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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,475


This is the grave of Tim Conway.

Born Thomas Conway in 1933 outside of Cleveland, the future Tim was half-Irish, half-Romanian, and thus all Catholic. In fact, he was known as Toma as a kid, which is the Romanian version of Thomas. He became Tim only when he went into acting. There was a British actor named Tom Conway, so he went with Tim. Anyway, he went to Bowling Green for college and worked as a DJ on the campus radio station while studying for a degree in TV and Radio. He was in the Army from 1956-58, got out as soon as possible, and moved back to Cleveland in order to work in media. He worked on a variety show and started writing and performing for it, mostly comedic skits. He then co-hosted a late night horror film show with Ernie Anderson, who would later have his own measure of fame for horror show hosting.

Conway was discovered in 1961 by the actress Rose Marie, who was in town as part of a promotional thing for the Dick Van Dyke Show. She saw some of Conway’s work and thought he had real talent. She convinced him to move to New York and she promoted him in the comedy world. Pretty soon, he had a recurring role on the Steve Allen Show. That then led to McHale’s Navy, which is what made Conway famous. He played the pretty dumb ensign in the show that starred Ernest Borgnine and Joe Flynn. Borgnine thought Conway was great and did a lot to promote his career. Conway received 3rd billing in the show and even though this is no all time great television show, it gave Conway a lot of room to do his comedic thing, including his impersonations and character sketches. There were several episodes where he played dual roles.

The networks realized Conway had a broad comedic palette that really worked on live television. He was the host of a disastrous Laugh-In ripoff called Turn-On that was evidently so bad that it never fully aired its pilot episode. There were some other variety shows and such and then he got his own show. The Tim Conway Show debuted in 1970. It didn’t go that well and didn’t last that long, but still, no one held that against Conway. Shows come and go all the time. Conway was cast in many comedies in this era, often with Don Knotts, so they were pretty silly comedies, not that there is anything wrong with that. That includes the 1975 film The Apple Dumpling Gang and then its 1979 sequel. They also starred together in the 1979 film The Prize Fighter and the 1980 film The Private Eyes. I haven’t seen these films, maybe some of you have.

Now, what I really know Conway for–and I suspect this is the case for many of you who are around my age–is his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He was on the show on and off for the long-running show’s first eight seasons, but in 1975, he became a full-time cast member, joining such others as Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and of course Burnett herself. Lyle Waggoner originally had that role, but he left and Conway got the full time replacement. He was already a master of the sketch comedy and now he had a fully-supported show to demonstrate it. This took him into the stratosphere. He won four Emmys for his work on the show, both for acting and writing. Some of his skits had no words and that was something he was really masterful at. Creating comedy with no words is not easy and his work here really brought people back to the silent film era. The stuff works but there is very little of it around anymore. He had a goal, which was to make the cast members bust out laughing when they were costarring with him and lose their composure. He succeeded in that many times during his time with Burnett. That show ended in 1978.

The networks still liked Conway a ton and he got a bunch more shows that didn’t really do anything. What he became more famous for in the 1980s was his Dorf character, his spoofs of how-to videos that was very popular on The Tonight Show. In fact, Conway debuted the character on the show. He started making films based on the character, most notably for Dorf on Golf. This is pretty silly stuff and I don’t recall it holding up very well, but then I’d have to really watch it again to know and I don’t think I really want to do that. Conway also got a ton of voice work and the rise of animation for adults in the late 80s with shows such as The Simpsons was very good for him. Conway also got a zillion guest spots all over the place–movies, TV, straight to DVD crap. The man worked. A lot. A lot of this was with his old buddies Korman and Knotts.

Toward the end of his life, Conway went back to his roots and became an active Catholic and it sounds like in the annoying convert way. He did some animated Christian stuff at the end too. At the end of his life, Conway suffered from dementia, which always sucks as I know from seeing it live, as most of you probably have too. He died in 2019 at the age of 85.

Let’s watch some of Conway’s work.

Tim Conway is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other legends of comedy on TV, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bernie Mac is in Chicago and Harvey Korman is in Santa Monica, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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