It seemed as if Tim Conway had about 17 careers. And he was funny in all of them.
The Northeast Ohio native, who passed away Tuesday at age 85, shined on television, in movies, on stage, as an author, on comedy albums, in how-to videos (“Dorf on Golf” anyone?) and as an animated voice (Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants”).
In addition to cracking up audiences for six decades, he had a lovable personality. Who didn’t like Tim Conway?
Born in Willoughby on Dec. 15, 1933, Conway grew up in Chagrin Falls and went to Bowling Green State University.
He is probably best known for his run on “The Carol Burnett Show,” first as a frequent guest, then as a regular. But his entertainment industry lineage reaches way back to local TV shows in Cleveland doing comedy bits (and making a few comedy albums) with Ernie Anderson of “Ghoulardi” fame.
Those bits caught the eye of Steve Allen, who brought him to Hollywood and launched his national career.
Conway said he was reluctant to move to Hollywood full-time and that his boss had to fire him to get him to make the big move.
“Well, a lot of people have to be fired to get out of Cleveland,” Conway told the Beacon Journal’s Rich Heldenfels in 2002, before a performance at the Akron Civic Theatre.
“I wasn’t seeking anything big,” he said. “I’ve had a tremendous run, but if it had ended anywhere along the line, I would be satisfied.”
Although he excelled in so many different formats and mediums, his gold standard was sketch comedy.
“Surprisingly, not a lot of people know how to do sketch comedy,” Conway said in that interview. “You have to have the ability to play a character without drawing attention to yourself. It’s like doing a play.”
I first remember loving Conway while watching reruns of “McHale’s Navy.” He played the bungling Ensign Parker, second banana to star Ernest Borgnine and a foil for Joe Flynn’s Capt. Binghamton.
After a few other short-lived TV shows, he teamed with fellow funnyman Don Knotts for some family-friendly Disney comedies — "Gus," “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.”
But Conway is primarily seared into the minds of Americans for his hilarious contributions to “The Carol Burnett Show,” as frustrated businessman Mr. Tudball (squaring off with Burnett's Mrs. Wiggins), the Old Man, and many others. Conway often got the star, or his comedy co-conspirator Harvey Korman, to break character and crack up in the middle of sketches.
Korman was an especially inviting target. You found yourself counting down to just how long it would take Tim to get Harvey to lose it. (Often, it didn’t take very long.)
One of the show's most insanely funny moments came during a "Mama's Family" sketch that included Burnett, Carol Lawrence and Dick Van Dyke. Conway had the cast in stitches (including himself) as he concocted an elaborate elephant story, which included a description of two "Siamese elephants" attached at their trunks. Words don't do it justice. You can check it out here: https://bit.ly/VEGMSW.
Conway had that wonderful flair for not taking himself too seriously, and his subversive, sharp-witted style aged well.
In addition to scoring several Emmys for his work with Burnett, he also won for guest appearances on “Coach” in 1996 and “30 Rock” in 2008.
It’s a long way from doing goofy TV bits with Ernie Anderson. Conway was asked in that 2002 Beacon Journal interview, what he thought he would he have become, had he turned down Hollywood and stayed in Cleveland?
“Maybe a humorous shoe salesman?”
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.