Tuesday 14 May 2019

The Star From Chagrin Falls

Tim Conway’s career may have been overshadowed by an outtake.

Conway spent a number of years on a successful sitcom, starred in several unsuccessful series and was added to shore up the cast of Carol Burnett Show.

It was there that his shining-est moment took place. He got into another one of his ad-libbing jags (this one about Siamese elephants) designed to break up the cast while the tape was rolling—and finally, Vicki Lawrence shut him down with a not-very-dainty comment that stopped everything dead as the actors and audience howled. Fortunately, the video tape was preserved by someone on the crew and found life years later on the internet.

Conway came to national attention on what was supposed to be a starring vehicle for Ernie Borgnine. McHale’s Navy was, more or less, taking the premise of Phil Silvers’ Bilko show—a con-artist military guy surrounded by a gang putting one over on the commanding officer—and moving it from the army to the navy. But it wasn’t really Bilko because, first off, Borgnine is no Phil Silvers, and the writers found strengths and weaknesses of their new characters and scripted accordingly. Conway’s Ensign Parker quickly became a guy protected by McHale and his crew—even though he was “management”—because they knew he was well-meaning and could easily be taken advantage of. On top of that, he innocently annoyed his dyspeptic commanding officer, played by Joe Flynn, in comedy chemistry the viewing audience enjoyed. Suddenly, Conway’s career took off.

Here are a couple of stories about him from 1963 at the end of the show’s first season. The first is from the King Features Syndicate, dated June 15th. A trivia note: Tim Conway changed his name from Tom Conway because there was already an actor named Tom Conway (who wasn’t really Tom Conway). But he wasn’t the only McHale cast member to change his name. Tennessee hillbilly singer Bob Wright became John Wright because there were two other Bob Wrights registered with the Screen Actors Guild.
Bungling Ensign Gets Laughs

Hollywood — Ensign Charles Parker on ABC Thursday night comedy, McHale's Navy, is a real kook. And fans love him. They also know him well, because there's a little bit of Parker in everyone. The show is seen at 9:30. p.m.
Tim Conway, the short, stocky and balding actor who plays the well-meaning ensign, puts it this way: "Parker's problem is that he doesn't realize what's wrong. There's a certain unawareness about him. He just doesn't sense what's going on and works on his own badly directed course.
"Parker is not offensive about being a bungler. He's just a person in trouble and you're embarrassed for him. We all act a little like Parker in an unfamiliar situation and put on a false front."
Playing the well-intentioned idiot who outwardly pretends he knows what he's doing is sure-fire on television. Don Knotts does a superb job as the small, go-by-the-book deputy on the Andy Griffith series. It's impossible not to laugh at Don Knotts playing Barney Fife.
It's hard to keep a straight face watching Conway as Ensign Parker harasses his boss, Captain Binghamton. Of course, the U. S. Navy isn't happy about Ensign Parker's image, but that's silly, because the series doesn't pretend to have anything to do with the Navy in reality.
"Originally I was going to be the thorn in McHale's side," said Conway. "But after the first show we changed direction, and my job is to drive Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn) out of his mind. I'm the go-between for McHale and the Captain (the laughable villain) and I completely botch the job weekly."
The weekly plot this season has simply been to get free-wheeling McHale or his men in trouble and then extricate the group. Next year other steps will be taken now that the show has a solid following. "At first, fans tuned in," says Conway, "to watch Ernie Borgnine as McHale, and then they got to know and like the whole cast."
Next fall the show will be a bit wilder and parts for the crew will be fatter. It will also be on at a different time—Tuesday night at 8:30 following the hour war series, Combat, and competing with the first half hour or Red Skelton and NBC's Redigo. But the way McHale's Navy gained fans as the season went on indicates it should be able to hold its own.
The cast has already filmed a few for next fall—one a costume affair where McHale's men and Captain Binghamton have to pretend they're a Japanese Kabuki theater group, and entertain hostile Japanese troupe. Joe Flynn, as the Captain, appears dressed as a Japanese lady wearing glasses, and, while he dances, Ensign Parker, in the costume of a Japanese warrior, steps on his costume, and, by force of habit, continually salutes the Captain.
Costumes have been a big thing with Ensign Parker this past season—he's played a hillbilly, Japanese pilot, British Intelligence officer with a monocle and beard and a French lover. Laughs come because Conway's face can't really be disguised.
The series is also a hit because of a talented cast led by the lovable Borgnine. The trio backing up Borgnine — Joe Flynn, Conway and magician Carl Ballantine—are funny, delightful comics and all have come into their own on McHale.
Conway came out of Cleveland where he'd been writing, directing and acting on KYW-TV.
Rose Marie, out on the road promoting the Dick Van Dyke Show, heard his tapes and later played them for Steve Allen who immediately sent for Tim. Since the initial Allen show, Conway has done 16 others for Steve and will be seen shortly playing an old Tarzan doing a cottage cheese commercial.
Says Conway: "I'd always admired Allen for the way he handles people. He's kind about the kidding. I was his fan long before he ever heard of me. I enjoyed Fred Allen, Jack Benny and others, but Allen's humor appealed to me more in the Man-On-The-Street bits. That was the kind of humor I wanted to do.
"Allen, Bill Dana, Louis Nye, Don Knotts and the others don't tell jokes," Tim continued. "It's an ad-lib session when you're with them. In fact, I don't think I've heard Steve tell a joke. Their humor comes from looking at people and that's more in my line."
Conway says he can't write jokes and that he can never come up with a one-liner. He's more of a situation writer. He's also come upon a gold mine character—the well-intentioned bungler, and with his face he could play the part in any field and get laughs.
Before McHale begun production on a second season, Conway received a hero’s welcome in his hometown. Well, maybe it wasn’t so heroic. This is from August 3rd.
He'd Be Better Off in Hardware Store?

Hollywood—Tim Conway, the eager ensign of McHale's Navy, seen Thursdays on ABC at 9:30 p. m., left his hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a nonentity two years ago and returned this summer still pretty much unsung.
“Chagrin Falls isn't exactly the kind of a town that gets excited about things,” said Conway.
“But I wasn't totally ignored. After all, there are 3,000 people in Chagrin Falls and I know most of them personally. They made me grand marshal of the annual Blossom Time Parade.”
Conway, round, balding and pink-cheeked, became hazy about the festival in that it was too early in the year for blossoms of any kind, and he wasn't sure what type of blossoms were involved.
“But it was a great parade,” he said. 'I rode down the center of town followed by about 3,000 other people. The trouble was that nobody was standing on the sidewalks watching. The whole town was taking part in the parade.”
According to Conway the parade was such a hit they held another one the same afternoon.
“Actually, it wasn't so much a parade as it was a traffic jam,” he added.
What other festivities were held for the returning celebrity? After all, it is not every round, cherry-cheeked, balding son of Chagrin Falls who makes good in Hollywood.
“Well,” said Conway, who was nominated for an Emmy earlier this year, “they did hold a testimonial dinner in the Chagrin Falls High School cafeteria for me. I graduated from there back in 1952. It was a real big event. I think 300 people turned out.
“There were lots of speeches. My old English teacher gave a speech in Old English. The principal gave a speech — he's the one who advised me to quit clowning around and do something serious. And a couple of friends spoke, too. Then we all had a chicken dinner.
“After dinner I was given a big silver tray. It was really big, but I noticed it had a 'for sale' sign on the back.”
Conway giggled to himself for no apparent reason.
“Chagrin Falls is only 18 miles from Cleveland,” Conway said. “That's where I got my start in television. So I went back there for two months this summer to do some work and earn a little money.
“I wrote some stuff for local television shows and appeared a few times on the 'Mike Douglas Show.' I guess nobody out here has heard much about it.” What impressed Conway most about his triumphant return home?
“Something my mother told me,” Conway concluded. “She said she still thinks I'd be better off in some solid line of work like finding a job in a hardware store.”
Burnett was Conway’s next success (a side note: Conway’s partner on Cleveland television, Ernie Anderson, later became Carol Burnett’s announcer), gradually forming a team with another very funny man, Harvey Korman, who vainly struggled to contain himself while Conway’s antics unfolded on camera. They made a perfect comedy pair and, years later, toured together until Conway didn’t want to do it any more.

Harvey Korman liked Tim Conway. Chagrin Falls liked Tim Conway. I liked Tim Conway (I even liked his silly Western spoof Rango). Audiences did, too, and that’s why he had a great career,


  1. It might be just as well, but I think you forgot to mention Tim Conway's recent death.

  2. Yowp, maybe you and I were the only two who watched " Rango ". Caught " Rango " every Friday night till it was cancelled. Was watching a sketch with Tim and Harvey Korman last night.. We counted 26 seconds before Harvey lost it. Carol Burnett said She, Vicki, Lyle, and others would lay bets on how early, or late Korman would break up in the skit. He will be missed.

  3. Love Tim Conway. Love Ernie Anderson. Very sad.