Remembering Tim Conway

How do you describe Tim Conway? Insanely funny? That’s a good start.  Conway had a long career and unless you are writing a book, you have to pick and choose parts of his career to focus on.

Of all the films, television shows and videos and he starred in, he often worked with three men during his Hollywood career.  His main partners in crime were: Joe Flynn, Don Knotts and Harvey Korman.  Conway was at his best when he was paired up with someone, not because he wasn’t funny or a good actor on his own, but even he knew the special chemistry he had with the right straight-man.  Think back to the Carol Burnett Show and his sketches with Korman. You get the idea.

After McHale’s Navy, Conway was a hot prospect.  Johnny Carson once said of Conway that he had his hand in more pilots than an air force proctologist.   Conway was offered many television shows as star (Rango, Ace Crawford Private Eye, Tim Conway’s Funny America, The Tim Conway Show, The Tim Conway Comedy Hour), and they all bombed. He even had a license plate for his car that read “13 WKS”, referencing the quick cancellation of his television shows (Thirteen weeks used to be the minimum network guarantee). Rango was even listed as the 47th worst show in TV history.  Conway felt it had some good things but it was filmed without an audience and he had no one to play off of and couldn’t use his improvisation skills.

One of Conway’s shows was cancelled during the first episode.  Seriously.  First and last show of that series.  The show was called Turn On in 1970. It was described as Laugh-In on LSD. Don’t remember it? No one else does.

For most performers, after one or two bombs your career is toast, but Conway was a unique talent.  His ability to improvise, to use his entire body, voice and mannerisms to create a character and form his own sketch out of thin air was something few performers could do.  Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams come to mind.

Tim Conway and Joe Flynn

McHale’s Navy was the first introduction most of us had to Tim Conway.  Ensign Charles Parker was a bumbling but good-hearted officer on the PT-73, working for skipper McHale (Ernest Borgnine), and a thorn in the side of Capt. Wallace Binghamton (Joe Flynn). Binghamton was always trying to catch McHale in his shenanigans but was usually thwarted at the last moment.  Conway played Parker with a lot of physical comedy that often involved Binghamton in slapstick mishaps.  There were two spin-off movies based on the series, the second one did not involve Borgnine, so it was Conway and Flynn that carried the film.

The pair worked so well that when Conway was offered the half-hour The Tim Conway Show, Flynn came aboard as the co-star.  The premise had the pair operating a one-plane airline. Unfortunately the show only lasted a few episodes but the pair brought forth the comedy chemistry they had perfected on McHale’s Navy.  They played off of each other well, but the show had a very limited premise and nowhere to go.

Conway’s characters in both shows were earnest but their best efforts always resulted in a direct mishap for Flynn’s characters, who were prone to outbursts of frustration with Conway.

Conway and Flynn were both from Ohio and appeared in many Disney films, but not together.

Tim Conway and Don Knotts

Both worked on The Steve Allen Show but not at the same time.  It was the pairing in The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) that started their on-screen success.  A sequel, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979) more strongly focused on the pair.  This led to two additional films developed by Conway for them to star in. The Prize Fighter (1979) had Conway as Bags, an ex-fighter who with the help of his manager, Shake (Knotts), get tricked into helping a mobster land a deal.  Made on a low budget, the film proved very profitable.  Conway wrote a treatment that became The Private Eyes (1980), where he and Knotts played bumbling Scotland Yard investigators on the trail of a murder.  The film was also very successful.

Conway and Knotts also appeared in another Disney film, Gus, but their characters were not connected.  They would appear in Cannonball Run II in a cameo role and later do voice work together, but had no additional projects, which is interesting considering their past success.

In their films together, Conway and Knotts played essentially the same characters in different stories.  Conway was the bungler, good-natured but inept, while Knotts was highly-strung and the victim of Conway’s mishaps.

In his book, Conway described Knotts this way.  “I learned a lot just watching Don Knotts at work.  There wasn’t a phony motion in him, everything was character driven…When you were watching his antics as Andy Griffith’s deputy, you were watching Don Knotts.”

Tim Conway and Harvey Korman

Most people think Conway was a regular on The Carol Burnett Show for its entire run, because he was featured in so many episodes.  In fact, he was only officially a regular cast member from 1975-1978, joining the cast after Lyle Waggoner left the show.  Through the first seven seasons, Conway guested about twice a month.  In all, he appeared in 111 episodes of The Carol Burnett Show.  Conway won four Emmy Awards in his association with the show, including one for writing.

Burnett had remembered Conway from The Garry Moore Show in the early 1960s when Burnett was a regular and Conway guested.  She knew that his comedic style would be a great change of pace when he appeared.

Harvey Korman was hired as a regular when the Burnett Show began.  He had appeared on The Danny Kaye Show as a regular, as support to Kaye in the comedy sketches. Korman had the ability to play many outlandish characters, and quickly excelled as a straight-man to Conway.  It was funny at first sight, and Conway and Korman remained close friends until Korman passed away.

The Oldest Man was a character that Conway invented.  He appeared as a shuffling, slow talking, befuddled man who was paired with Korman in skits where the old man messed up whatever Korman’s character was trying to do.  No matter how the skit was written and rehearsed, Conway was known to throw some variation at Korman’s ability to hold a straight face.  They did many versions of the oldest man, and even though you knew what was coming, it was still impossible to not laugh.

The Dentist was an early Burnett Show skit.  Conway, as bumbling young dentist, works on a very patient, patient, Korman.  Conway’s dentist shoots himself with Novocaine, deadening his arm, leg and head, and still tries to perform a dental procedure on Korman.

In his book, Conway describes the skit as really just an outline about a nervous and inexperienced young dentist but not much else.  During the read-through, Korman was convinced it was a bomb but Conway assured him it would be okay.  Conway based the Novocaine part of it as based on one of his own dental visits.

Conway described the process of getting a typical Burnett Show on the air.  A sit-down cast read through on Monday, rehearse on Tuesday, Wednesday a run-through for the network and staff, Thursday blocking the shot and Friday was taping the show before audiences.  The show was taped twice, with Conway performing the skits exactly the way they were practices.  It was the second show that Conway cut loose, having permission to ad-lib from the script.  Boy, did he.

Burnett said, “We always used the second show.  Many times a four minute sketch would stretch to ten minutes or more due to the bits he added, plus the added laughter from the audience.  Sometimes we were accused of breaking up on purpose. No true.  We all tried our best to keep straight faces, but when Tim got on a roll that was all but impossible.”

“The cornerstone of our relationship, professional and personal, was my ability to make Harvey laugh just by looking at him,” Conway wrote.  “While I got a real kick out of getting my colleagues to crack up during sketches, I lived to break Harvey.  He was the easiest target in the entire ensemble, which was ironic because he….was the most professional actor in the company.”

After the Burnett Show, Conway and Korman worked together in various films including The Longshot, written by Conway.

Conway and Korman also took their act on the road, performing to audiences for about ten years, including taping some of their shows for video release.  They featured some of the characters from the Burnett Show in their act.  Korman’s health started to fail in 2006 and he death in 2008.

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In 2013, Conway published an autobiography, What’s So Funny, filled with life stories and his unique observations on his own career.  If you like Tim Conway, find a copy, it is a delightful read.

Tim Conway’s passing closed out a part of history.  Those of us who grew up with him on television, enjoyed his films and videos, but the gold was in his boob tube performances.  We have our favorite memories of his insanity.  I certainly do.

Here is a collection of some Conway/Korman moments. Enjoy.