Americans felt as if we'd lost a personal friend when the news broke that late-night legend Johnny Carson died Jan. 23 of emphysema at his Malibu, Calif., home. He was 79. Here, some of Carson's pals and frequent guests share their fondest memories of his close to 30-year reign on NBC's Tonight Show.

Tony Bennett: I [sang] "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" on his very first show. He had on

Groucho Marx, Joan Crawford, Mel Brooks and Rudy Vallee. At the show's end, he said, "Well, that's the first show. Let's see how it goes." He had no idea.

Dolly Parton: I realized how sensitive and caring Johnny was the night he did the famous joke about giving a week's pay to look down my shirt. During a camera break, he leaned over, patted my hand and said, "I really hope I didn't embarrass you — I didn't mean to." He really seemed to care. I was crazy about him. I would never do [Tonight Show] with a guest host; I heard that he loved knowing that.

Phyllis Diller: Johnny was always shy at parties. It was just him and Ed [McMahon] talking in the corner. The show was his life. He didn't want to talk to the other people. What kinda small talk would there be? He didn't want that. It was boring to him.

Carl Reiner: We played poker every few months [with] Steve Martin, Marty Short, Chevy Chase, Neil Simon and several others. He was an excellent poker player, a card manipulator who could have easily cleaned our clocks... but he was honest, and he lost more than he won. We were supposed to have a game [the last] Wednesday [before his passing,] and he was going to be there. Even though Johnny wasn't very social, he looked forward to these games.

Joan Rivers: [Rivers frequently guest-hosted for Carson.] Johnny gave me my career. He also introduced me to my [late] husband, Edgar. [When] Melissa was [6 weeks old,] we dressed her up and sent her [into his office] with a uniformed nurse. She had a big note pinned to her dress. It said, "Dear Mr. Carson, my parents wanted to wish you a happy birthday and didn't know what to give you, so they're giving me to you. My name is Melissa. Please bring me up Jewish." His face went white. For just a moment, he thought, "Oh, my god!"

Roseanne: My life changed overnight [after doing Tonight Show]. The private moment I shared with Mr. Carson backstage, before my third appearance, was the most thrilling moment in my entire career. He held my hand and spoke very private words of encouragement. He asked me if I wrote my own material. I said yes, and he told me that I was going to become very, very big in comedy — he guaranteed that. What a sweet and generous host he was in every way.