In Memoriam: Tim Conway, Family-Friendly Funnyman
By Dr. Tom Synder, Editor
Date: Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Legendary comic Tim Conway passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 85.
Conway was known for his role in the 1960s situation comedy MCHALE’S NAVY and for co-starring in the variety and sketch comedy program THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW in the 1970s before starring in a series of comedy movies for Disney with Don Knotts and providing the voice for Barnacle Boy in the popular cartoon series SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS.
Born in Willoughby, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Conway grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. After majoring in radio and television at Bowling Green State University, he served in the Army from 1956-58.
After the Army, he returned to Cleveland and worked with local radio and television personality Ernie Anderson for the local NBC affiliate, where he also wrote comedy material for the intermissions of a weekday morning show screening old movies.
In 1961, Rose Marie of the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW visited the station and thought Conway’s unique brand of comedy made a perfect fit for Steve Allen’s afternoon talk show in New York, which excelled, in part, in doing sketch comedy with other quirky comics like Conway. In the fall of 1962, he started work as the naïve and childish Ensign Pulver on the comedy show MCHALE’S NAVY, which starred legendary Hollywood tough guy Ernest Borgnine and ran until 1966.
Starting with the 1975-76 season, Conway became a regular on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, where his brand of slapstick humor, funny voices, pantomime, and clumsy behavior earned him four Emmy Awards, one for writing and three for performance. At the same time, he starred in a series of Disney family comedy movies with Don Knotts, another winner of multiple Emmy Awards who also worked for Steve Allen.
Like Knotts, Conway was a one-of-a-kind comic performer. There really was no other funnyman like him, though his comedy shared a huge affinity with the great silent film comedians, combined with a talent for creating unique characters like the best character actors during the sound era of the old Hollywood studio system.
In a 2013 interview with EWTN host Raymond Arroyo, Conway said Chagrin Falls where he grew up was “a great home town.”
“It was like a Tom Sawyer village,” he said.
Conway explained why THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW was such a hit and is remembered so fondly by so many. Part of the reason, of course, was Conway’s ability to do crazy unexpected things and repeatedly cause Carol Burnett and co-star Harvey Korman to break into bursts of laughter.
“Harvey and I were the best of friends,” Conway recalled, “and Carol was the most generous person you could ever imagine. She was always willing to share the show. I think that’s what made it so good.”
On hearing about Conway’s passing, Burnett told the Los Angeles Times in a statement, “I’m heartbroken.
“He was one in a million, not only as a brilliant comedian but as a loving human being,” she added. “I cherish the times we had together both on the screen and off. He’ll be in my heart forever.”
“This lady is responsible for my career,” Conway once said about Burnett.
While playing football in high school, Conway once got hit in the spine, but went to play football the next weekend, where he was playing with a broken back and didn’t know it. Years later, a doctor told Conway that a current health problem could be related to his broken back.
“I got in touch with the man upstairs,” he told Arroyo, “and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ And, I became a Catholic. I’ve never sworn in front of an audience. I’ve tried to remain something, if people came to see the show, that they could enjoy with children.
Conway believed that THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, which reached No. 13 in the ratings, endured because it didn’t offend anyone.
“All comedy is vicious anyway,” he said in 1993 when the cast reunited to mark the program’s 25th anniversary. “You are targeting somebody, but we almost always targeted ourselves. The audience kind of laughed at themselves through us. Carol never got into making barbs about politics. It was all just good fun.”
Baptized Romanian Orthodox, Conway explained what attracted him to Roman Catholicism.
“I like the structure of it,” he said. “It was much stricter. Other religions, you just got dressed on Sunday and that was it, but Catholics you’ve got lots of crosses around your neck and rings and thing like that. It was something I was comfortable with.”
After the movies with Don Knotts finished their run in 1981, Conway guested on numerous other TV programs before doing voice work with Ernest Borgnine as Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man on SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS from 1999 to 2012, which earned Conway a new generation of fans. Borgnine died in 2012, but Conway kept appearing as Barnacle Boy until his recent health issues made that impossible late last year.
In 2013, Conway published an autobiography titled WHAT’S SO FUNNY? MY HILARIOUS LIFE.
Raymond Arroyo of EWTN asked him the message of his book.
“You’re only here once, and you’ve got to enjoy it,” Conway replied. “I know it’s tough at times because outside elements do make it rather restrictive, money and things of that nature. But, enjoy it while you’re here.”
Conway is survived by his son, Tim, Jr., who hosts an evening comedy talk show on the largest radio station in Los Angeles, KFI AM-670. He’s also survived by his second wife, Charlene Conway, and his six other children with his first wife, Mary Anne Dalton.
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