By Bruce Weber
Tim Conway, whose gallery of innocent goofballs, stammering bystanders, transparent connivers, oblivious knuckleheads and hapless bumblers populated television comedy and variety shows for more than half a century, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by his publicist, Howard Bragman.
With a sweetly cherubic face, a deceptively athletic physicality and an utter devotion to foolishness and slapstick, Conway was among Hollywood's most enduringly popular clowns. The winner of six Emmy Awards and a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame, he was a leading nonleading man, a vivid second banana whose deferential mien and skill as a collaborator made him most comfortable – and often funniest – in the shadow of a star.
For Conway, those stars were, most notably, Ernest Borgnine, with whom he appeared on the popular early-1960s series "McHale's Navy," and Carol Burnett, on whose comedy-variety show Conway was regularly featured from 1967 to 1978.
Conway's career had a serendipitous beginning. After mustering out of the Army in the late 1950s, he was working for a television station in Cleveland, writing, directing and occasionally performing, creating characters for comedy spots on a show devoted to movies. Actress and comedian Rose Marie, best known for her later role as a comedy writer on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," happened to be passing through Cleveland and watched Conway work; she arranged for him to audition for Steve Allen, who was impressed. Conway made several appearances in sketches he wrote for himself on Allen's prime-time variety show.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2004, Conway recalled that when he was cast in "McHale's Navy," he was a novice actor.
"I had no professional training at all," he said. "I had a sense of humor and had been in front of a microphone, but as far as doing movies or series work or anything like that, I had no idea."
That show, broadcast from 1962 to 1966, concerned a PT boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II who, led by Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale (Borgnine), flouted Navy regulations at every turn and considered the war a chance to enjoy an island vacation. Conway played Ensign Charles Parker, an enthusiastic officer with a young career already blighted by mishap who is assigned by McHale's superior officer and frustrated nemesis, Capt. Binghamton (Joe Flynn), to infiltrate McHale's crew and report back on their transgressions.
Parker's twin qualities of incompetence and sweet-temperedness end up making him more of an ally than an adversary, and the role allowed Conway to develop and deploy the arsenal of pratfalls, double takes, facial tics and other hyperbolic depictions of physical and emotional distress that served him for the rest of his career.
In 1967, Conway was cast in the title role of a western comedy series, "Rango," about a Texas Ranger who, assigned to a desolate ranger station, manages to attract trouble where there hadn't been any. It was the first of several shows starring Conway that did not last long, among them two variety series, "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" (1970) and "The Tim Conway Show" (1980-81).
Conway was not unaware that as a headliner he wasn't exactly money; he once had a vanity license plate reading "13 WKS."
Conway reached the height of his supporting fame on "The Carol Burnett Show" with characters like Mr. Tudball, an office martinet with an awful toupee, a vaguely Scandinavian accent and a flummoxing secretary (Burnett); and the Old Man, who moved so slowly that he couldn't perform in any of the occupations (sheriff, butcher, fireman) he found himself in.
His sketch work showed him to be a superb comic collaborator, especially with Burnett and Harvey Korman. He was also known for including ad-libs that forced his cast mates out of character into not entirely suppressed hysterics.
He won four Primetime Emmys (including one for writing) for his work on the Burnett show, which is widely considered one of the enduring high points of television comedy, screwball division, in league with "Your Show of Shows," "The Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy."
Conway was born Dec. 15, 1933, in Willoughby, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and grew up mostly in nearby Chagrin Falls.
Younger viewers may know Conway best as Dorf, a diminutive character with a Mr. Tudball accent who appears in a series of short slapstick films he wrote; or as the voice of Barnacle Boy – the sidekick of Mermaid Man, who was voiced by his old co-star Borgnine – on the long-running animated show "SpongeBob SquarePants."
Conway's first marriage, to Mary Anne Dalton, ended in divorce. They had six children, who survive him. Survivors also include his wife, Charlene (Fusco) Conway, whom he married in 1984, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In a foreword to Conway's autobiography, Burnett called him "a kind and funny genius."
"His sketches with Harvey Korman deserve a spot in whatever cultural time capsule we're setting aside for future generations," she wrote. "Maybe there are other performers as funny, but in my opinion I can't think of anybody funnier.