The big break(-up)
Rivers made television history by signing on to the soon-to-launch Fox Television Network as host of "The Late Show starring Joan Rivers." It made her the first woman to have a late night talk show - but it also made her compete with Carson.
The accounts have varied over the years, but Carson said he learned of the show during a Fox press announcement. Rivers has alternately said that she called him right away, but he hung up the phone - but has also said that she called only after she learned he had found out. In all tellings, Carson immediately hung up on her, and the two never spoke again.
Carson banned Rivers from the show, and his two successors - Jay Leno and Conan O'Brian - respected the ban over the next 28 years.
Rivers later revealed that she made her decision after learning that her fate on The Tonight Show was becoming less certain. She told People magazine that her contracts were always renewed for the same length as Carson's - but in 1985, he was renewed for two years while she was only offered a one-year contract.
She believed gender was also a factor at NBC.
"NBC would never give [the host spot] to a woman," she told PBS. She recalled holding "in my hand an NBC interoffice memo listing suggested successors to Johnny in case he did not renew his contract. My name was not on it."
She also believed Carson felt personally betrayed not because of the lack of heads up, but because she was a woman - especially since several other Tonight Show staples including Bill Cosby, David Brenner and George Carlin had moved on to other shows.
"I kept saying, 'I don’t understand, why is he mad?' He was not angry at anybody else. I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, 'I found you, and you’re my property.' He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him," Rivers wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
Her final appearance on The Tonight Show was in 1986, not as guest host but to promote a new book. She and Carson reminisced about their careers, and she wore the same dress she wore on her first show 21 years earlier.