May 17, 2019
TITLE: “Conway’s Ways”
Hi Y’all—et al!
I hope all is well with all of you all over the world and all!
How’s that for a graceful opening?!
Once again, I have the sad duty of paying tribute to another colleague who’s just left us.
TIM CONWAY was one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with.
And this is from a guy who’s been lucky enough to share the stage with fellows like George Burns, Bob Hope, Tommy Smothers, Joey Bishop, and Woody Allen.
Tim had been a gymnast in college and his slapstick, physical comedy was fall-down, flat-out, bust-a-gut funny—athletic and ingenious.
If you’ve seen his sketch with Harvey Korman on the Carol Burnett show, in which Tim plays a stumblebum dentist who accidentally cripples himself with a couple of misdirected shots of Novacaine, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Tim later claimed he made Harvey laugh so hard he wet himself.
That kind of comedy won him six Emmys.
But in addition to his physical comedy style, in a verbal exchange Tim had a unique, offbeat way all his own.
His conversational humor was not what you’d expect from a guy who usually played an inept kind of loveable nebbish.
It was a lot edgier and conveyed a kind of comedic cynicism that took some getting used to.
Here’s how I came to know the late Mr. Conway...
In 1969, David Somerville and I leave the Four Preps to form a comedy/folk duo we inventively call Belland and Somerville.
We debut on “The Tonight Show” and then do 33 guest shots on national television in our first six months as a team.
(We will ultimately tour with Johnny Mathis, Henry Mancini, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams, Brazil ’66, Burl Ives, Leonard Nimoy, and others.)
David and I quickly catch the eye of CBS brass who are desperately searching for a duo to replace the troublesome Smothers Brothers.
(Ironic, since Tom and Dick were longtime friends of ours.)
We sign with CBS and immediately join the cast on their new 10:00 Sunday night variety show, “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour.”
And what a cast it is.
McLean Stevenson, who will become an original star of “M*A*S*H”, Craig T. Nelson, who went on to star in the long-running sitcom “Coach”, and Barry Levinson, who becomes a renowned Oscar-winning film director.
Oh yeah, also a cute blonde newcomer named Sally Struthers… and an adorable would-be actress working on the show as a secretary named Mary Kay Place.
(If you’ve seen “The Big Chill,” you know who she is.)
My first exposure to Tim’s gentle sarcasm comes a few days after we’re hired for his show. I get a handwritten note from him in the mail.
I’m looking forward to working with you and know your talent will be a great addition to our show.
P.S. Don’t show this note to David. I didn’t send him one.”
Tim is represented by the powerful William Morris Agency and our guest roster is a who’s who of Hollywood.
Joan Crawford, Jane Powell. Tony Randall (we have an enlightening conversation), Carl Reiner, Audrey Meadows, Janet Leigh (Wow! No wonder Jamie Lee Curtis is such a knockout with a Momma like her!), Imogene Coca (sweet and humble beyond belief), Shelly Winters (no comment!), Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence ( great comedy instincts!) Steve Allen (one of the most creative minds in the world and, years later, an in-person guest on my radio show for a two hour interview… a major thrill for me).
Then there’s Mickey Rooney (boy, have I got Mickey Rooney stories!), Walter Brennen(!) and Connie Stevens.
Unfortunately, Belland and Somerville are not a good mix with Conway who is extremely uncomfortable with anything sincere or sentimental.
Here’s how he introduces us on an early show:
“Did you ever wander into some little, out of the way night spot and catch an act that just knocks you out?
Well, these next two fellas were forced on me by a powerful agent. Ladies and gentlemen, Belland and Somerville.”
My Mom didn’t think it was funny.
David and I know we can do comedy, but we’re relegated to the proverbial musical slot as two romantic balladeers.
It just doesn’t work.
The entire show is an avalanche of goofy hijinks and outrageous slapstick comedy.
Then all of a sudden here comes a folk duo in tight pants and suede vests singing a very earnest and emotional rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
After that particularly impassioned performance, Tim walks on camera and address us.
“Well, gosh fellas… that was.. um.. that was… O.K.! By the way, a bunch of us are going out for a bite after the show.”
Bruce: “Sounds great!”
Then Tim says, “Tell ya what…Why don’cha try to find us?” turns and walks off.
Our viewer fan mail is not what we had hoped for.
One letter refers to me as a “furry varmint” and another insists that the two of us are “nauseating.”
None the less, it’s a hoot to hang out with all these famous people, watch them work, and in some cases engage in very effective public relations.
For example, a few days after Joan Crawford guests—by the way, she’s remarkably adept at comedy and gets some great laughs—I get a handwritten
note on exquisite stationery from the legendary actress.
She tells me what a delight it was to work with me and my “talented partner”, lavishes praise on our performance, then wishes us well and signs it,
“With admiration and respect,
(That note is somewhere
in one of my many memorabilia trunks… I hope!)
The ratings are dismal, but we manage to prevail for the full thirteen weeks and then Tim breaks the news of our cancellation in a typically sardonic way.
The entire cast and crew are summoned to the main studio where we wait in suspense until Tim finally walks in.
He starts, “So, this morning, I park my car in the lot and as I’m heading to the studio, I run into Mr. William Paley—the head of the network.”
O.K. So far so good.
“Mr. Paley says to me, “Aren’t you Tim Conway?”
“I tell him “yes” …because I am.”
Mr. Paley says, “Do you do that show at 10:00 Sunday night on our network?”
I say, “yes sir.”
Then Mr. Paley says, “Tim… don’t do that anymore.”
With that, Tim turns and walks out of the studio.
That’s how he tells us it’s over.
We all exchange tearful hugs and goodbyes after the last taping.
Except for Tim of course.
To his credit, Tim told real-life stories on himself that were as funny as any Burnett show.
I’ve only heard this next tale second or third-hand from people who swear Tim loved to tell it.
true and exactly like something that would happen to him.
Though Tim has always driven a Range Rover, like a lot of us guys in the late 60’s, he gets seduced by a Jaguar. In this case, a magnificent 4 door sedan.
Most Jaguars at that time are notoriously finicky and the damn thing has endless mechanical problems.
Tim can’t wait to unload it right after the Holidays.
It’s near Christmas and he spends a full, frantic day shopping for everyone on his list and jamming all the gifts into the Jag’s enormous trunk.
He’s promised to drop by a Holiday party at a VIP’s house on the way home from his buying spree.
The Jaguar purrs up the mile-long driveway towards the Bel Air mansion and pulls in at the end of a long line of drivers waiting impatiently for a parking attendant.
In a moment one runs up in his bright red jacket, extends his jovial Holiday greetings to “Mr. Conway sir!” and hands him a ticket.
Tim makes the obligatory appearance at the party and then leaves to head home with his treasures.
He hands his ticket to the nearest parking attendant who looks at him and asks, “What’s this?”
Tim patiently explains it’s the ticket for his car and he’d appreciate having it brought up.
“S’cuse me, sir. This isn’t one of our tickets.”
That’s right. Some enterprising car thief stole some unused tickets from a parking lot, bought a red jacket, and hid in the bushes until the right pigeon came along.
Little did he know in addition to the wheels he’s got a trunk that looks like Neiman-Marcus inside.
Tim is torn. If he waits to report the theft for a day or so, the car will be long gone, the insurance company will pay up and it’s back to a good old dependable Range Rover.
But then, there’s the trunk full… oh. Geez!
He decides to shop all over again and holds off making an insurance claim.
When he finally does, of course, the adjuster asks why he waited so long.
Tim gives a perfectly plausible answer.
He explains that he knows so many zany, practical jokers that he simply assumed his stolen Jaguar was a prank by one of his friends.
Then he tells them that after a week, he was “horrified” to realize the car had actually
Can you imagine when the thief opened that trunk?
Then again what’s a 250-pound felon going to do with a pair of flowered pajamas for Tim’s 10-year-old daughter?
Coming from a family that often dealt in gentle sarcasm, I got where Tim was coming from, but it could throw you off guard now and then.
And it never changed.
A few years later, I run into Tim at a restaurant on the Westside.
He’s having lunch with a dignified, well-dressed gentleman who is obviously someone important.
At one point, the man gets up and heads off to the men’s room.
I take the opportunity to go over to Tim and say hello.
We chat for a brief moment and the man comes back out and heads towards Tim’s table.
Tim spots him, clutches my arm and whispers to me in fake desperation, “Quick! Act like you don’t know me!”
Tim Conway was one of a kind.
A caring and devoted family man and a real softy under it all who hid his shyness and huge heart beneath a cloak of caustic quips.
It was a joy to know and work with him… even with all the surprises.
R.I.P. Mr. C.
That’s all for now.
Take good care of yourself and each other. And keep in touch.