Tim Conway faces life's ups and downs with deft one-liners

IT'S A FUNNY BUSINESS

May 17, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

All the world's a stage for Tim Conway.

His repartee is quick and he's the master of ad lib.

Mention the Queen of England, who took in an O's game Wednesday, and his voice rings with sincerity and his face shows concern as he unseriously quips, "The Queen came by the room last night looking for jam, and I said, 'I don't have any. Please, don't bother me!' I didn't know it was her, otherwise I would have tried to get her some."

He doesn't miss a beat, even while lunching yesterday at the Pimlico Clubhouse. The television star of "Ensign Parker" and "Carol Burnett Show" fame was in Baltimore to share his humor at last night's Triple Crown Ball at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, part of the Preakness Week celebration.

Mr. Conway's show biz career has spannedmore than three decades, and he has performed on television and on stage, in movies and in night clubs. He won four Emmy Awards in the '70s for his work on the "Burnett" show, both as supporting actor and as writer. Two years ago, he was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Yesterday, it was hard to overlook the wit in a conversation peppered with, um, comic subtleties: "I'm quick on the pick up . . . except for the check."

He continued more seriously, "In show business, you have to be able to ad lib, to be quick on the trigger. Fortunately, I have a photographic memory, so I don't have much trouble memorizing."

These days the 56-year-old actor doesn't have to learn many new lines. He feels he can pick and choose his roles carefully.

"I do most of the things I want to do rather thanwhat somebody else might want me to do," he said. "It's a nice place to be. I'm not one of those guys who wants to die on stage, although I have on several occasions."

In the fall, he'll be touring the Midwest and the East Coast for three months in "The Odd Couple" as Felix, a character he's played for the last three years. Not surprisingly, he says he has the lines down pat.

He's also involved these days with a character named Dorf, which he created for a series of comedy home videos. He both writes and stars in the series. Starting with "Dorf on Golf," the first three videos have sold more than a half-million copies. A CBS special, "Dorf's Family Stump," aired earlier this year, and this fall, "Dorf Collection" wearing apparel and accessories will be introduced.

His interest goes well beyond show biz, though. While sipping coffee yesterday, he carefully studied the Daily Racing Form, picking the horse Ancient Archie for the third race. Horse fever is serious stuff. Starting seven years ago with one horse, he has built up a stable of seven thoroughbreds, which he races and keeps at Hollywood Park, near his home in Encino, Calif.

"It took about a year for the first win," he recalls. "The first one is always the most exciting, the best. We've had a few other wins along the way. I don't think we've ever had a successful year, though we have had successful days."

But it's not only the excitement of the race that draws Mr. Conway to the track. He is co-founder and active supporter of the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund, which aids disabled riders. Even though he was not able to realize his own youthful dream to be a jockey (his weight worked against him), he has remained close to the business.

Born in Willoughby, Ohio, Mr. Conway earned a B.A. degree in liberal arts at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. After a stint in the Army, he went to work writing for a Cleveland disc jockey. He eventually worked his way up to directing shows for a Cleveland TV station.

It was while appearing on "Ernie's Place" -- a local guest show so bad almost no one would go on -- that he was seen by Steve Allen, and invited to appear on his show. He soon became a regular. That was in 1961. Two years later he was on "McHale's Navy," appearing on millions of TV screens across the nation -- without a single acting lesson.

Along the way, he took time to getmarried and raise six children, a girl and five boys, now 20 to 28 years of age. Seven years ago, following a divorce, he married his second wife, Charlotte, bringing a stepdaughter, now 17, into the family.

Looking back over a long career, Mr. Conway smiles at the many ups and downs he's had. One of the low points occurred while he was doing the show "Turn On." It was canceled even as the premiere was airing, and made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest show ever.

"We saved a lot of money by having the premiere party and the closing party at the same time," he quips. "It's a very lively business, no dull moments that I know of."

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