See It Instead: Tim Conway Edition.
We celebrate the talents of a perennial funnyman with 50 years of comedy under his belt, the late Tim Conway.
The career of a comedian is often marked by a golden era of success followed by a rapid decline. It’s rare to find a talent with the staying power to weather the change in comedic tastes, as Hollywood constantly casts about for fresh faces. Tim Conway was a prolific journeyman in the industry, adapting his style and growing into new roles over the course of his impressive fifty years of comedy. While he constantly branched out, moving from variety show sketches to big screen duos to cartoon voice acting, he remained incredibly loyal to his friends and benefactors. We gather together his best loved work here in tribute to a long and productive career of making people laugh.
Tim Conway (12.15.1933 – 5.14.2019)
Born in Willoughby, Ohio in 1933, Tim Conway focused early on a career in entertainment. After graduating from Bowling Green State U with a degree in radio and television, Conway served in the armed forces, ironically in the Army – since his first big break would come playing a Navy man. He worked for several years in radio, developing a partnership with Ernie Anderson. Despite having to leave the station on less than auspicious grounds, he continued to work with Anderson and his new comedy partner Big Chuck Schadowski in guest appearances for decades.
Conway made his big debut in the series McHale’s Navy, opposite Ernest Borgnine. The series ran for four years and spawned two movies. From there, Conway broke into television with guest spots on the variety shows of major comedians such as Dick Van Dyke, Red Skeleton, and Danny Kaye. A recurring guest spot on Carol Burnett’s long running comedy show made him a household name, paved the way for a comedic partnership with Harvey Korman, and wound up being a full time gig. At the same time, Conway started another long running partnership with Don Knotts. The two starred in five movies together, most notably Disney’s The Apple Dumpling gang and its sequel. They made guest appearances in several other films, and even paired up again in 2003 to do voice work for an ongoing children’s series.
Conway always stayed active in the industry. When the TV variety show genre declined, Conway relied on his partnerships with Korman and Knotts to sustain a decade long stint on the big screen. From there, he created his iconic character Dorf with a spate of straight to VHS short films from the 80’s to the 90’s. In the 90’s and 2000’s, he returned to TV for numerous guest spots on popular shows like Diagnosis Murder, Mad About You, and even Hercules The Legendary Journeys! While much of his later work saw him contributing his voice to video games and cartoons (earning recurring spots on How to Train Your Dragon TV spinoff and Spongebob Squarepants) he continued to innovate online via new media, even bringing his Dorf character into the 21st century. Conway won 6 Emmy’s and 1 Golden Globe, and was inducted into the TV hall of fame in 2002.
See It Instead: Tim Conway.
The Safe Pick: The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)…and pretty much everything else he did with Don Knotts.
Conway and Knotts friendship translated into fantastic comedic chemistry onscreen. As bumbling claim jumpers in The Apple Dumpling Gang, hapless detectives in The Private Eyes, and even a washed up boxer and his manager in The Prize Fighter, the combination of Conway as an affable cretin and Knotts as a neurotic and chickenhearted schemer was comedy gold. Even in less than amazing pairings – opposite a field goal kicking mule in “Airbud” progenitor Gus – they managed to turn tawdry scripts into laughs.
My favorite pairing was their first: The Apple Dumpling Gang. This film came out around the height of the second wave of Disney’s original live-action films. While the first wave focused on classic children books like Robin Hood, Davy Crockett, and Treasure Island, the second wave featured family friendly comedies such as Pete’s Dragon, Freaky Friday, and Herbie the Love Bug. The Apple Dumpling Gang is home-cooking, tailor made to fit on the Disney’s popular syndicated show. Knotts and Conway carry the story with their antics. Knotts was at the height of his comedy career, and Conway was just making a name for himself, which seemed to translate into a game of one-upsmanship between them escalating the physical comedy. While later pairings took more risks, The Apple Dumpling Gang will always have a warm spot in my heart…making up for Disney’s other live action offerings like Old Yeller or Benji the Hunted!
The Unconventional Pick: Chip and Bernie’s Zomance (2015).
Chip and Bernie are a couple of lackadaisical exterminators just trying to get through the zombie apocalypse. When a competition is announced to crown the world’s best zombie hunters, they decided to up their game and win the prize.
Pasquale Murena directs and stars in this oddball zombie flick. He became a latter day partner with Tim Conway, bringing his Dorf character into the new century – first through six new skits created for a DVD anthology, and later through web shorts. Zomance feels equal parts Earnest Goes to Camp and Zombieland, proudly wearing its indie budget and sensibilities on its sleeves. Conway plays an erratic professor who provides our heroes (and the audience) with a comedic introduction to the zombies we find in Chip and Bernie’s world. If you like the silly antics of the Ernest series mixed with light hearted zombie slaying, Chip and Bernie’s Zomance will be right up your alley.
The Classic Pick: McHale’s Navy (1964).
Lt. Commander McHale (Borgnine) runs a pretty loose ship, though he and his unconventional crew tend to get the job done. While patrolling in the South Pacific during World War II, the crew’s well-intentioned scheme to raise money for an orphanage winds up bankrupting the boat, leading to a series of misadventures as McHale and his men try to get back in the black while also thwarting an attack by the Japanese.
McHale’s Navy is one of those odd shows that seems like it was based on other, more popular shows…but actually preceded them. It’s one part Hogan’s Heroes, one part Gilligan’s Island, all while sending up the “rah-rah” Navy flicks of the 1950’s made famous by John Wayne and James Cagney. The crew is a great mix of personalities, with Borgnine playing the charming and affable rogue of a captain, Conway playing his naive and conscientious second officer, and a complimentary gang of ladies men, gamblers, loafers, and bootleggers. The series translated so well onto the big screen that it got a sequel in 1965 and a remake in 1997.