In 1986, Joan Rivers made a fateful call to her mentor Johnny Carson.
Rivers, the brassy comic with the thick New York accent who had made “Can we talk?” her catchphrase, told the all-powerful host of NBC’s “Tonight Show” that she was giving up a role as his handpicked heir to do her own show on Fox.
It was, depending on how one looked at it, a bold bid for bigger stardom — or a stunning act of betrayal. Carson never spoke to her again in the remaining 19 years of his life. After her late-night show on Fox bombed, Rivers said she was virtually blackballed from TV.
A less-driven performer might have skulked off into obscurity. But Rivers, who died Thursday at 81, was nothing if not ambitious. The comedian who had started out telling jokes at Greenwich Village nightclubs in the 1960s reinvented herself as an acerbic red-carpet host for E! Entertainment, skewering celebrities and their fashion choices with help from her sidekick and only child, Melissa Rivers.
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