Tim Conway, 1933–2019
The improv master who cracked up his co-stars
Tim Conway might have been TV’s greatest goofball. The Emmy-winning comic actor was a hapless ensign opposite Ernest Borgnine’s commanding officer in the 1960s sitcom McHale’s Navy, and a core member of The Carol Burnett Show, a variety hour that ran on CBS from 1967 to 1978. A skilled slapstick performer and ad-libber, Conway delighted audiences with recurring characters such as the Oldest Man, who took an eternity to complete any action—including falling down the stairs. But Conway, who often veered wildly off script when the cameras were rolling, was best known for his ability to crack up his co-stars. In one famous sketch, he played a bumbling dentist who accidentally injects himself with Novocain and slowly loses control of his limbs. His wild improvisations caused sketch partner Harvey Korman, his patient in the chair, to wet himself with laughter. “I’m very proud of that, too,” Conway said, “because I owned a cleaners at the time.”
Born in suburban Cleveland to a seamstress mother and an Irish immigrant father who trained horses, the young Conway struggled with dyslexia, said The Washington Post. School friends thought he was joking when he made mistakes while reading out loud—“The book They Were Expendable,” he recalled, “I read as They Were Expandable”—so he decided to pursue laughter for real. Conway studied speech and dramatics at Bowling Green State University and after a stint in the Army got a job at a Cleveland TV station, “writing, directing, and occasionally performing characters for comedy spots on a show devoted to movies,” said The New York Times. The skits won him an audition on ABC’s The Steve Allen Show, on which he became a regular in 1960, kick-starting his small-screen career.
Conway remained a comedy force after the Burnett Show, said The Hollywood Reporter. He struck gold in the 1980s with a direct-to-video series about a character named Dorf, “a pint-size sports enthusiast with a Scandinavian accent” whom Conway played by standing in a hole. In the 2000s, he found a new generation of fans voicing the character of Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants and playing an out-of-touch former TV star on 30 Rock. Making people laugh, he said, was his role in life. “I am not really qualified to do anything,” he explained, “but screw up.” ■