Ed McMahon dead at 86

McMahon in 2008 (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)

Ed McMahon, a television pioneer who warmed "The Tonight Show" couch for nearly 30 years as Johnny Carson's jovial sidekick and announcer, died early Tuesday morning in a Los Angeles hospital, surrounded by family and friends.

McMahon, whose role as America's most-famous second banana represented only one facet of the one-time Atlantic City boardwalk pitchman's career, died of a "multitude of health problems [during] the last few months," said publicist Howard Bragman, who did not give an official cause of death.

Over the past few years, McMahon had been hospitalized for a two-week span with pneumonia. McMahon had been unable to work after breaking his neck in a fall in early 2007.

Since then, McMahon defaulted on $4.8 million in mortgage loans a year later and was facing the possible foreclosure of his multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills estate, which had been on the market for two years.

"If you spend more money than you make, you know what happens. A couple of divorces thrown in, a few things like that," McMahon, in a neck brace, explained in June 2008 on CNN's "Larry King Live," where he was accompanied by his wife, Pamela.

Bragman said that an "unnamed outside party" had purchased the mortgage and that the McMahons were still in the home.

McMahon's financial woes marked an unexpected turn of events for the high-profile TV celebrity whose career began in 1949 and spanned more than a half century. During that time, he was rarely absent from the screen.

He hosted the syndicated "Star Search" for 12 years and co-hosted "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" with Dick Clark on NBC for nine years.

He also played a clown for eight years on the "Big Top" live circus show on CBS in the 1950s and co-starred with Tom Arnold in a sitcom, "The Tom Show," on the WB network in the late '90s.

And there were stints hosting the game shows "Missing Links," "Snap Judgment" and "Whodunnit?" in the '60s and `70s.

In between, McMahon did commercials for Budweiser beer, Alpo dog food and hundreds of other products and services.

At one point in the early 1980s, he reportedly was the spokesman for no less than 37 banks around the country. And for years he served as the spokesperson for the American Family Publishers national sweepstakes, famously informing Americans that "You may already have won 10 million dollars!"

But McMahon will be best remembered as the prototypal late-night talk-show announcer and second banana, who enthusiastically boomed out in his rolling baritone the familiar words, "And now, heeeeere's Johnny!"

As Carson's loyal, quick-to-laugh sidekick and comic foil, Big Ed had so many catch phrases he could have done a medley of them in his nightclub act.

When Carson died in 2005 at age 79, McMahon described his longtime friend and colleague as being "like a brother to me."

McMahon liked to say that he was "one of the very fortunate people who grew up to do exactly what I spent my whole childhood dreaming of doing—even if no one is quite sure exactly what it is that I do."

Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr. was born in Detroit, Mich., on March 6, 1923. His father's various enterprises, which included running fundraising bingo and carnival games for churches and charities, kept the family on the road most of the time. Depending on the state of the family fortunes, McMahon grew up living in everything from a hotel suite in San Francisco to a cold-water flat in Bayonne, N.J.

As a boy, he fell in love with radio. But it wasn't the stars of the shows he most identified with; it was the announcers—men like Don Wilson, Harry von Zell, Bill Goodwin and Paul Douglas.

By age 10, having made up his mind that he wanted to be a radio announcer, he'd practice doing commercials and creating his own radio shows using a flashlight for a microphone.