In Memoriam: Tim Conway, Golden Globe Winner, 1933-2019

by Yoram Kahana May 20, 2019
Comedian Tim Conway, Golden Globe winner

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Tim Conway, "The Comedians' Comedian", who was nominated twice for the Best Supporting Actor in a TV Comedy Golden Globe and won once, has died, aged 85. An enduring TV clown, Conway portrayed a gallery of goofballs, bumblers, and knuckleheads for over half a century, "with a sweetly cherubic face, a deceptively athletic physicality and an utter devotion to foolishness and slapstick" said the New York Times, adding "Mr. Conway was among Hollywood’s most enduringly popular clowns."

Next to his Golden Globe recognition Conway won six Emmy Awards and was a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Always a second banana, he was called "a leading non-leading man". Skilled and deferential, he shone next to leading men and women, not competing with them but collaborating and supporting, always gentle and funny.

No wonder audiences and fellow actors adored him, and stars relied on his talent, a vivid second banana whose deferential mien and skill as a supporting actor made him most comfortable — and often funniest — in the shadow of a star.

For Conway, those stars were, most notably, Ernest Borgnine, with whom he appeared on the popular early-1960s series McHale's Navy and Carol Burnett, on whose comedy-variety show Conway appeared from the start (1967) to the end (1978), first as a guest, and starting in 1975 as a regular, one of the leading quartet, earning him a Golden Globe nomination in 1976 and a win the following year, as well as four Emmys, three for acting and one for writing.

Conway's show business career started in the late 1950s. An Army veteran, he was working for a  television station in Cleveland, Ohio, mostly writing and directing comedy spots, shown during breaks in televised movies, and occasionally performing. He had no intention of going to Hollywood, but Holywood came to him, when the actress and comedy writer Rose Marie, visiting the station on a promotion tour, saw Conway at work, was impressed and arranged for him to audition for Steve Allen who hired Conway as a writer/performer on his primetime variety show, in New York. When the show ended its run, Conway moved to the West Coast.

The Hollywood newcomer was soon cast in McHale’s Navy, (1962-1966). “I had no professional training at all,” he would later write in his autobiography, What's So Funny: My Hillarious Life (2013): “I had a sense of humor and had been in front of a microphone, but as far as doing movies or series work or anything like that, I had no idea.”

The lead, Ernest Borgnine was Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale (Borgnine), his "navy" was a maverick PT boat crew, who flouted Navy regulations at every turn. The show aimed at the zeitgeist of the early 1960s, when America was fed up with past wars, and had yet to confront the next one, in Vietnam.

Conway played Ensign Charles Parker, an enthusiastic but bumbling officer, incompetent but sweet-tempered. It was a role made to order for Conway's persona and style, traits that remained his stock in trade for the rest of his long career. Pratfalls, double takes, gentle jokes, facial tics- all served him well for decades, as did his ability to ad lib, departing from the script to add well-received details, dialog, and nuances to his character.

After supporting in Navy, Conway headlined several comedy shows: among them the Texas-based Rango (1967) and the eponymous The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (1970). But they were all short-lived, One of them, Turn On (1969), set an all-time cancellation record, having lasted just one episode. " The show's premiere party was also the cancellation party," Conway said. (His car's vanity license plate optimistically read "13 WKS"). Conway knew all too well that his forte is supporting others, and he soon found the best home for his talent: The Carol Burnett Show. He created two characters: The Oldest Man, a bumbling, slow-moving geezer always trying -and failing- to engage in demanding fast moving occupations,  and Mr. Tudball, a businessman trying to run a ship-shape office, and always being foiled by his indifferent secretary, played by Burnett. Conway was the perfect foil for the leads, Burnett, Lyle Waggoner and especially  Harvey Korman and he often caused them to lose their composure and laugh during a live performance.

Thomas Daniel "Tim" Conway was born on Dec. 15, 1933, near Cleveland, Ohio to immigrant parents. Athletic in high school, he excelled at tumbling — a skill he later used in his comedy work. He studied speech and dramatics, and then served in the Army where, as he wrote in his autobiography, he “defended Seattle from 1956 to 1958.” For more than half a century after that, Tim Conway was always at work, mostly on the small screen. He gained his place in America's hearts and culture as the sidekick par excellence and secured it with his long run on Burnett's show.

“All comedy is vicious anyway,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1993 after the cast reunited for making a special to mark the show’s 25th anniversary. “You are targeting somebody, but we (on the Burnett show) almost always targeted ourselves. The audience kind of laughed at themselves through us. Carol never got into making barbs about politics. It was all just good fun.”

In her foreword to her longtime supporting actor's autobiography, Carol Burnett called him “a kind and funny genius.” She wrote: “His sketches with Harvey Korman deserve a spot in whatever cultural time capsule we’re setting aside for future generations...Maybe there are other performers as funny, but in my opinion, I can’t think of anybody funnier.”

RIP Tim Conway, America's beloved funnyman.