PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Tommy Newsom, 78, the former backup bandleader on

The Tonight Show

whose "Mr. Excitement" nickname was a running joke for Johnny Carson, has died.

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

Mr. 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.

He won music-direction Emmys for Night of 100 Stars in 1982 and The 40th Annual Tony Awards Show in 1986.

"I hope he will be remembered as a gifted musician," Jim Newsom said yesterday. "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 Mr. 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.

Not long after the Carson era ended, Mr. Newsom remarked that his image as an ordinary guy was "fairly accurate - compared to Rambo."

Mr. Newsom also arranged and composed music for Skitch Henderson, Kenny Rogers and John Denver.

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

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Patricia, and their daughter, Candy Newsom.