In comedy as in dance, there is an art to partnering: It takes strength and grace, a willingness to step back, to blend. It is harder than it is supposed to look. Although he was more than a straight man -- and he was a great straight man -- Harvey Korman, who died Thursday at the age of 81, made a career out of helping other people look good. The very definition of a supporting actor, he won four Emmys (out of six nominations) and a Golden Globe (out of four) not drawing attention to himself.
Playing opposite the long-limbed and explosive Carol Burnett, on whose “The Carol Burnett Show” he spent a decade, he was an anchor. With cast member Tim Conway, a quintessentially deadpan comedian -- Conway’s signature routine with Korman was as a dentist accidentally numbing himself with Novocain -- he was kind of an amplifier. The oldest member of the ensemble, he was its authority figure and, more than conventionally handsome Lyle Waggoner, its “leading man.” As Clark Gable in a “Gone With the Wind” parody, he was sort of sexy - he didn’t just put on the mustache and the funny voice, but tapped into the power.
Indeed, he seemed to carry the history of Hollywood around inside him, like a one-man Central Casting. This served him well in the films he made for Mel Brooks, the other pillar on which his reputation rests -- “Blazing Saddles,” “High Anxiety” and “History of the World, Part 1.” (He also starred in Brooks’ short-lived TV series, “The Nutt House.”)
Less famously, he was the Great Gazoo, a little green man from space, on “The Flintstones,” and later did voice work for “Hey Arnold!” and “The Wild Thornberrys.” He guested over the years on a wide variety of TV comedies and dramas (including “Ellen,” “ER,” “The Love Boat” and “Perry Mason”) and before “Burnett” spent four years on “The Danny Kaye Show.” In an irresistible bit of typecasting, he was straight man Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett’s Lou Costello in a TV biopic, “Bud and Lou.” Apart from the Brooks films, he appeared on the big screen in mostly small, oddball comedies -- “Lord Love a Duck,” “Americathon,” “First Family,” a couple of later entries in the “Pink Panther” series. He played the King in a musical adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn.”
In 1978, he went from “Burnett” into his own “The Harvey Korman Show,” which did not last long. He was not meant to stand out in front, but rather shoulder to shoulder. In his 70s, he toured a stage show, “Tim Conway and Harvey Korman: Together Again” -- a partner first and last.