By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jimmy Fallon took the reins of the long-running "Tonight Show" on Monday night, bringing NBC's late night talk show flagship back to Manhattan after an absence of more than 40 years, being welcomed on set by a host of top stars, including Robert De Niro, Mike Tyson and Lady Gaga.
The surprise appearances, which also included Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sarah Jessica Parker, Joe Namath and Steve Colbert, were among highlights of Fallon's "Tonight Show" debut, following the departure this month of long-serving host Jay Leno.
The slew of unannounced walk-ons followed Fallon's remark that someone owed him $100 after betting he would never host the "Tonight Show," at which point De Niro, then others strode on stage one after another, each plunking bills onto his desk until finally Colbert doused him with a bucket of pennies.
Actor Will Smith and Irish band U2 were the Brooklyn-born Fallon's first official, previously announced guests as the former "Saturday Night Live" comic launched the show's widely anticipated return to Manhattan's Rockefeller Center.
Fallon's stepping into one of the most visible roles in television marked NBC's second attempt to imbue the competitive late-night landscape on U.S. television with a more youthful vibe by appealing to the coveted 18-to-34 year-old demographic.
"I'm Jimmy Fallon and I'll be your host -- for now," Fallon told the audience in the new multi-million dollar studio where such beloved "Tonight" veterans Johnny Carson and Jack Paar once presided.
It was one of a handful of references to the show's recent troubled history. Leno was initially replaced by Conan O'Brien in 2009, but he returned months later in a public relations debacle for the network.
He also paid tribute to the show's previous hosts by name, being sure to mention Leno twice -- once before, and once after, O'Brien.
"If you guys let me stick around long enough, maybe I'll get the hang of it," joked Fallon, who wore an understated gray suit, white shirt and blue tie for his first show.
NEW YORK SETTING EMBRACED
From the outset, the New York "Tonight Show" boldly embraced its new home.
Brooklyn-raised director Spike Lee shot a new opening, a stirring series of black-and-white night shots that gave way to colorful depictions of such iconic locations as Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Terminal and Rockefeller Center.
The new set, with a dramatic Manhattan skyline backdrop, befit its Rockefeller Center location.
And when it came time for U2 to perform its new single, "Invisible," the band took to 30 Rock's rooftop at sunset.
Scores of fans rocked to the beat with such New York landmarks as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and Times Square providing a glittering backdrop. Even Mother Nature cooperated, with crystal clear skies and a burnished sunset over New Jersey on a cold, winter dusk.
But in other ways, Fallon's "Tonight Show" hewed to tradition. An opening monologue featured topical issues -- chiefly the Olympics, which also happen to be airing on NBC -- and a chat with Smith touched on the actor's recent adventures skydiving, and more on the Olympics.
"I think I could win a gold medal in the things with the broom," Smith laughed, referring to the curling competition.
When the four members of U2 joined Fallon for a chat after their rousing al fresco performance, Fallon, 39, asked "Was that the highest you've ever been?"
Earlier, Fallon introduced what seemed likely to become a regular feature, "Tonight Show Superlatives," in which photos -- in this case, again, Olympic athletes -- were paired with "most likely to," high school yearbook-style captions.
The "Tonight Show" first aired on NBC in 1954 from New York with host Steve Allen. Paar hosted the show from 1957 until Carson took over in 1962, and reigned for 30 years, before departing in 1992. Carson moved the show to southern California in 1972.
In its final Burbank days, the "Tonight Show" drew about 3.9 million viewers per episode.
First Lady Michelle Obama is among the guests scheduled for this week, along with Bradley Cooper and Justin Timberlake. Jerry Seinfeld, Kristen Wiig and Lady Gaga will appear on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud, Editing by Clarence Fernandez)