Tim Conway, an award-winning comedic actor whose work on the Carol Burnett variety show provoked howls of laughter from television audiences and from co-stars – who could barely stay in character when he unleashed his arsenal of ridiculous accents and preposterous physical stunts – died Tuesday at a care facility in Los Angeles. He was 85.
The cause was normal pressure hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain, said his publicist, Howard Bragman.
His family announced the death in a statement but did not say where or how he died. Conway was reported to be suffering from dementia and underwent brain surgery in October 2018.
Conway’s talent for fully inhabiting the realm of the absurd – and within an ensemble cast that included Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner – helped him thrive in the once-popular TV variety-show format of comedy and musical skits.
“The Carol Burnett Show,” which frequently burlesqued movie genres, soap operas and other cultural touchstones, was showered with awards and is widely regarded as one of the most influential comedy programs of all time.
A featured guest and then a regular cast member on the CBS show from 1967 to 1978, Conway was an inveterate prankster who delighted in comic brinksmanship with Korman in particular. To that end, Conway hid his best comic ideas and script improvisations during rehearsals, unfurling them only during taping in front of a studio audience.
A dentist sketch has long been a staple of vaudeville routines, but Conway’s spin on it led to one of the most memorable scenes in TV comedy, a favorite of countless aspiring performers who praised his physical prowess and control.
Conway played a hapless dentist who pokes himself three times with the Novocain needle, while Korman, the helpless patient, looks on from the dental chair. Conway’s timing and matter-of-fact performance as a man left immobilized by his own incompetence left Korman desperately trying to suppress his laughter.
Finally unable to cope, Korman was said to have wet his pants on the air. “I’m very proud of that, too,” Conway later said, “because I owned a cleaners at the time.”
Wearing a never-ending supply of obvious wigs, the balding, elfin Conway seamlessly adopted all manner of personas. As Tudball, a businessman with a strange hybrid Swedish-Romanian accent, he is perpetually exasperated by the ineptitude and indifference of his secretary, the rump-heavy Mrs. Wiggins (Burnett).
He was a Nazi officer who interrogates a prisoner of war (Waggoner) and, promising to “get rough,” whips out a Hitler puppet that sings “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Dinah” in a German-accented falsetto.
As his recurring “Oldest Man” character, Conway was variously a butcher, an orchestra conductor, a doctor and a fireman – each with ludicrously slow motor skills and a mop of Einstein-like white hair. In one old man sketch, he fell down a flight of stairs at such a snail’s pace that it almost appeared to be a trick with the TV camera.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Burnett later recalled. “Harvey and I are just staring in shock. And he not only fell down in slow motion and collapsed, he proceeded to take the rug all the furniture was on and roll himself up! Chairs were falling over. It was a time I knew and wished I had invested in Depends.”
In 2002, Conway was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.
Thomas Daniel Conway was born in Willoughby, Ohio, on Dec. 15, 1933, and grew up in Chagrin Falls, a suburb of Cleveland. His mother was a first-generation Romanian American. His father was an immigrant from Ireland who trained polo ponies and racehorses.
Despite his small size, Conway was adept at gymnastics, football, basketball and baseball – an athleticism that he later put in the service of physical comedy.
His struggle with dyslexia seeded the idea for a future in comedy. “People thought that I was kidding when I would read out loud in school, so they started laughing,” Conway told the publication American Profile. “For instance, the book ‘They Were Expendable,’ I read as ‘They Were Expandable.’ People were going, ‘This guy is great!’ ... I thought, ‘I must be funny, so I might as well continue with this.’”
Conway graduated in 1956 from Ohio’s Bowling Green State University with a major in speech and dramatic arts. He then went into the Army and spent two years stationed in Seattle, an experience that he later reduced to one amusing incident.
On guard duty one night, he realized that he didn’t have his rifle. Seeing his lieutenant coming around the corner, he grabbed a fluorescent tube from a nearby garbage can, pointed it at the officer and ordered him to halt.
“What is that?” the lieutenant said.
“It’s a lightbulb,” Conway answered. “And if you come any closer, I’ll turn it on.”
(The dentist sketch was also based on an incident in the Army when he needed to have a tooth pulled, and the military dentist jabbed the needle so hard it went through his cheek and into the man’s thumb.)
After his discharge, Conway found work in Cleveland, writing jokes for a radio DJ. He later performed improvised comedy bits as a sidekick to local TV host Ernie Anderson, with Conway pretending to be a guest trumpeter or bullfighter. Veteran comic actress Rose Marie, passing through town, brought him to the attention of TV variety-show host Steve Allen.
Conway’s regular appearances with Allen led to his breakthrough in 1962, playing the bumbling Ensign Parker on ABC’s “McHale’s Navy,” a sitcom starring Ernest Borgnine. It ran for four years.
In addition to his work on the Burnett show, Conway headlined several short-lived self-titled variety series. His film roles included “The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) opposite Don Knotts, as well as Disney fare that included “The World’s Greatest Athlete” (1973) and “The Shaggy D.A.” (1976).
In the late 1980s, Conway began releasing popular short films in which he played Derk Dorf, a tiny-legged instructor of golf, weightlifting and fishing with a vaguely Scandinavian accent.
In addition to his four Emmy Awards for “The Carol Burnett Show” – which he earned for performing and writing – Conway won an Emmy in 1996 for a guest appearance as a hapless gardener on the sitcom “Coach” and another in 2008 for playing an aging TV star named Bucky Bright on the sitcom “30 Rock.” He also voiced the character Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants” and guest-starred on sitcoms such as “Hot in Cleveland” and “Two and a Half Men.”
In 2013, he published a memoir, “What’s So Funny?” written with Jane Scovell.
Conway’s first marriage, to Mary Anne Dalton, with whom he had six children, ended in divorce. In 1984, he married Burnett’s secretary, Charlene Fusco.
Besides his wife, surviors include six children from his first marriage, a stepdaughter and two granddaughters.
That he usually played second banana on TV did not bother Conway.
“I don’t feature myself as being the head man,” he told the Archive of American Television. “I would much rather stand in the background and make small, funny things go than be at the head of the class.”