How I Captured Johnny

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Robert Berks sculpts the bust of Johnny Carson in 1967

One of the most unusual images of Johnny Carson appeared on the cover of the May 19, 1967 issue of TIME. Carson had just received a million-dollar contract to continue The Tonight Show on NBC, and TIME commissioned sculptor Robert Berks to create a bust of the talk show host. This was a familiar gig to Berks, who had previously created a well-regarded cover sculpture of Pope Paul VI and Gen. William Westmoreland for TIME's 1965 Man of the Year issue.

Carson met Berks at his studio in Manhattan's Upper East Side for six or seven hour-long sittings. He would finish taping The Tonight Show at the NBC studios in midtown and arrive at Berks' apartment with Ed McMahon, Red Skelton and others in tow. During the sessions, the group would often tell jokes while Berks was capturing Carson's image. But, he says, Johnny always seemed guarded, as though he was never giving him a full glimpse of who he was. "You could sense him relaxing and coming off camera bit by bit," Berks says. "There was a subtle difference, but there was no great change in personality."

Berks was impressed by Carson but he knew that the comedian was holding back a piece of himself. The artist thinks that he was able to capture that essence in his sculpture. "Carson was completely frank, open and giving, but we came away from the sitting knowing only exactly what he wanted us to know about him. He was like a skilled politician or diplomat"

Berks should know. He has sculpted more than three hundred portraits in bronze and more than a dozen monuments including many well known American Presidents, most notably the eight-foot John F. Kennedy monument displayed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He's also done a bust of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who liked the piece so much he commissioned Berks to sculpt one of Ronald Reagan.

For TIME's 1965 cover story on Paul VI's first visit to the U.S., Berks created a sculpture from photographs dug out from the TIME photo archive. Here's how TIME described Berks' work:

"After five hours of studying the photographs, Berks felt he knew what he wanted—the expression of the face, the position of the head, the thrust of the shoulders. 'I had my gesture,' he says. As he scrutinized the photos he came to the conclusion that the Pontiff is 'a troubled man, a man of great inner conflicts. The photos show what the weight of office has done to him.'"

To sculpt Gen. Westmoreland for TIME's 1965 Man of the Year cover, Berks had to travel to Hawaii, where the General had been called back from Vietnam for a conference. The publisher's letter from that issue describes the secrecy that went into transporting the sculpture back to TIME:

"When he had turned 50 Ibs. of clay into the finished head, Berks photographed it in a mountain pass outside Honolulu, and then brought it back to New York in a special crate that rode at half price on an airplane seat. He had to evade the curiosity of airline crews and fellow passengers, for not until after this issue went to press was anyone not directly involved supposed to know the identity of the Man of the Year for 1965."

Today Berks, now 83, and his wife Dorothy, live and work in Orient, Long Island. He is currently capturing another TV legend in bronze — Fred Rogers. "My business," says Berks, "is saving faces." He's glad that one of the images he has etched in bronze was of the famous late night talk show host.

Visit Robert Berks online at