Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Play Johnny Carson in King of Late Night Series


Joseph Gordon-Levitt will bring to life the story of the king of late-night television. Deadline reports that a high-profile biopic series based on late comedy legend Johnny Carson is in the works with Gordon-Levitt set to star as the former Tonight Show host. Deadwood creator David Milch wrote the series with Jay Roach (Austin Powers series, Meet the Parents) on board to direct. The series, tentatively titled King of Late Night, is a co-production between wiip and Anonymous Content.

The series will follow Carson’s personal and professional life from “New York to Los Angeles to the Las Vegas strip.” King of Late Night will also reveal how “Johnny’s diehard connection to his audience overlapped with his lifelong desire for a basic quality of life, and how his beloved on-screen persona came into conflict with the more colorful aspects of his personal life.”

A TV icon, Carson is best known for hosting The Tonight Show for three decades, serving from 1962-1992 before he passed away in 2005. These days, he is still widely considered to be the “king of late night TV.” Inspired by Carson’s story, the project has been in development for about five years when Milch first came on board to help develop the series for Anonymous Content. With the gears now turning, Milch will executive produce with Gordon-Levitt and Roach, as well as wiip’s Paul Lee and David Lynn. Paul Green and Salmira Productions are also executive producing.

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The Johnny Carson Biopic Series Has Taken Years to Get Going

Tonight Show Johnny Carson Betty White

At one point, it was announced that multiple biopics on Carson would be developed, but they did not materialize. Bill Zehem’s book Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait had led to the announcement that a feature film and an NBC series would both be made based on the book. That never happened, though the desire to see a Carson biopic hadn’t gone away, even if it’s taken this current version five years to finally make some traction.

Carson was also the subject of an acclaimed PBS documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, which was released in 2012. The former Tonight Show host was also played by Rich Little in the HBO movie The Late Shift. The 70s-set series There’s… Johnny!, released on Hulu in 2017, was also inspired by Carson’s work with a plot set behind the scenes of The Tonight Show during his run.

“Growing up, the coolest thing imaginable was to someday get on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and make Johnny laugh,” Paul Reiser, one of There’s… Johnny! ‘s creators, had said of why he made the series. “The fact that I got to do that was a dream come true, and going back now to explore that world, and pay homage to Johnny and that golden time is an absolute joy.”

King of Late Night doesn’t yet have a home but is reportedly “heating up” at the premium marketplace, so there should be forthcoming updates on the biopic series.

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