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I WAS TIM CONWAY’S STRAIGHT MAN

     

    Tim Conway, December 15, 1933 – May 14, 2019

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 17, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: I had planned to reprint two more Monty Python interviews this week and next, but with the death of Tim Conway on Tuesday it seemed more appropriate to run my 33-year-old interview with the beloved comic this week, and a Memorial Day column will run next week. (The Python stories will follow.) As you’ll see, interviewing Conway was more enjoyable than many such exercises. This story was published in the Deseret News under the headline, ‘In person, Tim Conway is affable and sharp, not a twit,’ on March 9, 1986. Sadly, the film he was pushing, ‘The Longshot,’ was a lame misfire. But he nonetheless remains a comedy giant and there are lots of hilarious skits on YouTube and in reruns of 'The Carol Burnett Show' that will have you in stitches.

When I was 13, “McHale’s Navy” went on the air and introduced the world to Tim Conway as the bungling Ensign Parker.

The sitcom was little more than a variation on Phil Silvers’ now-classic “Sgt. Bilko” program, with Ernest Borgnine as a Navy Bilko. But Conway was an original and the only reason I watched the program every week.

His screen persona was developed then and there and just about everything he’s done since has been a variation on Parker. There’s nothing wrong with that, since the same can be said for many other screen comedians from Laurel & Hardy to Conway’s sometimes partner Don Knotts.

After “McHale’s Navy,” Conway went on to do several TV series of his own, none of which fared very well, and gained his greatest fame on the old “Carol Burnett Show,” for which he won three acting Emmys and one writing Emmy.

Conway has also written five movie scripts and starred in all of them from “The Billion Dollar Hobo” and “They Went That-Away” to two comedy-team stints with Knotts, “The Prize Fighter” and “The Private Eyes.”

His latest is “The Longshot,” a horseracing comedy, and he was in town this past week plugging it on every TV and radio station he could squeeze time on.

 

At left, Ernest Bognine and Tim Conway star in 'McHale's Navy'(1962-66); at right, Conway in the early 2000s reunited with his 'Carol Burnett Show' (1967-78) co-stars, Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman.

In person, Conway is affable, charming, funny, but not at all the bumbling twit he portrays on the screen. Although, as I learned interviewing him on television the other night, he automatically goes into that persona when the camera goes on.

Though his first four movies are aimed at a juvenile audience, “The Longshot,” which is produced by Mike Nichols, and which costars his longtime friend Harvey Korman, Jack Weston, Jonathan Winters and a host of others, is a little more in the adult vein.

“One thing I try to tell people right up front,” said Conway, “is that the film is rated PG-13. We used a few naughty words, because I felt it had to be honest and I can’t say I’ve ever heard someone who loses a bet at the track saying, ‘Oh, darn!’”

Despite the foray into more adult humor, however mild, Conway abhors the current trend of movie comedy that dwells on “bathroom humor.”

“I think I’ve been to my last teenage movie. I mean, you get a bowl of Jell-O, a token drug scene, look through a peephole and see a nude woman and that’s it. To me, that’s not comedy.

I took my wife and kids to see one of these pictures last summer, the one with Lauren Hutton (‘Once Bitten’), and about 10 minutes into the film, I was saying, ‘OK, that’s it, time to go.’ And we were out of there.”

Conway emphasizes that unlike his earlier films, parents shouldn’t think they can drop off their kids on Saturday afternoon to see “The Longshot,” “because if they do, the kids may come home with a few new words.”

“The Longshot” is a script Conway has had in the back of his mind for some 30 or 40 years. When he was a youngster, he aspired to becoming a jockey, “until the horses began looking up and saying, ‘Would you mind getting the heck off of me,’” Conway said, alluding to his growth.

     

Lobby Card for 'The Longshot' (1986): Harvey Korman, left, Tim Conway, Jack Weston, Ted Wass

And, he says, the four lead characters in the film are based on real-life characters he has met at the racetrack.

“This is essentially a modern-day, four-man ‘Odd Couple,’ four boneheads who place a huge bet on a race despite their past track record,” he said.

Conway raises thoroughbreds on his own, but you have to be careful how you ask the question.

Q. Do you breed horses?

A. Well, not personally, no. We have other horses for that.

Interviewing Tim Conway is a bit like playing straight man, but he does eventually get around to the answer.

“Yes, I have four horses, and they race, but to give you an idea of how good they are, we used a couple in the film and during the climactic scenes where they had to win, we had to shoot it three times. They walk fast.”

In the meantime, Conway has several other scripts he’s written, including two serious films. He is also developing with Korman a new syndicated TV series for 1987, which he describes as a sketch comedy show.

“I hope this will show adults that there is some humor left for us.”

As for “The Longshot,” which opened Friday, Conway hopes it will help bring out an audience that doesn’t go to the movies as often anymore. “I like to think of this picture as a ‘Breakfast Club’ for older people. This is about grownups, the way they think, the way they talk.”