CONWAY, THOMAS DANIEL “TIM” (15 December 1933 – 14 May 2019) was an American comedian, actor, writer, and director. He was the winner of six Emmy Awards. He won his first Emmy for his work on McHale’s Navy, three Emmys for his work on the Carol Burnett Show, a fifth Emmy for a guest appearance on ABC’s Coach, and a sixth Emmy for an episode of NBC's 30 Rock.
A member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame, Conway appeared in more than 100 TV series and films. Conway also brought his comedy to the theater, starring in a touring revival of The Odd Couple through the late 1980s. On February 9, 1989, Conway was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Born Toma (Thomas) Daniel Conway in Willoughby, Ohio, he grew up in nearby CHAGRIN FALLS. The original name on his birth certificate was Toma, which Conway explained was a Romanian version of Thomas. When Conway started to gain a national reputation as a comedian and actor, he changed his name to Tim so as not to be confused with the British Actor, Tom Conway. “Steve Allen suggested I just dot the o,” he said.
The only child of European immigrants, his father, Daniel, was from Ireland. His mother, Sophia (née Murgoiu), was from Romania. Conway moved often in the Cleveland area as his parents struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Exposed to horses through one of his dad's jobs as a stable hand, he initially wanted to become a jockey, but soon realized he had a gift for making people laugh.
Athletic as a student at Chagrin Falls High School, he excelled at tumbling. He went on to study speech and dramatics at Bowling Green State University and showcase his unique sense of humor as a disc jockey. He spent 1956 to 1958 in the U.S. Army “protecting Seattle from the Red Menace," Conway wrote.
In 1959, Conway was hired to write promotional spots at KYW (now WKYC, Channel 3), where he met announcer ERNIE ANDERSON, later known to WJW-TV Channel 8 viewers as horror host Ghoulardi. The two became lifelong friends and partners in mayhem.
“I had sold them on Ernie as talent and me as a director,” Conway said, “even though Ernie had very little talent and I had absolutely no experience as a director. The combination of the two of us was a mess.” But it was an inspired mess. Anderson was given a daily movie show, Ernie’s Place. Conway was his director.
"I was such a bad director, I never mastered the art of back-timing the movies," Conway said. "That's where you figure out how much time you need for the movie, allowing for the commercials. So we always ran out of time before the movies were over. People were calling to complain that they wanted to know how 'Citizen Kane' ended."
Their solution was to devote Fridays to showing the missed endings from the previous four days. But since that wasn't enough to fill an entire show, they decided to invite guests to be interviewed by Anderson.
"The show was so bad, we couldn't get anybody to be a guest on it," Conway said. "I mean, nobody. So I would play the guests. Ernie would say, ‘We have the world’s greatest matador today.’ And we’d ad-lib everything. I never knew how he would introduce me. I’d be a matador, a saxophone player, an antique dealer. It was absolute filler time.”
Rose Marie, then playing Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, spotted Conway during a visit to Cleveland. She raved about him to Steve Allen, who hired Conway for a gig on NBC’s The Steve Allen Show. The Steve Allen show ended its run in December of 1961, and Conway returned to Cleveland and Channel 8.
In 1962, when Conway was offered the role of Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy, he couldn’t decide whether or not to take it. When a Channel 8 executive asked him why, he cited his brief run on Steve Allen’s show. At least Channel 8 was steady work. The stunned executive told him: “Let me make this easy for you: You’re fired.”
As Ensign Parker, second in command to Ernest Borgnine's Lieutenant Commander McHale, Conway played the sort of goofy, bumbling character that would become his trademark. He starred on the sitcom from 1962 to 1966.“ In 1964, Conway made his film debut in the movie version of McHale’s Navy. It was followed in 1965 by a sequel, McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force.
After he became famous, Conway resurfaced periodically on Cleveland television on the Hoolihan and Big Chuck and Big Chuck and Lil' John shows on WJW-TV, in guest spots and occasional skits. Conway also made regular guest appearances at numerous "Ghoulardifest" functions held by WJW over the years. In 1966, Conway and Anderson recorded the comedy album Are We On? at Bowling Green. The duo’s second album, Bull, recorded at Cleveland’s Pat Joyce Tavern, was released in 1967.
A regular guest on The Carol Burnett Show since the program's inception in 1967, Conway created such memorable characters as Mr. Tudball and the Oldest Man. The show was the perfect outlet for Conway’s improvisational abilities and brand of physical humor. He became known for making stars Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and especially Harvey Korman break down in laughter in the middle of a sketch.
Commencing with his role in The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), Conway starred in a string of family feature films. He paired with fellow Steve Allen alumnus Don Knotts for many of them, including The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Gus (1976) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). Conway also earned writing credits for several films, including The Billion Dollar Hobo (1977), The Prize Fighter (1979) and The Longshot (1986).
When The Carol Burnett Show came to an end, Conway struggled to deliver a TV program with staying power. The Tim Conway Show remained on air for a year after its debut in 1980, although it was dismissed in one review as "The Carol Burnett Show without Carol Burnett." Ace Crawford, Private Eye, a detective parody, lasted a few short weeks in 1983. He scored a hit with Dorf, an accented, diminutive character played by Conway standing in a hole with fake shoes at his knees. Dorf on Golf (1987) became a popular item on the home video market, as did Dorf Goes Fishing (1993) and several other sequels.
In 1999, Conway paired with his old partner Korman for their "Together Again" reunion tour and he introduced his talents to a much younger generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
Conway continued to crack up live audiences, both on his own and alongside new partner Chuck McCann, as he approached his 80th birthday. He celebrated the occasion in 2013 with the release of a memoir, What's So Funny? My Hilarious Life.
With his deadpan expressions and innocent, simple-minded demeanor, Conway credited his midwestern roots for putting him on the right path to laughs. “I think the Midwest is the heart of comedy in this country, and a little bit of the South too,” he said, “For some reason, we’re just more laid back, more understanding... And Midwesterners have a kinder sense of humor.”
Conway’s marriage to Mary Anne Dalton (1961 until 1978) ended in divorce. They had six children together. He married Charlene Fusco in 1984. They were married for 35 years - from May 18, 1984 until Conway’s death on May 14, 2019. Her daughter, Jacqueline "Jackie" Beatty, became Tim's stepdaughter, giving him seven children altogether.
Conway died at the age of 85 from complications of normal pressure hydrocephalus at a care facility in Los Angeles. His remains are entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park, at the Sanctuary of Prayer, in Los Angeles.
Last updated: 2/7/2023
Bruce Weber, “Tim Conway, Beloved TV Bumbler, Is Dead at 85,” New York Times, May 14, 2019.
Mark Dawidziak, “Cleveland Says Goodbye to Legend Tim Conway: Six-time Emmy winner dies at 85,” Plain Dealer, May 15, 2019.
Tim Conway and Jane Scovell, What's So Funny? My Hilarious Life, Simon & Schuster/ Howard Books, 2013.