Tim Conway, the six-time Emmy winner who reveled in cracking up straight man Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show and flummoxed Ernest Borgnine on McHale’s Navy, died today in Los Angeles. He was 85. He had been rendered mute since undergoing brain surgery last year.
“I can confirm he passed at 8:45 a.m. after a long illness,” Conway’s longtime publicist Howard Bragman said today.
Conway fairly dominated any scene he was in and was a fan — and cast — favorite on Carol Burnett’s long-running variety show. His chemistry with Korman was palpable as Conway delivered killer punchlines in a droll, unflinching style that enamored him to millions of fans. His penchant for playing slow-witted characters belied a genuine professionalism.
He won four Emmys for writing or co-starring on that classic series and two others for later guest spots on Coach (1996) and 30 Rock (2008). Conway amassed 13 Emmys noms during his career, his first and last coming 45 years apart. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A quote he gave during a 2004 interview alongside Korman for the TV Academy Foundation summed up his screen career: “I don’t feature myself as being the head man,” Conway said. “I would much rather stand in the background and make small funny things than be up at the head of the class.” Watch a portion of the interview below.
Born on December 15, 1933, in Willoughby, OH, Conway served in the Army before starting a career in local radio. Conway was working at WJW-AM in Cleveland when he caught the attention of Rose Marie, who got him a spot on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.
Conways’ 50-year-plus career kicked into gear with his role as Ens. Charles Parker in the 1962-66 ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy, opposite titular star Borgnine and other regulars including Gavin McLeod and Joe Flynn. Conway earned his first Emmy nom for his supporting role in 1963. The Sgt. Bilko-like series wasn’t a massive hit, never cracking the year-end top 20 ratings, but it aired more than 130 episodes and spawned a pair of movies in which he co-starred: McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). In the latter, his Ens. Parker is mistaken for a pilot, which gets his ship’s crew somehow into the unfriendly skies — or, more specifically, near them.
Conway also was known for Dorf, the diminutive character — he performed it on his knees, where fake shoes were placed — who appeared in a litany of how-to videos launched during the 1980s, including Dorf on Golf (1987). Originating as a skit on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Dorf introduced Conway to a new generation of fans while tickling his longtime ones. He also wrote the many videos in which Dorf was featured, which continued into the mid-2010s.
After McHale’s Navy ended its run in 1966 — only to live on in reruns and be discovered by younger comedy fans in the ensuing decades — Conway fronted the 1967 comedy Western Rango for ABC. His title character was an, of course, bumbling Texas Ranger who is assigned to the state’s loneliest outpost, where it was assumed he would stay out of mischief. Fat chance. The midseason series lasted fewer than 20 episodes.
Conway would reteam with Flynn for The Tim Conway Show, which debuted on CBS in January 1970. The title star played the best (and only) pilot for Anywhere Anytime Airlines. It also aired one truncated season.
He went on to guest on episodes of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In before launching a career in Disney films, The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973) and then 1975’s The Apple Dumpling Gang in an inspired casting opposite Don Knotts and returning for its 1979 sequel. In the meantime, he played a bumbling crook in the 1976 mule-plays-football yarn Gus. He then co-starred opposite Disney regular Dean Jones as a — you guessed it — bumbling ice cream vendor who owned a big sheepdog that he believes can talk. In the end, his character Tim gets the girl. He also starred in and wrote the 1978 jailbreak comedy They Went That-a-Way & That-a-Way.
By then Conway had starting appearing on The Carol Burnett Show, becoming a series after fan favorite Lyle Waggoner exited after the 1974 season. Although the iconic variety show was past its ratings peak, Conway injected a healthy dose of often-physical comedy that enamored him to viewers. Among his signature characters was the World’s Oldest Man, the gray-haired guy whose trademark mini-shuffle worked against whatever situation in which he was dropped. Korman and other cast members rarely kept a straight face, even though Conway always did.
He won 1978 Emmys for acting and as part of its writing team after winning in the mouthful category of Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in Variety or Music the previous year. He also won a Supporting Performer Emmy for Carol Burnett in 1973 — his first — and was nominated for his acting in all five seasons he was a regular on the show.
After that series wrapped in 1979, Conway continued to appear in films and on TV, guesting on such popular comedies as Newhart, Cybill, Married … with Children, Cosby, The Drew Carey Show, Ellen, Mad About You, Wizards of Waverly Place, Hot in Cleveland, Two and a Half Men and as himself on The Larry Sanders Show. Conway also was a regular on the short-lived improv comedy On the Spot in 2003.
By the early 2000s, Conway found a new career as a voice actor. He recurred as Mermaid Man’s sidekick Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob SquarePants and in a number of associated video games. He also voiced a seagull in the 2015 feature The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. He also voiced the caterpillar -turned-butterfly Hermie in a 2003 TV movie that launched slew of Christian-themed children’s videos.
He also was the voice of Deputy Sniffer, a police bloodhound who was on the case in three Air Bud spinoff “Buddies” pics in the early 2010s.
Conway’s film credits also include The Cannonball Run II and Speed 2: Cruise Control.
Conway was also known for his loyalty in a town where allegiance can be fleeting. After his agent Phil Weltman was let go from the William Morris Agency, Conway followed him out the door and stayed with Weltman for the remainder of the agent’s life. Weltman, of course, was the head of the William Morris training program that mentored such agents as Ron Meyer and Michael Ovitz; Barry Diller also started out on Weltman’s desk.
Here is some of Conway and Korman’s sit-down for the TV Academy Foundation’s The Interviews series: