It was March 13, 2019 and in the Meredith offices of People in New York City, a sharply-dressed, white-haired male sat on a couch casually talking to the male and female hosts of the celebrity magazine’s People Now broadcast who were sat directly opposite him. The man in question was Jay Leno, the veteran comedian and long-time TV host of the late-night comedy and chat institution The Tonight Show. But little did the funnyman know that what he would reveal to them about his enduring, childless marriage would cause a stir online.
Jay and Mavis Leno have been one of showbiz’s strongest and most reliable couples for as long as they have been married – almost 40 years now. The pair have been often photographed arm-in-arm whenever Leno has attended glitzy award shows or events. A quick glance at the photos taken of them from down the years appears to show a couple very much in love throughout.
So, what’s their secret? Well Leno has disclosed several reasons down the years for their robust and lengthy union, none more pertinent that those he shared during that 2019 interview with PEOPLE Now. But first we should rewind right to the beginning, way before this remarkable love story even began.
James Douglas Muir Leno entered the world on April 28, 1950. He was born in New Rochelle, New York and was the second child of Cathryn and Angelo Leno. His father made his living working in insurance and his mom was a homemaker.
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Leno’s mother had been born in Greenock, Scotland in 1911, emigrating to the United States when she was 11 years old. His father had been born back in 1910 in New York. Angelo’s parents had arrived in the U.S. from Flumeri, Italy, meaning Leno had a mix of American, Scottish and Italian ancestry.
Leno arrived ten years after his brother Patrick, who went on to become a lawyer and to serve in the Vietnam War. Not long after the younger sibling was born, the family upped sticks from New York and moved to Andover, Massachusetts. Leno would spend the majority of his childhood in The Bay State.
From a young age, Leno showed a fondness for comedy; he often devised practical jokes and committed pranks while he was in grade school. Indeed, such was his mischievousness, a fifth-grade teacher would write in a report, “If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he’d be a big star.” The teacher’s words would, of course, turn out to be eerily prescient.
While he lived in northern Massachusetts, Leno would go on to attend and graduate from Andover High School. The aspiring comedian landed his first job slicing potatoes at the Main Street branch of McDonald’s in the Essex County town, located just over 20 miles from Boston. And it was while he was working for the fast food giant that Leno would make his first successful foray into comedy.
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Yes, it was through a McDonald’s talent contest that Leno would learn first-hand how telling jokes could pay. The high-schooler and his friend won a none-too-shabby $150 prize in the regional show, in which they created a skit about a McDonald’s worker and one of the burger joint’s many customers. “This comedy lark isn’t too bad,” he must have thought.
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Leno soon began to seriously pursue his comedy dream, penning and then performing comedy skits at coffee shops and on Boston’s Emerson College campus where he was studying. The young Leno also took up work as a “lot boy” at a local Ford dealership.“I would alternate between the two, so it was cars and hamburgers, which are actually still two of my passions,” he later told the YouTube channel CNBC Make It. Leno’s stand-up routine became well-honed and he started to earn a few dollars, money which he augmented with his more mundane work.
Leno would graduate from Emerson in 1973, earning a BA in speech therapy during his time there. After he left the Boston college, Leno decided to head west, relocating to Los Angeles to follow his comedy dream. He would eventually get an opening writing for the TV show Good Times, and later appeared in an episode of the comedy in 1976. Writing for the show alongside him was a certain David Letterman.
By 1976, Leno had started to make a bit of a name for himself, and minor acting work began to fall in his lap alongside gigs opening for the likes of Tom Jones and Johnny Mathis. The by-now 20-something appeared in the very first episode of a new cop and robot show called Holmes & Yo-Yo. His major career breakthrough, however, would come in 1977.
Yes, on March 2 of that year Leno would make the first of many appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The 26-year-old would perform a stand-up routine on the show, bringing his particular brand of comedy to a much wider audience. Leno would also appear uncredited in the Jane Fonda starring movie Fun with Dick and Jane in 1977, before bigger roles in the movies Silver Bears – in which he starred opposite Michael Caine – and American Hot Wax.
Leno’s career was really taking off by the mid-to-late 1970s, but just as significantly, the star would find love about this time, too. One night in January 1976, when he was performing at L.A.’s Comedy Store, Leno would bump into a 29-year-old woman named Mavis. A remarkable love story was about to begin.
Mavis Elizabeth Nicholson was in the crowd at one of Leno’s stand-up shows when she had a sudden realization. The San Francisco native – she had been born there on September 5, 1946 – really fancied the comic performing on stage. She told the Los Angeles Times newspaper in 2014: “It was in January – I don’t remember the day. But at the time I thought, ‘Holy s**t! That comedian is gorgeous!’”
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Interestingly, Mavis had gone to the Sunset Boulevard venue with a female pal because she was in the process of penning some comedy of her own. She revealed to the Los Angeles Times in that same interview that her friends had told her, “You have to hang out at The Comedy Store and the Improv—you’ll meet people who can give you jobs.” But the 29-year-old singleton would get much more than that.
As it turned out, that first fateful night Nicholson locked eyes with the man who would become her long-time companion. “The first time I went [to watch Leno perform], they sat us front row center,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And there was Jay.”
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But it wasn’t just Nicholson who had noticed someone potentially special that night. As she explained to the Los Angeles Times, when Leno’s stand-up routine had finished, she made her way to the restroom. “What I didn’t know was in The Comedy Store back then, that area was the only place for the comedians to hang out,” she revealed. “So, when I came out of the bathroom, he said, “‘Are you that girl in front?’” and I said, ‘Yes, that was me.’”
The two of them got talking, and seemingly realized they harbored a mutual attraction. Then Leno nonchalantly asked when Nicholson’s birthday was. And the answer she gave made the comic burst out laughing for a remarkable reason.
It transpired Nicholson’s answer of September 5 made Leno chuckle in recognition of a bizarre coincidence the comedian had noticed with women he’d dated. “I’ve probably lived with five women and every one of them was born on the same day,” Leno revealed to the Los Angeles Times. “I can look at a woman and go, September 5. I don’t know why that is. I don’t look for a woman born on September 5, I just wind up attracted to them,” he added.
It was a truly bizarre coincidence, but a trend that would continue for Leno, as he and the September-born Nicholson soon became an item. The relationship quickly blossomed, and Leno would eventually pop the question to the woman four years his senior. It was an unexpected development for the couple for one particular reason.
That’s because dedicated feminist Nicholson had been fiercely opposed to marriage from a young age. As she explained to the Washington Post newspaper in 2014, watching a particular TV series as a young girl had sparked her trenchant stance. That series was the Jackie Gleason vehicle The Honeymooners.
“I would see a young woman who was very attractive, and a thousand times smarter, and she’s living in this little tenement hovel with her husband, Ralph, and then this Ed Norton, who has an even hotter wife,” Nicholson told the Washington Post. “These men spend all their time talking about what a drag the wives are and asking how can they get away from them. It’s perfectly obvious the women are the ones trapped,” she added.
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The dynamic of the show clearly irked the young Nicholson, and influenced her future plans. Or so she thought. “I remember telling my mother when I was seven or eight that I was never going to get married or have children,” she revealed to the Washington Post. “To me, this is the way women get caught,” she concluded.
The feminist would keep to one half of her pledge – the couple have never produced or adopted any children – but her opposition to marriage would ultimately be overcome, and Mavis Nicholson became Mavis Leno. Not that their decision to get married was a romantic one. Nope, it was very much to do with the boring practicalities that life throws up.
As Leno revealed in that same Washington Post Q&A with him and his wife, the marriage idea was born out of Leno holding a life insurance policy to which he wished to add Mavis in case he fell ill or worse still, passed away. “Might as well get married,” Leno revealed he thought to himself. How very romantic.
Leno and Nicholson would therefore get married in a tiny, low-key ceremony, with only a handful of close friends attending. It was all very hush-hush. The wedding took place on November 3, 1980, deliberately the same date of Leno’s parents wedding. So, what was it that made Mavis change her mind so dramatically?
Well, she would reveal exactly why to the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “It was just that by the time we were together, I was 34. I had been a feminist for years, and I finally realized that fight was won, you know?” she told the California-based newspaper. “I was past it, although that was an important gesture for me to make — that I could live without being married,” she added.
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Despite their initial indifference to getting married, Jay and Mavis’s union has nonetheless stood the test of time. After marrying near the end of 1980, Leno’s career continued to grow at a rapid rate. Before his nuptials he had established himself as a regular presence on American TV, showing up on The Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Show, The Hollywood Squares, The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson amongst others.
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By the early 1980s, Leno was a regular star turn on the new chat show Late Night With David Letterman. Such was his prominence at this point that a comedy special, Jay Leno and the American Dream, was created for him to host in 1986. Most significantly though, Leno’s impressive guest hosting of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson from 1986 onwards would lead to him taking over from the retiring comic in 1992. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno was born.
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Leno became one of the kings of late-night TV for over two decades, with The Tonight Show With Jay Leno running – a short break and well-publicized controversy involving Conan O’Brien notwithstanding – with him at the helm until February 2014. Leno would win an Emmy for his hosting of the show. Despite his TV commitments, Leno continued to do stand-up, with the hardworking comic performing his brand of expletive-free, observational humor over 300 times a year.
Mavis meanwhile, kept herself busy in those years working for feminist causes and human rights, including the Campaign for Afghan Women & Girls, of which she was the chairwoman. After his long stint on The Tonight Show, Leno went on to host a web show that explored his passion for cars and other vehicles on NBC, which in 2015 became a CNBC TV series called i>Jay Leno’s Garage. But their successful careers aside, what was it that Leno said about his marriage, and why it had lasted so long?
Well, in 2015 after nearly 35 years together, Leno gave some hint of why to TV show Today. “The trick is to marry, like, a normal person,” he joked. “I always meet people who go, ‘I met this girl, she’s crazy, the sex is wonderful.’ [And I say] ‘I know, I know, but you know, when the sex is over, she’s still crazy.’ That’s the problem,” he added.
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On a more serious note, Leno revealed an important adage in which he believed deeply. He elucidated, “Here’s the secret: You marry your conscience … You marry the person you wish you could be. That’s what I did,” he explained. Indeed, the approach hasn’t worked out badly for the car-obsessed star.
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Leno also explained how his chosen, ego-driven field of work dovetailed perfectly with the down-to-earth nature of his wife’s career. “I’m in showbusiness, which is a selfish profession, so I married a woman that works very hard for women’s rights and other issues like that and it balances out,” he explained. “You marry the person you wish you could be,” he declared.
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So, fast-forwarding four years, and with Leno and Mavis closing in on 39 years of marriage, what did the famously big-chinned comedian reveal to PEOPLE Now about his successful marriage? Firstly, don’t be unfaithful. “You can do a lot, you can leave your underwear on the doorknob for the rest of your life if you don’t screw around,” he told the web show’s hosts Andrea Boehlke and Jeremy Parsons.
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What else? Make sure you always have fun, be down-to-earth and don’t become big-headed. “We have a good time,” Leno revealed. “I’m one of those people… I’m a huge believer in low self-esteem, y’know. The only people with high self-esteem are actors and criminals,” he joked.
Interestingly, Leno – who is dyslexic – went on to state how his own low self-esteem had positively influenced his relationship with Mavis. “If you have low self-esteem you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room. You don’t think you have all the answers,” he argued. “So, you tend to listen.”
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So, what do Leno and his wife like to do when they spend time together? “We enjoy practicing various marital obligations. That’s fun,” he joked to the giggling Boehlke and Parsons. “But erm… I’m a big car and motorcycle guy, my wife likes to travel, so we have a lot of fun, we have a good time,” he added.
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Well, whatever Leno and his wife Mavis have done down the years, it has clearly worked. Assuming the union continues in rude health, on November 3, 2020 they will have been married for an incredible 40 years. “The secret to a long marriage is realizing there’s nothing really worth fighting about,” he told newspaper The Wall Street Journal in 2019. Indeed, and should Leno and Mavis both maintain their health, there’s every chance the loved-up pair could reach another major milestone in ten years.