PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Tommy Newsom, the former backup bandleader on "The Tonight Show" whose "Mr. Excitement" nickname was a running joke for Johnny Carson, has died.

Newsom, 78, died of cancer Saturday at his home in Portsmouth, the city of his birth, according to his nephew, Jim Newsom.

Newsom, who played saxophone, joined "The Tonight Show" in 1962 and rose from band member to assistant music director. He retired along with Carson in 1992.

"I hope he will be remembered as a gifted musician," Jim New-som said. "I'm sure he will be remembered for his wit and deadpan humor on 'The Tonight Show.' And to some of us of a certain age, he will always be remembered as Mr. Excitement."

That was the name Carson gave Newsom to make light of his low-key personality and drab brown and blue suits - a sharp contrast to the flashy style of bandleader Doc Severinsen.

"He became a running character in Carson's monologue," Jim Newsom said. "Tommy enjoyed that."

Newsom also composed music for Skitch Henderson, Woody Herman, Kenny Rogers, John Denver and other performers.

Newsom was born in 1929 and got his first horn for Christmas at age 8. He graduated from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, then toured with a Air Force jazz ensemble during a four-year enlistment. *