Carol Wayne, Johnny Carson's 'Art Fern' Sidekick: A Late Night Icon
Left: Carol Wayne with Johnny Carson in an 'Art Fern' sketch on 'The Tonight Show.' Right: Wayne in another 'Tonight Show' appearance. Source: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
For fans of Johnny Carson's "Art Fern" sketches on The Tonight Show, Carol Wayne's Matinee Lady was an unforgettable comedic addition. Wayne was a curvaceous actress who became wildly popular for her appearances on the show in the '70s and early '80s, playing the ditzy sidekick to fast-talking huckster Art Fern, whose job was ostensibly to introduce the "Tea Time Movie," but who spent his airtime hawking questionable products. Wayne had a career outside of The Tonight Show included small roles in movies and on TV series, but her claim to fame will always be her appearances with Carson. The other reason she's remembered today is her death, in 1985, under mysterious circumstances.
Wayne is one of those supporting characters who helped make Carson the legend of late night -- the jokes in an Art Fern sketch could be corny, and his delivery was self-consciously stiff, but rapport between the lecherous Fern and faux-innocent Matinee Lady, the double-takes and eye-rolling, made the sketches more than jokes read off a cue-card.
Early Days On Ice
Carol Wayne was born in Chicago in 1942. Her mother enrolled her and her sister in ice skating lessons because she thought that they would be safe from polio if they were in an ice-cold skating rink, and it proved a gateway to showbiz when Wayne began skating professionally with the Ice Capades. After a bad fall, her leg was permanently scarred and she joined the Follies Bergere in Las Vegas, which was notable for the dancers doing the cancan wearing skimpy outfits, or topless. She married, although it ended in divorce after a year.
Bit Parts On TV In The '60s
Wayne then joined her sister in Hollywood. In the late '60s, she landed roles as a ditzy blonde in shows such as I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and I Spy. Over time, she perfected the persona and was often typecast. As Beverly in Bewitched, she played a Playboy bunny whom Uncle Arthur had transformed into human form from a real bunny. As a rabbit trapped in a seductive body, she bewitches one of Darrin’s clients. A combination of sexy and innocent, she was perfect in the role.
Wayne made her feature film debut in the Blake Edwards-directed Gunn, from 1967, and in 1968 shared the screen with Peter Sellers in The Party, also directed by Edwards.
Despite playing characters who were often ditzy, and roles that played off her voluptuousness, Wayne was a talented actress gifted with impeccable comedic timing.
Carol Wayne made her first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1967, and became a favorite of host Johnny Carson. In 1971, she joined Carson for the first time as on a Tonight Show sketch called “The Tea Time Movie.” Carson played the role of host Art Fern, whose job was to introduce an upcoming movie, but who was much more interested in trying to sell the audience questionable products. Fern was joined by Wayne, the “Matinee Lady,” who knocked Fern off his game with her tight, cleavage-baring outfits. The lecherous Fern frequently gawked at and commented on Matinee Lady's figure, relying heavily on sexual innuendo. Wayne was a brilliant foil for Carson, who didn’t make fun of her but worked with her to create the humor in the show.
Wayne played the Matinee Lady for 13 years, appearing alongside Carson in over 100 sketches.
From Matinee Lady To TV Personality
Wayne's acting career outside of The Tonight Show continued in the '70s, bolstered by her popularity as the Matine Lady, with guest appearances on Love, American Style, Mannix, and Emergency! She didn't exactly rise to the A-list as an actress; fortunately, there was consistent demand for Carol Wayne as Carol Wayne. She was popular on the circuit of celebrity talk and game shows, including Hollywood Squares, Celebrity Sweepstakes, Dinah!, and The Alan Thicke Show.
Contract Negotiations and the Beginning of the end
In 1980, during contract negotiations, The Tonight Show was shortened from 90 minutes to 60. When this happened, Wayne lost out when her time on the show was curtailed. Wayne was cast as a nude model in the film Heartbreakers in 1984. Also in 1984, At the age of 41, she posed nude for Playboy. That same year, she filed for bankruptcy.
Carol Wayne's Mysterious Death
Wayne married three times. After her third divorce, in January 1985, she vacationed in Mexico with Edward Durston, a close friend. Reportedly, she was in Mexico to try to get sober. She had turned to drugs and alcohol as her career fizzled and she went into debt.
According to witnesses, she had argued with Durston and took a walk on the beach. Three days later, a fisherman found her body in the bay, in four feet of water. Oddly enough, Carol Wayne, who was afraid of water, drowned. After an autopsy which revealed no drugs in her system, Mexican authorities declared her death was accidental. Incidentally, Durston had also been the last person to see Diane Linkletter alive in 1969, before she jumped to her death.
To this day, Wayne’s death remains shrouded in mystery and some suspect foul play.
Tags: Carol Wayne | Johnny Carson | Ladies | The Tonight Show | TV In The 1970s | What Did She Do?...
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