead of his time as usual, McMahon announced in June 2008 that he was $644,000 behind on a $4.8 million mortgage. He appeared on Larry King Live that month to explain his horrifying finances: a laundry list of injuries, alimonies, and other misfortunes that almost exist as a mash-up of the problems that have struck thousands of homeowners caught in the subprime bust
Of course, thousands of homeowners don't have Larry King to promote their troubles, nor do they have Donald Trump offering to buy their house and lease it back to them. For that matter, most homeowners don't have the option of playing off their popular image in ads for Experian (rapping for FreeCreditReport.com) or the sleazy Cash 4 Gold. Still, his many transformations -- from entrepreneur to defaulting homeowner, from lounge lizard to master of funemployment -- McMahon showed that American life has room for plenty of second acts. And third acts. And -- however tragically -- fourth acts.
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