Tim Conway’s Hilarious (and Spiritual) Life

You should always follow your mother’s advice.

Well, almost always.

Consider this story that actor and comedian Tim Conway shared in his recent “Christopher Closeup” interview and in his new memoir, “What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life.”

During his third year starring in the 1960’s hit sitcom “McHale’s Navy,” Tim got a call from his mother Sophia in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. She told him, “Ken Shutts down at the hardware store is taking on new help. You know him rather well, so you should apply.”

A little surprised, Tim responded, “Ma, have you been watching television in the last couple of years?”

Sophia answered, “I saw it, but that crap isn’t going to last. You got a chance to get a good steady job. You should take it.”

Thankfully, Tim didn’t pursue the hardware store job, which freed him up to eventually make it onto “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he cemented his legacy as a comedy great. But the down-to-earth attitudes and values he learned from his mother and father stay with him to this day. And he’s a better (and funnier) man for it.

And God (along with Dan and Sophia) Created Tim

Tim Conway was born Dec. 15, 1933, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Dan, an Irish immigrant, and Sophia, who grew up in Romania (“the Cleveland of Europe,” Tim writes). He nearly crawled out of the church during his Romanian Orthodox baptism, but his parents and the priest found him and initiated him into God ‘s family.

It was Depression-era, so Tim saw his parents work hard to support their small family. Dan was in charge of grooming horses on a rich business owner’s estate, while Sophia worked as a cleaning woman and seamstress.

Maybe more importantly in terms of his future career, Tim appreciated the fact that his parents were funny (whether or not they intended to be).

For instance, Tim told me that his father enjoyed home brewing beer, but that he had a habit of putting in too much yeast. There was many a night that the family was in bed when the pressure inside the bottles got so high that the caps were launched into the kitchen ceiling like rockets. Not many families had the distinction of beer stains on their ceiling, but the Conways did!

The fact that Tim suffered from dyslexia also contributed to his road toward comedy. He told me, “In high school, and even in grade school, people couldn’t wait for me to get called on to read [out loud] because I would put words into sentences that were never there. They thought I was being funny, I guess, so they would laugh at me. And I just continued that through life. I’m going on 80 now, and I’m still doing it.”

Surprisingly, comedy was not Tim’s first career choice: “I didn’t want to get into show business; I wanted to be a jockey. But at this weight, even the horses ask you to get off. Plus, I fell off a lot, and people betting on you would like to see you on the horse when it comes across the finish line. I learned that rather rapidly.”

Discovered By a Rose

After Tim got out of the Army, he teamed up with his friend Ernie Anderson to do a local TV show. He recalled, “We had the worst show in Cleveland. Ernie was the talent, I was the Director. I had never directed, and Ernie didn’t have that much talent. So we would get reviews like, ‘Do you want to see stink? Watch this in the morning.’ But I would be the guest on Ernie’s show every morning [as a different character] because nobody else would want to do it.”

One day, Rose Marie, who rose to fame as Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” visited the station, watched Tim’s act and told him it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. She took a tape of one of the shows, and gave it to Steve Allen when she returned to Hollywood.

Tim explained, “Steve said, ‘This guy’s got something.’ So he brought me out. And at the time, Don Knotts, Louis Nye, Tom Poston were all on The Steve Allen Show. I jumped in with them.”

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

Though Tim’s life may already seem blessed at this point, he didn’t fully appreciate just how much until years later when the truth about an incident from his youth was revealed to him.

During his high school years, Tim was playing in a football game when he got hit full force in the center of his back. He writes in his book that he lay on the ground for quite some time, unable to talk or “feel anything below my neck let alone move.” Nobody seemed too concerned about him, though, since they told him to just “walk it off.”

When he was unable to stand up without collapsing, his team members grabbed his arms and legs and carried him off the field (“no stretchers in those days”). A doctor eventually took an X-ray, found nothing broken, and put him in a neck brace for a few weeks.

Many years later, when Tim was already living in California, he visited a doctor due to back spasms. Tim was “dumbstruck” when the doctor told him his “spasms were a residual effect stemming from a broken vertebra.” Tim insisted he’d never broken a vertebra, so the doctor asked him if he ever had a sports injury. Tim told him about the football incident in high school.

The doctor replied, “You may not realize it, but you are one lucky man. Here’s what I think. Your vertebra probably was broken when you were hit, but when they picked you up and carried you to the locker room, your back got stretched out. I’d guess that the vertebra went back into place. The X-ray may not have shown anything at the time but, I assure you, you came very, very close to being permanently disabled. If they hadn’t moved you, it might have been a different story.”

That was a watershed moment for Tim, spiritually speaking. He writes, “Ever since that incident on the football field, which might have altered the course of my life, Jesus and I have stayed in constant touch. I never stop saying thank you.”

Though Tim, who converted to Catholicism in college because of a girl he liked, doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, his relationship with God remains important to him. He admits that his journey of faith hasn’t always been a straight line, but adds, “All straight lines get a little crooked from time to time, but I tried to maintain a decent life.”

Heaven

Considering that heaven is the place where we will live in harmony with God, it’s telling that Tim uses “Heaven” as a chapter title about “The Carol Burnett Show.” For him, it was the greatest environment and group of people he’s ever worked with because they all achieved a great harmony in performing together. He credits that feeling to Carol Burnett as their leader because “she was generous not only with her time, but in helping people.”

Tim also appreciates the fact that Carol’s comedy tended to be “good, clean fun.” He said, “You didn’t have to worry about swearing or nudity or anything like that. It takes a lot more thought to be funny without the swearing and things of that nature.”

As fans of the show know, Tim’s relationship with Harvey Korman was something special because Tim would often deviate from the script and crack Harvey up. Though some shows edit out the mistakes, “The Carol Burnett Show” usually left them in because they were hysterical. And making viewers laugh was always Tim Conway’s highest priority, as highlighted in this classic sketch where Tim plays a clumsy dentist who’s new on the job.

What’s So Funny?
Having read Tim’s book “What’s So Funny?” I can attest to the fact that his stories are funny. Whether they’re about his mom and dad or his Hollywood years, he shared them in a way that made me laugh repeatedly. This isn’t a salacious Hollywood tell-all driven by ego. Rather, it consists of the recollections of a humble, gracious and grateful father of six who has given America the great gift of laughter for many decades.

When I asked Tim what he hopes reader reaction will be, he said, “I hope it helps them better know what my outlook on life was. I hope a lot of people have the same opportunity to take the same route I did – to see life as humorous and enjoyable…I think God has placed me in several positions, which I have found humorous. I find humor in life itself, and I can hardly wait to thank Him in person.”

(To listen to my full interview with Tim Conway, click on the podcast link)
Christopher Closeup podcast – Guest: Tim Conway

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Lynn

    Excellent interview, Tony! Always nice to find out about the spirituality of well-loved celebrities…sometimes it’s a refreshing surprise!

  • MaryB03

    This was good reading and watching for a cold, rainy, dreary Friday afternoon. Thank you.,

  • Jhawk77

    Tim Conway has to be in the top ten of television comedians. Thanks for the story and thank God for Tim!


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