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Tim Conway 1933 – 2019
May 15, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Tim Conway spent his career making you notice the guy that no one ever noticed.

Conway, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, amused viewers for more than half a century on programs from McHale’s Navy to SpongeBob SquarePants.

He made his early reputation as the incompetent Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy in the 1960s, then secured it in the late 1970s as a regular on The Carol Burnett Show which showcased sketch comedy.

A decade later he created a weird, dopey character called Dorf, rolling him out for a sketch on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and parlaying him into a series of films.

After that he kept busy with voiceovers and guest spots on TV shows from Cosby and Clueless to Major Crimes and 30 Rock (right), where he played washed-up TV star Bucky Bright and won an Emmy.

Conway’s secret, which gave him a long career in a business notable for short careers, is that he was funny.

Burnett said both before and after his death that he was one of the funniest people she ever met. One reason she made him a guest star and then a regular on her show, she said, was that he cracked everyone up backstage.

Another friend, Rose Marie from The Dick Van Dyke Show, was the first to push him from behind the cameras onto The Steve Allen Show, which became his first regular gig.   

Conway always attributed his success in large measure to what he called the gentle quality of his humor. It’s true that comedy in general tended to the gentler side then – Bob Newhart was bigger than Lenny Bruce – but even then, Conway came across as the guy who could have been sitting next to you on the couch.

He grew up in a town that couldn’t sound more Middle American: Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He went to Bowling Green and did two years in the Army, after which he launched what he thought would be a quiet career as a TV producer.

There isn’t a thing wrong with any of that, or with the fact that Conway was also, frankly, a pretty ordinary-looking guy.

That only makes him unusual because he become well-known in a field – show biz – that often rewards people who look different, who immediately catch your eye for their hair, or outfit, or looks.

Tim Conway caught no one’s eye for any of that. He was the insurance agent, the clerk in menswear, the dad at the Little League game. All honorable. Just not usually memorable.

Most of Conway’s characters themselves were ordinary. One of his most famous sketches on The Carol Burnett Show had him playing a young dentist whose first patient was an unsuspecting man with a toothache.

Conway’s dentist decides to remove a tooth, then accidentally injects himself with Novocaine, so his hand goes numb.

The sketch, with Conway’s friend Harvey Korman as the patient, gallops along on bursts of slapstick and mime as well as verbal humor, reflecting the old-school, vaudeville-style roots in Conway’s game.

Part of what made it all so funny is that this inept dentist, scrambling desperately to make it seem like nothing’s wrong, could have been any viewer’s real-life dentist. He didn’t look like an actor or a TV star.

By the time of the Burnett show, “ordinary” had become a tested tool in Conway’s comedy kit. He came on camera looking like an extra in a restaurant scene and suddenly he was the funniest guy in the room.

In Tim Conway’s hands, ordinary was anything but.

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