Harvey Korman, 81; versatile Emmy-winning comedian

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Harvey Korman, an Emmy-winning comedic actor best known for playing the self-described “luminous second banana” for a decade on television’s “The Carol Burnett Show” and for starring in such Mel Brooks films as “Blazing Saddles,” has died. He was 81.

Korman, who had undergone several major operations, died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center of complications from an abdominal aortic aneurysm that ruptured four months ago, his daughter, Kate Korman, told The Times.

With a knack for physical humor and oddball accents, Korman was a master sketch comic who did his best-known work on Burnett’s variety show beginning in 1967 in an ensemble that included Tim Conway.


“It’s a 45-year friendship,” Conway said. “It was a great ride; we worked together probably 30 years, plus the Burnett show, which was about as good as it gets.”

Brooks called Korman “a major, major talent, and he could have very easily have done Shakespearean drama. That’s how gifted and talented Harvey was. . . . I loved working with him.”

Conway said Korman had “a complete understanding of comedy and comedy timing.”

On the Burnett show, which steadfastly stayed in television’s top 10 during its run, Korman showcased his versatility -- playing a robust Yiddish matron in one skit, then reappearing as a comic Rhett Butler while sending up “Gone With the Wind” with the show’s star.

He scored as the big-bosomed Mother Marcus and hapless Ed, who was a member of the incredibly dysfunctional “Mama’s Family,” one of the more popular skits that became a series in the 1980s.

“Give me something bizarre to play, or put me in a dress and I’m fine,” Korman jokingly said in a 2005 Chicago Sun-Times interview.

Korman and Conway developed an uncanny rapport that made them arguably one of television’s most lethal comic teams; Conway’s on-camera ad-libs often made Korman crack up; producers wisely kept them in the show.


For about eight years, until late last December, the pair toured the country in a stage show that, more than anything, was a homage to their years with Burnett. They performed about 120 shows a year.

“I don’t know whether either one of us was the straight man,” Conway said. “The most important thing in comedy when you’re working together is for one guy to know when to shut up. And we both knew when to shut up; quiet show, actually.”

One of their favorite routines from the Burnett show was the dentist sketch, “where I kind of anesthetize my entire body with Novocain” while trying to fill Korman’s teeth, Conway told The Times on Thursday.

“They play it at all the dental schools, as kind of an introduction on how not to do it,” Conway said.

In an interview several years ago with the Palm Beach Post, Conway said of the versatile cast that included Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner, “The five of us were the New York Yankees of our time.”

With more than 1,000 sketches behind him, Korman left the Burnett show after 10 years. He was 50.


“It was now or never, and if ever I planned to expand my career beyond sketch work, I’d better do it now,” he said at the time, according to a 1990 Toronto Star story.

ABC had promised him his own comedy series, but “I kept making pilots . . . until everybody said, ‘Get outta here, for God’s sake. Nothing’s working,’ ” Korman told United Press International in 1993.

From 1983 to 1985, he appeared in “Mama’s Family,” the NBC sitcom that featured a number of Burnett alumni, including Lawrence and Burnett, who made a number of guest appearances.

Korman made more than 30 films, including four comedies directed by Brooks, who first discovered him when his wife, the late Anne Bancroft, singled Korman out on “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“My wife said, ‘You’ve got to see this guy. They’re doing the Andrews Sisters [in a sketch] and this Harvey Korman is the best of the bunch.’ . . . Harvey was so funny. When I was putting together ‘Blazing Saddles,’ I just knew he was a natural” for the role of Hedley Lamarr in the 1974 Western satire.

“I had some real problems working with Harvey,” Brooks told The Times on Thursday. “I used to look past his eyes. . . . If our eyes met, that’s the end of the take. We would break up.”


Brooks also cast Korman in “High Anxiety” (1977), “History of the World -- Part 1” (1981) and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995).

Korman’s other films included “Gypsy” (1962), “Herbie Goes Bananas” (1980), “Trail of the Pink Panther” (1982) and “Curse of the Pink Panther” (1983). In the 1978 television movie “Bud and Lou” he played straight man Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett’s Lou Costello.

Harvey Herschel Korman was born Feb. 15, 1927, in Chicago to Cyril and Ellen Korman. He started acting in school plays in kindergarten and turned professional at 12, when a local radio station signed him.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled in drama school in New York and tried to make it on Broadway but spent the better part of a decade waiting tables and pumping gas, he later recalled.

In the early 1960s, Korman moved to Hollywood and began working regularly on “The Danny Kaye Show” in 1964 and stayed with the musical-variety show until the end of its three-year run. Then came the Burnett show.

He would go on to guest-star in dozens of television shows and work as a voice actor until 2001.


Offstage, Korman professed to being a determinedly unfunny person “who can’t tell a joke if my life depended upon it,” but his daughter Kate disagreed: “He was probably funnier in real life.”

In addition to Kate, Korman is survived by his wife, Deborah; three other children, Laura, Maria and Chris; and three grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Times staff writer Dennis McLellan contributed to this report.