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 also 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 do 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. While Conway guested on The Carol Burnett Show many times during the variety comedy’s first eight years, he didn’t become a regular until 1975. He quickly became the show’s stealth weapon. Lyle Waggoner, Vick Lawrence, Harvey Korman, and of course, Carol 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 on stage, in the mix.
Characters like “The Oldest Man” and “Mr. Tudball” were so original, so steeped in specificity, 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 always got me 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. And if he wasn’t funnier than Carol Burnett (and really, who is?), to be 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 and an enormous amount of voice work over the final 35 plus years of his career, he never again became a regular on a show that lasted more than a season.
Perhaps his greatest post-Burnett success was his Dorf character. 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 titled Dorf on Golf from 1987.
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 and so effortless; I think we may have taken him for granted.
But think about it. Tim Conway was so funny that the only person who could outdo him on the funniest show during the golden age of television was Carol Burnett.
That should be legendary.
Tim Conway died today. He was 85 years old.