Late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon has made a sombre on-air apology for wearing blackface in a former skit amid heightened racial tension and riots in the United States.

In his opening monologue for The Tonight Show overnight, a solemn Fallon introduced the programme with: "Seeing what is going on in our country I'm not going to have a normal kind of show tonight".

Fallon said he had to "really examine myself" after facing an onslaught of criticism this week after a video resurfaced of a comedy sketch he did in 2000 where he wore blackface.

The video has sparked a furious backlash, with many people calling for his show to be cancelled.

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"I was horrified," Fallon said, claiming he is "not a racist" and he told viewers the advice to the backlash was to "stay quiet" and "not say a thing".

Fallon said he took the advice initially because he thought he was going to say or do "something wrong".

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The clip, from a 2000 episode of Saturday Night Live, shows Fallon impersonating comedian Chris Rock while wearing dark makeup on his face and a wig.

He appeared alongside actor Darrell Hammond who was impersonating TV host Regis Philbin.

"I've seen Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and guess what? Not a lot of black folks on the show," Fallon said in the skit.

"Know why? Because black folks don't like to answer questions. Oh, they want to be millionaires, but you got to ask their kind of question, like, 'In 1981, how many grams of crack did Rick James smoke when he recorded Super Freak?'"

Jimmy Fallon has apologised for wearing blackface. Photo / Supplied
Jimmy Fallon has apologised for wearing blackface. Photo / Supplied

It resurfaced on Twitter late last month, with the hashtag #jimmyfallonisoverparty quickly gaining traction.

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"I realised I can't not say I'm horrified and I'm sorry and I'm embarrassed," Fallon said overnight.

"Silence is the biggest crime".

It comes as President Donald Trump vowed to order a military crackdown on once-in-a-generation violent protests gripping the United States, saying he was sending thousands of troops on to the streets of the capital and threatening to deploy soldiers to states unable to regain control.

The dramatic escalation came a week after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck, leading to the worst civil unrest in decades in New York, Los Angeles and dozens of other American cities.

"The world is screaming and it is angry and we all need to figure out a way to take the anger which of course is sadness and fear and do something with it," Fallon said.

A police vehicle passes a building on East Lake Street that was destroyed during protests in Minneapolis. Photo / AP
A police vehicle passes a building on East Lake Street that was destroyed during protests in Minneapolis. Photo / AP

Fallon told his first guest, NAACP president Derrick Johnson, that he wanted to learn how to be a better ally."

Johnson responded: "We are all born flawed, but flawed is part of the journey we are on to get to perfection. If anyone can stand up and say 'I haven't made a mistake,' run, because that person is clearly a liar."

Meanwhile, CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon, who this week called on Hollywood figures including Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah to speak out about the crisis in the United States, congratulated Fallon for his "honest" and "brave" opening monologue.

"That's exactly what we all need to do, examine ourselves. That was very honest and brave of you.

"I wish more people would do that because we can't go back to the way we were."

Fallon's controversial clip was uploaded with the caption "NBC fired Megyn Kelly for mentioning blackface. Jimmy Fallon performed on NBC in blackface", in reference to the US morning show anchor claiming that blackface was acceptable in the context of Halloween costumes in 2018.

Kelly had said blackface was "OK when I was a kid as long as you were dressing like a character".

The backlash was swift, and while she apologised during her next appearance, she was dropped from the show shortly after.

Multiple TV personalities and celebrities have been called out for wearing blackface over the years as pictures and videos resurfaced online.

Fallon earlier released a statement on Twitter in response to the outrage but overnight was his first public appearance on the issue.

"In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface," he wrote in his first statement.

"There is no excuse for this. I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable."