Monday, May 20, 2019

In Memoriam: Tim Conway 1933-2019

When I do these "In Memoriam" posts, I usually don't mention the deceased's name change, if any. These are more or less tributes, not full-blown biographies. If it's vitally important for you to know that Doris Day was born Doris Kappelhoff, well, you can look it up on Wikipedia. But since Conway was born right here in my hometown of Cleveland (actually, Willoughby, a suburb of Cleveland) I've decided a little more detail is necessary, since you might not get it anywhere else. First off, Tim Conway was known as Tom Conway here in Cleveland. Not that he was all that well-known here in Cleveland before he was anywhere else, but that's the name he went under when he first went on the air here.

Here's what happened. Originally Conway wasn't in front of the camera but behind it. Waaay behind. Like at some desk with a typewriter. He wrote copy for the local NBC affiliate, KYC (these days it's WKYC.) It was there that he became lifelong friends with a fun-loving, deep-voiced announcer by the name of Ernie Anderson. Stories vary as to why they left the TV station, and that would be more detail than even I would want to get into, but after about a year, both ended up at local CBS affiliate WJW (these days a FOX network affiliate.) Anderson had earlier been a radio personality, excelled at ad libbing, and the station thought he might be the right person to host old movies in the afternoon hours. The show was called Ernie's Place, and one of the first things Anderson did was make sure his pal Conway got hired on as the show's director, even though he had actually no directing experience. In fact, Chuck  Schodowski, a sound engineer and friend of both men who had also made the transition from KYC to WJW, did the actual directing. Anderson knew Conway to be an even better ad libber than he was, and thought they could put together Bob and Ray-like comedy routines before and after the commercial breaks. The management at WJW soon found out about this little scam, but kept Conway on anyway, since their comedy bits did seem to attract a following. As it happened, it caught the attention of ex-child star and current sitcom performer Rose-Marie, who was in town to drum up support for the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show, where she played wisecracking Sally Rogers. Rose-Marie was impressed by Conway, and took a tape of Ernie's Place back home to Hollywood, where she showed it to the then-popular TV personality Steve Allen. Equally impressed, Allen asked Conway to be a cast member of his variety show. Amazingly, Conway was reluctant to take the job. Anderson wouldn't be going (Allen considered him to be a mere straight man), and he enjoyed working with him. Conway took his misgivings to WJW's station manager, who replied that this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and promptly fired him for lying on his resume about being a director! So Conway went out west.

Here's where we come to the name change. There already was a then-famous, now-obscure actor named Tom Conway (brother of the then-famous, now-obscure actor George Sanders), so the Tom Conway from Cleveland became Tim Conway of Hollywood. Unfortunately, the newly-christened Tim Conway's career as a Steve Allen Show player lasted a mere fourteen episodes. After a six-year run (five on NBC and one on ABC), the variety show was cancelled, and at that point it probably did seem this was indeed an opportunity that he could have passed up. Except that people in the industry were now as impressed with Conway as Rose-Marie and Allen had been.  Among them the producers looking to cast a sitcom starring Ernest Borgnine that was to take place in the South Pacific during World War II, McHale's Navy. Conway was called on to play Ensign Parker, an inept junior officer. The sitcom was a minor hit, and Conway became a minor celebrity, and he would remain just that for some time to come. McHale's Navy ran for four years, after which Conway headlined a couple of other sitcoms that didn't stay on the air for very long (resulting in him ordering license plates that read "13 WKS".) Meanwhile back in Cleveland Ernie Anderson had become an extraordinarily popular late night horror movie host called Ghoulardi. But despite his success, he yearned to join his old friend Conway in Hollywood. So after four years of showing monsters movies and making fun of people who wear white socks, eat kielbasi, listen to polka music, and have pink flamingos on their front lawn (jokes only Clevelanders will get, but, hey, I'm from there), Anderson, too, headed out west. He and Conway decided to form a comedy team, and recorded two comedy albums, Are We On? and Bull! I've heard only snippets from these albums, but they're pretty funny snippets. However, you might have noticed that the comedy team of Conway and Anderson is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, or even Allen and Rossi. As Conway himself put it, the albums ended up in "the browsers bin at the A+P". But it was no more of a mistake for Anderson to have left Cleveland for Hollywood than Conway (meanwhile, I've stayed behind--see what a good civic citizen I am?) He soon became one of television's most highly sought-after and highly-paid announcers. Most memorably, he instructed viewers to watch "The Lo-o-o-ve Boat." He was also the guy that would tell you who was guest-starring on The Carol Burnett Show every Saturday night. Among those guest-starring was a then-minor celebrity named Tim Conway.

It was a once-in-a-while thing at first. Two, maybe three appearances in the first season (as always, sources, especially Internet sources, vary) several more appearances the second season, then a few more the third, even more the fourth. I was in the sixth grade by the time of show's seventh season, and I swear Conway was on about every other week. Kind of a regular guest star. And usually not the only guest on any given Saturday night. Or let's put it this way, he was kind of a B guest, and a bigger star would be the A guest. In season 9 (1975-1976), right after regular Lyle Waggoner left the show,  Conway went from being a frequent guest star to castmember, but no one probably noticed the promotion (or, arguably, demotion, since being a guest star was supposed to be kind of a special thing) because they thought he had already been one for years! It's hard to pin down what he did as a guest star and what he did as a cast member, but there were several recurring characters. The World's Oldest Man, who moved at the World's Oldest Snail's pace. Mr. Tudball the  stuffy businessman with the odd accent. And in the Mama's Family sketches (later spun off as a sitcom) he was hard-of-hearing country yokel Mickey Hart (was Conway a Grateful Dead fan?) But mostly, there were sketches where he played one-shot characters whose main goal seem to be make Burnett castmember Harvey Korman break up laughing on the air. In fact, it's said that these sketches were taped twice, first with Conway sticking to the script, and second with Conway allowed to ad lib, and the funniest version is what ended up on the air. Much to the chagrin of Burnett's writers (some of whom also wrote for Mad magazine), the second tapings often won out.

Conway now went from being a minor to a major celebrity (so it was a promotion after all.) And he became kind of a movie star, too. It happened when he and Don Knotts  were given secondary roles as two imbeciles but with one, Knotts, a more assertive imbecile than the other, a la Laurel and Hardy, in a G-rated Disney comedy titled The Apple Dumpling Gang. The movie was a surprise hit in an era when Disney rarely had hits and was constantly in danger of being gobbled up by a larger media company. That was followed by a sequel in which Conway and Knotts were now front and center, another big hit for Disney. Who knows? Perhaps Conway and Knotts were ultimately responsible for putting Disney on a sound financial footing, which eventually allowed them to expand and gobble up 20th Century Fox lo these years later. Stranger things have happened, such B-movie mogul Roger Corman snatching up Conway and Knotts and having them make a couple of G-rated films for his New World Pictures, The Private Eyes and The Prize Fighter (both co-written by Conway), and those becoming hits. It's fair to say that Tim Conway and Don Knotts were the biggest stars of the G-rated feature film in that era. Unfortunately, there was such a stigma attached to G-rated feature films in the 1970s that this meant Conway and Knotts couldn't have bit parts much less starring roles in any other-rated feature film. So they were major movies stars and box office poison at the same time. That's show biz for ya.

Tim Conway finally got to do a PG-rated movie when cult filmmaker and Corman protege Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul) agreed to direct a screenplay of his titled The Longshot, a thoroughbred racing comedy (Conway's father was a horse groomer.) I found the film funny, but it tanked at the box office, thus depriving the world, or at least the segment of the world that likes to go to midnight showings of movies, of further Conway-Bartel collaborations. So Conway went back to more innocuous fare, a good chunk of which involved a very little man with even littler feet and an  odd accent, similar to Mr. Tubury's except this fellow's name was Dorf. Conway first played the character--supposedly a world-famous racehorse jockey--in a sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After that there was a how-to video parody titled Dorf on Golf that sold extremely well, leading to eight more videos, each of which had Dorf giving a lesson in a sport that he hadn't come close to mastering himself. It was shamelessly broad comedy, but the sheer technical brilliance and slapstick skill in which it was carried out--Conway had to stand in a hole with fake shoes taped to his knees--was worthy of Buster Keaton.

So what else is there? In 1999 he was reunited with his McHale's Navy castmate Ernest Borgnine, as both lent their voices to the characters Barnacle Man and Mermaid Man on the animated SpongeBob SquarePants show. And he did guest shots on a lot of other shows, both animated and live-action, picked up several cabinets-worth of Emmys and lifetime achievement awards, and was a ubiquitous pop culture presence up until about a year or so ago when declining health finally got the best of him.

For all his show biz success, I think Tim Conway was an underrated comic, and maybe even a bit of a misunderstood one. Though all his awards and I suppose his bank statement would suggest, would affirm, otherwise, and Conway himself never expressed any regrets, I can't help but wonder if his career was somewhat mismanaged. When he was on talk shows rather than in sketches, he could still be funny but funny in the course of a conversation. He actually came across as droll, even cerebral, closer to Bob Newhart than Robin Williams. What I've heard from the two comedy albums Conway did with Ernie Anderson suggests he could have gone in that direction, as they kind of remind me of the early '60s classic, The Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. But, as I said before, no one bought Conway's albums, and he probably decided that there was only room in the entertainment mainstream for one Bob Newhart at a time. So Tim Conway broadened his shtick considerably, but never to the point where his penchant for a dryer form of comedy was completely hidden. The combination of the two worked wonders.

Earlier I mentioned a fellow by the name of Chuck Schodowski, who directed Ernie's Place, even though Conway was supposed to direct it. Well, like Ernie Anderson before him, he eventually became a late-night horror movie host. For over forty years, "Big Chuck" and, originally co-host Bob "Hoolihan" Wells, later "Little" John Rinaldi, presented Friday night viewers in Northeast Ohio Laugh-In-style blackout gags along with the usual black-and-white vampires, werewolves, and tentacled aliens. In the following two such sketches, an old friend pops up: 

Tom Conway never forgot where he came from.



  1. Hi, Kirk!

    You did a fine job of bringing us the highlights of Tim Conway's career, starting way back in Cleveland when he was Tom. I forgot that he was a member of the cast of The Steve Allen Show after it switched networks to ABC. I didn't watch that version of the program as regularly as I had watched the earlier NBC show which launched the careers of other comics including Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington, Jr., Bill Dana and Jim Nabors. I also forgot that Conway was in the cast of McHale's Navy which I watched fairly regularly. I also watched The Carol Burnett Show regularly and, if I am to be honest, didn't find the show all that funny. It was "Hollywood funny." It generated nervous laughter, the kind you experience when you realize that what you are watching is supposed to be funnier than it actually is. In my opinion the cast overdid it by breaking up over so many of Conway's ad libs. Sometimes it didn't seem genuine. If cast members crack each other up and roll around on the floor too often, after a while they and the show lose credibility. The only cast member I consistently enjoyed watching on the show was Harvey Korman whose reaction to Conway's antics seemed more genuine that that of the others. If you want to see an example of cast members reacting to a funny routine and the entire piece coming across as real and genuine, watch SNL's Chris Farley playing the down on his luck motivational speaker who lives in his van down by the river giving a pep talk to David Spade and Christina Applegate. That sketch is world class funny.

    As you traced Conway's career, it was also interesting to learn about Ernie Anderson and his stint as the local Cleveland late night horror movie host Ghoulardi, the comedy albums he and Conway recorded and his gigs as an announcer on major network series.

    Tim Conway seemed like a very nice man and it makes me sad that his once sharp mind abandoned him in old age. Based on my taste in comedy, the characters he played over the years were not the kind that made me laugh out loud. They seemed designed to appeal to an older audience, folks of my parents' generation, more than to mine. For sketch comedy and character portrayals I preferred SNL players Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Elliott, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Bill Murray and David Spade. Those guys delivered my type of comedy - slick, sophisticated and skewed to a younger, hipper audience.

    Once again you did a marvelous job on this Tim Conway career retrospective, good buddy Kirk. Have a great week!

    1. Shady, all comedy is subversive. It's just that since 1970 or so the subversiveness has become more audacious (as well as more obvious.) I think it's because of a Supreme Court ruling.

      I don't remember the exact post, but I once opined on this blog that the original 1970s Saturday Night Live was simply a darker version of The Carol Burnett Show. Think about it. Gilda Radner was Carol, Dan Ackroyd was Harvey Korman, and Chevy Chase was Tim Conway. What's that? You don't buy it? How about Larainne Newman as Vicki Lawrence?

      So much of this depends on something a person has no control over: when they were born. If Dana Carvey had been born 30 years earlier, he might have been cast as Major Healey on I Dream of Jeannie. If Bob Hope had been born 60 years later, he might have ended up as George Costanza on Seinfeld. In comedy, timing is everything.

      Of course, there are people like Lenny Bruce, who strenuously defy the norms of their era. But he kept getting thrown in jail, which defeats the very purpose of being subversive. He may have been the LEAST subversive comedian!

    2. Just a reminder to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. An actor who nails his imitation of Lenny Bruce is a recurring character in the series.

  2. He really was brilliant. His best work was ad-libbed. The night before he died I watched the elephant skit and outtakes for the umpteenth time, just because I needed to laugh.

    1. Mitchell, what I like about that bit is that it has a certain plausibility. If can accept the premise of Siamese twin elephants joined at the trunk, an enterprising sideshow operator might indeed train a monkey to carry an umbrella...

  3. He wasn't Barnacle Boy

    he was Barnacle Man

  4. Actually, Adam, I wrote Barnacle Bill, which I've now changed. Thanks for pointing out the error.

    Barnacle Bill was a name I heard in a Popeye cartoon. It must have stuck in my mind because it's alliterative.

  5. "At first I wanted to be a jockey. I rode horses in Cleveland but I kept falling off and I was afraid of horses. So there wasn't much of a future in it."

    But were glad he settled on comedy.

    1. Maddie, who knows? If Conway had held a little more firmly on to the--um, let me look it up--bridle, instead of Emmys he might have won the Kentucky Derby.


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