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Obituaries

Tim Conway dies; ‘Carol Burnett Show’ star and comedian’s comedian was 85

Tim Conway, the comedian’s comedian best known for his work on “The Carol Burnett Show,” died Tuesday morning in Los Angeles, his rep, Howard Bragman, confirmed to the Los Angeles Times. He was 85.

Conway died in a long-term-care facility after suffering complications of hydrocephalus, Bragman said. He also had dementia.

“I’m heartbroken,” Carol Burnett told The Times in a statement Tuesday.

“He was one in a million, not only as a brilliant comedian but as a loving human being,” she said. “I cherish the times we had together both on the screen and off. He’ll be in my heart forever.”

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The comedian said he was born funny: “I am not really qualified to do anything but screw up,” Conway told The Times in 2013.

He was born Thomas Conway on Dec. 15, 1933, in a Cleveland suburb and grew up an only child in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He began making his classmates laugh, a habit that continued at Bowling Green State University, where he majored in speech and radio.

In the early 1950s, Conway did a stint in the U.S. Army, based in Washington state. “When the Army gives you a rifle, they expect you to take care of it and go to bed with it!” he told The Times in 2010. Conway, naturally, goofed that up.

“I was on guard duty one night, and I decided to take a little nap on the back of the car. So I got into the car and fell asleep. I woke up and I thought, ‘Oh my God. It’s 4 in the morning and the lieutenant is going to be coming around to check.’ I ran to my post and I realized I had forgotten my rifle in the car,” he said.

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“So I looked in the garbage and there was this long neon tube. So I took that,” he added. “As the lieutenant came around the corner. I said, ‘Halt.’ I am pointing this bulb at him and he said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘It’s a light bulb and if you come any closer, I’ll turn it on.’

“He had very little sense of humor,” Conway said. “I spent an extra two weeks [in the service] painting rocks in Seattle.”

THE CAROL BURNETT 50TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL
“The Carol Burnett Show” cast included Tim Conway, left; Vicki Lawrence, top; Harvey Korman; and Carol Burnett.
(CBS)

Conway changed his first name from Thomas to Tim, to avoid confusion with actor Tom Conway, who had made dozens of films in the ’40s and ’50s and died in 1967.

He worked in Cleveland radio, and by the late 1950s Conway’s quirky sensibilities had found a home on local television. After a stint on “The Steve Allen Show” in New York, Conway came to prominence on television as a bumbling ensign in “McHale’s Navy” opposite Ernest Borgnine from 1962 to 1966.

A year later, “The Carol Burnett Show” premiered with Conway as a frequent guest star. The series, which ran until 1978, redefined his career as he played such characters as the Swedish American Mr. Tudball, but it took a long time for Conway to become a regular.

Fortunately, he had a knack for making costar Harvey Korman, who died in 2008, laugh. And Burnett. And just about anyone else who played opposite him in a skit on “The Carol Burnett Show” in the 1960s and ’70s. Audiences laughed too.

“All of a sudden, in the ninth season of the show, we said, ‘Why don’t we have Tim on every week?’ ” Burnett told The Times in 2010. “He was already on about every other week. It was like ‘duh.’ ”

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“This lady is responsible for my career,” Conway said in response.

“Hysterical, crazy, bold, fearless, humble, kind, adorable... all synonyms for Tim Conway,” fellow “Carol Burnett Show” alum Vicki Lawrence said in a statement Tuesday. “I am so lucky to ever have shared a stage with him. Harvey and Tim are together again...the angels are laughing out loud tonight.”

Carol Burnett and Tim Conway: Bonded through comedy »

Conway said in a 1993 interview with The Times that he always knew when Korman was going to lose it on the show. “[H]e kind of had a little vocal hum, like it was boiling inside. I was a writer, and I would write one thing and would say something else. Harvey knew he was in trouble. It was very easy to confuse [him].”

The actor had his own short-lived sitcom in 1970. He also starred in the “Apple Dumpling Gang” movies in the 1970s and made a string of DVDs, starting in the 1980s, as the 4-foot-tall athlete Dorf. He later gained fame with a new generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

In 2013, he released “What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life,” which he co-wrote with Jane Scovell. The memoir was warm, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny, according to former Times staff writer Susan King.

Conway believed that “The Carol Burnett Show,” which reached No. 13 in the ratings, endured because it didn’t offend anyone.

“All comedy is vicious anyway,” he told The Times in 1993, after the cast reunited for a special to mark the show’s 25th anniversary. “You are targeting somebody, but we almost always targeted ourselves. The audience kind of laughed at themselves through us. Carol never got into making barbs about politics. It was all just good fun.”

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During his career, Conway won six Emmy Awards — four of them for his work on “The Carol Burnett Show” — and a Golden Globe.

“The amount of joy Tim Conway brought my family as a child was immeasurable,” filmmaker Judd Apatow said Tuesday on Twitter. “The man was pure comedy. Riotously funny. I finally got to see him work when he guest starred on The Larry Sanders Show and he was all I dreamed he would be. As kind as he was funny. He will be missed.”

Comic and late-night host Conan O’Brien tweeted, “When I was a kid watching ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ no one made me laugh harder than Tim Conway. What a sweet and effortlessly funny man.”

Times staff writers Nardine Saad and Scott Sandell contributed to this report.

cdz@latimes.com

@theCDZ on Twitter and Instagram


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