Obituary: Tim Conway, performer who gained comedy immortality on The Carol Burnett Show

Tim Conway in 2000  (Picture: Getty Images)
Tim Conway in 2000 (Picture: Getty Images)
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Tim Conway, actor, writer and director: Born: 15 December 1933 in Willoughby, Ohio, US. Died: 14 May 2019, Los Angeles, California, US, aged 85

Tim Conway, the impish second banana to Carol Burnett who won four Emmy Awards on her TV variety show, starred aboard McHale’s Navy and later voiced the role of Barnacle Boy for Spongebob Squarepants, has died. He was 85.

Conway died on Tuesday morning in a Los Angeles care facility. Conway’s wife, Charlene Fusco, and a daughter, Jackie, were at his side.

Burnett said in a statement that she was heartbroken. She added: “He was one in a million, not only as a brilliant comedian but as a loving human being. I cherish the times we had together both on the screen and off. He’ll be in my heart forever.”

Tributes came from across the comedy world, including from chat show host Conan O’Brien, who said “no one made me laugh harder than Tim Conway” and Kathy Griffin, who called him a wildly talented, comedy giant.

A native of Ohio, Conway credited his Midwestern roots for putting him on the right path to laughs, with his deadpan expression and innocent, simple-minded demeanour.

“I think the Midwest is the heart of comedy in this country, and a little bit of the South, too”, he said in 2005. “For some reason, we’re just more laid-back, more understanding. ... And Midwesterners have a kinder sense of humour.”

Those qualities probably contributed to his wide popularity on The Carol Burnett Show, which he joined in 1975 after years as a frequent guest. The show aired on CBS from 1967 to 1978 and had a short summer stint on ABC in 1979.

“We really didn’t attack people or politics or religion or whatever. We just made fun of, basically, ourselves”, he said.

The show operated with just five writers, one producer, one director and without network interference. The ensemble cast surrounding the redheaded star included Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner.

“I don’t think the network would allow a show like The Carol Burnett Show now because we had such freedom,” Conway said.

Lawrence mourned the passing of her co-star, saying in a statement that the angels are laughing out loud. “Hysterical, crazy, bold, fearless, humble, kind, adorable... all synonyms for Tim Conway. I am so lucky to ever have shared a stage with him,” she said.

While America was laughing at Conway, so were his co-stars: Burnett and Harvey 
Korman were often caught by the camera trying not to crack up during his performances.

The short, nondescript Conway and the tall, imposing Korman were a physical mismatch made in comedy heaven. They toured the country for years with a sketch show called Together Again, which drew on characters from Burnett’s show.

Besides the four Emmys he won with Burnett (three as a performer, one as a writer), he won Emmys for guest appearances in 1996 for Coach and in 2008 for 30 Rock.

Conway also had a modest but steady movie career, appearing in such films as The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), The Shaggy DA (1976), Cannonball Run II (1984), Dear God (1996) and Air Bud 2 (1998).

The Apple Dumpling Gang and Cannonball Run II allowed him to work with his comedic hero, Don Knotts, who died in 2006.

“If there’s any reason at all I’m in the business, I think it’s Don”, Conway once said. “He’s an icon in this business. He’s an icon that’s never going to be duplicated.”

He also found success in the 1980s in a series of comedy videos based on an oddly short character named Dorf. (Carefully costumed, Conway performed sketches on his knees.) Among them were Dorf on Golf and Dorf Goes Fishing.

More recently, Conway voiced the role of Barnacle Boy for the hugely popular children’s series Spongebob Squarepants.

He was born Thomas Conway in 1933 in the Cleveland suburb of Willoughby. He attended Bowling Green State University and served in the US Army.

He got his career break on local TV in Cleveland in the 1950s, where his duties included comedy spots on a late-night movie show.

He was spotted by Rose Marie of The Dick Van Dyke Show, who got him an audition for The Steve Allen Show. He became a regular on the show in the early 1960s. Allen advised him to change his name from Tom to Tim to avoid being confused with the British actor Tom Conway.

Following the Allen show, Conway gained attention as the incompetent Ensign Charles Parker on the Ernest Borgnine sitcom McHale’s Navy from 1962-66. That led to series of his own, including Rango and The Tim Conway Show, but they were short-lived.

McHale’s Navy fans loved watching Ensign Parker infuriate the ever-flammable Captain Binghamton (played by Joe Flynn), but it was Conway’s work on Burnett’s show that would bring him lasting fame.

Conway and his wife, Mary Anne Dalton, married in 1961 and had six children. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married Charlene Fusco.

In addition to his wife and daughter Jackie, Conway is survived by children Tim Jr, Patrick, Jamie, Kelly, Corey and Seann, as well as two grandchildren, Courtney and Sophia.

LYNN ELBER & 
MARK KENNEDY