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Tim Conway, Who Relished The Role Of Comedic Co-Star, Dies At 85

May 14, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 9:59 pm

Tim Conway built a career playing goofballs who rarely took center stage — but he often helped turn good television shows into TV classics. The comic actor, who appeared on shows ranging from The Carol Burnett Show to SpongeBob SquarePants, died Tuesday morning, May 14. The cause was complications from a long illness, according to his representative, Howard Bragman. He was 85.

Conway's breakout role was on the 1960s sitcom McHale's Navy as a bumbling ensign in World War II. On The Carol Burnett Show, he played Mr. Tudball, a Romanian-accented boss perpetually annoyed by his slow-moving secretary. On the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, he voiced a frustrated superhero sidekick called Barnacle Boy.

Conway also starred in many TV shows, but few lasted very long. As he told the Archive of American Television, he always felt more comfortable being the guy standing behind the star, making everyone laugh.

"I've never been comfortable as the star," he said. "I don't feature myself as being the head man. I would much rather stand in the background and make small, funny things go than be up at the head of the class."

Born Thomas Daniel Conway in Ohio, he served in the Army and knocked around in Cleveland's local TV scene before heading to New York to join The Steve Allen Show in the early 1960s. Because the show already had a staffer named Tom Conway, he adopted the stage name Tim.

Conway told Weekend Edition host Scott Simon in 2010 that he started dreaming of a career in comedy when he was just a child. "I was really kind of the class clown," he said. "When you're small, you either are funny or you get beat up a lot."

He had dyslexia, and when he read words that weren't there, he found that other kids would laugh. Conway recalled thinking, "This is a good way to make a living. I'll just go downtown and read and have people laugh."

Conway's role on McHale's Navy led to lots of guest appearances on variety shows. Eventually, he landed a regular role on CBS' popular Carol Burnett Show, where he developed a reputation for sidesplitting improvisations that would make his co-stars crack up.

Carol Burnett shares a laugh with Tim Conway in 1978.
George Brich / AP

In the 1970s and '80s, he appeared in films with Andy Griffith Show alum Don Knotts, including in Disney's The Apple Dumpling Gang. He and Carol Burnett Show colleague Harvey Korman worked together in films and in stage productions until Korman died in 2008.

Conway won six Emmy awards over his career, including four for his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He also won in 2008 for a guest appearance on the sitcom 30 Rock.

In a career that spanned nearly six decades, he used his lightning-fast wit and impish improvisational skills to turn hapless, bumbling roles into the most popular characters who almost never got top billing.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tim Conway, a comic actor whose career ranged from "The Carol Burnett Show" to "SpongeBob SquarePants," died today due to complications from a long illness. He was 85. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says Conway built a career playing bumbling goofballs who rarely took center stage.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Tim Conway often helped turn good television shows into TV classics. There was his breakout role in the 1960s sitcom "McHale's Navy" as a bumbling ensign in World War II - Charles Parker...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MCHALE'S NAVY")

TIM CONWAY: (As Charles Parker) Sir, Ensign Parker has a request.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A request.

CONWAY: (As Charles Parker) Yes, sir - permission to faint.

DEGGANS: ...And "The Carol Burnett Show's" Mr. Tudball, a heavily accented boss perpetually annoyed by his slow-moving secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

CONWAY: (As Mr. Tudball) Would it be more handy if I put a revolving door in here for you?

DEGGANS: He even popped up on the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants" as a frustrated superhero sidekick called Barnacle Boy, at least some of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS")

CONWAY: (As Barnacle Boy) I'm tired of playing second banana to a man who wears a bra. From now on, I want to be called Barnacle Man.

DEGGANS: Conway also starred in many TV shows, but few lasted very long. As he told the Archive of American Television, he always felt more comfortable being the guy standing behind the star, making everyone laugh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONWAY: I've never been comfortable as the star. I don't feature myself as being the head man. I would much rather stand in the background and make small, funny things go than be up at the head of the class.

DEGGANS: Born Thomas Daniel Conway in Ohio, he served in the Army and knocked around in Cleveland's local TV scene before heading to New York to join "The Steve Allen Show" in the early 1960s. Because the show already had a staffer named Tom Conway, he adopted the stage name Tim. Conway told Weekend Edition host Scott Simon in 2010 during an interview before a live audience that a childhood disorder led him to consider comedy as a career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONWAY: Well, I was dyslexic - was, still am - 'cause I would see words that weren't there. And people just started laughing. And I thought, well, this is a good way to make a living. I'll just go downtown and read and have people laugh, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: But it was almost to cover up some embarrassment.

CONWAY: That's a good idea - wish I'd have thought of that.

DEGGANS: Conway's role in "McHale's Navy" led to lots of guest appearances on variety shows. Eventually, he landed a regular role on CBS's popular "Carol Burnett Show," where he developed a reputation for side-splitting improvisations that would make his co-stars crack up laughing. In one sketch, Conway played a young dentist working on his first patient. Departing from the script, he ad libbed the character accidently shooting himself with novocaine, making co-star Harvey Korman break out in laughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW")

HARVEY KORMAN: (As character) Take a firm hold of the hypodermic needle.

CONWAY: (As character) Right.

DEGGANS: In the 1970s and '80s, he appeared in films with "Andy Griffith Show" alum Don Knotts, including Disney's "The Apple Dumpling Gang." Conway and Harvey Korman also worked together on films and in stage productions until Korman died in 2008. Conway won six Emmy awards over his career, including four for his work on "The Carol Burnett Show." He also won an Emmy in 2008 for a guest appearance on the sitcom "30 Rock" as an aging comic remembering the old days while touring NBC's New York studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")

CONWAY: (As Bucky) Men came to work - ties and hats.

JACK MCBRAYER: (As Kenneth) So elegant.

CONWAY: (As Bucky) And you had tailor-made suits and an inside monogrammed pocket, you know, for your opium pipe and your switchblade.

MCBRAYER: (As Kenneth) I'm sorry. What now?

CONWAY: (As Bucky) Say, why don't you show me around the old studio?

DEGGANS: In a career that spanned nearly six decades, he used a lightning-fast wit and impish improvisational skill to turn hapless, bumbling roles into the most popular characters, who almost never got top billing.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.