Tim Conway’s career began in earnest with his hilarious performance on McHale’s Navy way back in 1962. Conway was the third billed in the cast after Ernest Borgnine and Joe Flynn. He was the first funniest though. As ensign Charles Parker, Conway turned bumbling into an art form. He was not only the last guy to get the joke, but the last one to realize that it was on him. His soft face was born to befuddle. He did it so easily you could almost take for granted how good he was at playing the dope, and how smart you have to be to play it that well.
While I enjoyed watching the reruns of McHale with my dad when I was a kid, it was a different show that made Conway a legend in our home: The Carol Burnett Show. While Conway guested many times during the variety comedy’s first eight years, he didn’t become a regular until 1975, at which point he quickly became the show’s stealth weapon. Lyle Waggoner, Vick Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and of course, Burnett herself may have done many more episodes than Conway over the show’s remarkable 12-year run, but for me, the show was never funnier than when Conway was in the mix.
Characters like “The Oldest Man” and “Mr. Tudball” were so original, so specifically Conway, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever doing them. While Conway was a master at pratfalls and slapstick, it was his facial expressions that got me the most. That hesitant, slow-on-the-uptake look he became known for on McHale was in full bloom on The Carol Burnett Show. It’s hard to be funnier than Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, but for me, Conway was all the way there. And if he wasn’t funnier than Carol Burnett (and really, who is?), being the second funniest person on The Carol Burnett Show is one hell of an achievement.
Conway had some success on film too. Perhaps most notably in the charming Disney comedy-western The Apple Dumpling Gang, and again for Disney in The Shaggy D.A. – two family-friendly pics that may suffer from being dated but are still sweetly amusing – even in our age of explicitness and irony.
Conway was never able to reproduce the success of McHale’s Navy or The Carol Burnett Show. He had two variations of a show named after him. The original Tim Conway Show debuted in 1970 and closed out the same year. A decade later, the second version lasted just a little longer. While he went on to do many a guest spot, as well as an enormous amount of voice work in the final 35+ years of his career, he never again became a regular on a show lasting more than a season.
Perhaps his greatest post-Burnett success was “Dorf”. As Dorf, Conway created several amusing how-to skits and videos based around the sport of golf. He even got a feature film out of it: the aptly named Dorf on Golf.
Over a career that covered six decades, Conway was never less than funny, never less than a welcome presence (particularly on late night TV). He was nominated for 12 Emmys (winning five) and two Golden Globes (winning one). He was so good; so effortlessly good that I think we may have taken him for granted.
Tim Conway died today. He was 85 years old.