‘It’s a pleasure to do something for an audience that is appreciative, obviously, and that you can make laugh.’

Tim Conway doesn’t really recall his beginnings as a comedian and actor, but he likes to tell it anyway. His father immigrated from Ireland, but his mother was Romanian, so he was christened according to her Greek Orthodox faith. The problem started with being born with colic, which delayed the solemn ceremony for more than a month. So by the time the date came around, he was too big — as well as too antsy — for the mini-manger he was placed in. When nobody was looking, the precocious cutup simply tumbled out of it.

“And so they all stopped and looked down, and my dad said, ‘He has risen!’ and the priest said, ‘No, he has fallen,’” the 78-year-old reports with a still-boyish chuckle. “Then they looked for me, and I was under a table. So that was kind of my beginning.”

Conway’s long and much-honored comedic talents are still going strong, and will be on display Feb. 17 at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Westlake Village, where he will take the stage to benefit St. Michael School in South Los Angeles. It will be, in a real way, a return to his comedic roots.

Not jockey material

In Ireland Tim’s dad worked as a “whipper” on fox hunts, making sure that the hounds kept after the fox. After immigrating to America at 18, he worked in Ohio as hired help training polo ponies and some thoroughbreds. The comedian remembers growing up on grandiose estates with heady dreams of being the next race-riding phenom like Eddie Arcaro. 

“My dad was training horses in Cleveland, so I was actually going to be a jockey,” he says, before adding, “but I was terrified of horses, so that was part of my problem. And I fell off a lot. So my dad thought that perhaps it would be better to hire a guy to ride.”

The family somehow survived. “They were just migrant workers, you know,” he points out. “My mother was a housekeeper. They came to make a living here and get out of harm’s way over there.” 

Conway’s first real comedy gig happened during his years at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he majored in speech and radio. He and a buddy teamed up to perform mostly at Newman Clubs (Catholic ministry centers at non-Catholic colleges) and local Catholic schools. 

The duo, he says, would basically memorize 20 jokes, which they then took turn delivering. Sometimes they would actually be paid $10. 

Hits and flops

After graduating from Bowling Green and a tour of duty in the army, he landed a job at a Cleveland radio station, then a morning local TV show named “Ernie’s Place.” But his big break came in 1961 when he was discovered by comedienne Rose Marie, who got him an audition with “The Steve Allen Show.” The comic legend was so impressed that he hired him. That led to his role as the bumbling, naive Ensign Charles Parker in the hit sitcom “McHale’s Navy,” which stared Ernest Borgnine. 

Then came a string of short-lived flops: the western sitcom “Rango,” where Conway starred as an incompetent Texas Ranger; “Turn-On,” a countercultural comedy show; “The Tim Conway Show” and “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour.” But in 1975, he teamed up with comedian Don Knotts to make the hit Disney movie “The Apple Dumpling Gang.” The facetious pair would go on to make five more feature comedy films together. 

Conway’s comedic star rose to another level, however, with his brilliant work on “The Carol Burnett Show.” 

He gained a national following for making other cast members — especially Burnett and Harvey Korman — break out of character with uncontrollable spells of laughter during sketches. “The Old Man” was one of his most hilarious characterizations. With his shaggy white hair, slow speech and pronounced shuffling gait, he was never able to come close to doing the occupations “The Old Man” found himself forced into. The resulting slapstick would simply crack up everybody on stage around him. 

My dad was training horses in Cleveland, so I was actually going to be a jockey.

From 1975 to 1979, his work on the Burnett show won five Emmy Awards, including one for writing. He also picked up Emmy Awards for guest-starring roles on ABC’s “Coach” (1996) and on NBC’s hit “30 Rock” (2008).

The some-time thoroughbred owner and steadfast racing aficionado also found time to co-found with Judy McCarron (hall-of-fame jockey Chris McCarron’s wife) the Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund for hurt or disabled jockeys and exercise riders. Since 1987, the charity has assisted more than 2,100 riders from every racetrack in the nation. 

“For 23 years now actor/comedian Tim Conway has been the Don MacBeth Fund’s ‘fearless leader,’” the staff of the newsletter “Riders Up” wrote two years ago. “In all that time, Tim’s concern for injured riders has never faltered. He is always there when we need him. To Tim, jockeys are the world’s greatest athletes. And to us, Tim is the world’s greatest friend.”

Being funny

Asked the obvious --- “What makes people laugh?” --- Conway sighs a good three-second “Hmmm.” Then he muses, “I imagine it’s the similarities to what they do in real life as to what you’re saying. Most people will find that you will come up with things that they have pretty much seen around the house or they know somebody who does that. So it’s pretty much being familiar with what’s going on and just representing it to people, you know.”

The humorist points out that he doesn’t really tell jokes, but doses out preposterous slices of life. He gives an example: “It’s like medicine nowadays with the tops that prevent kids from getting into the medication. It also prevents adults from getting into their own medications. So a lot of people die with that bottle in their hand, ’cause they can’t get it open. So it’s that kind of stuff that I talk about.”

And he still keeps his eyes and ears tuned to the “observing humans” channel “because it happens every day. You get a new president, or something happens out there. Regardless of how tragic something seems on a national scale, it’s only a matter of minutes until somebody in the comedy field comes up with a joke about it.” 

“The Old Man” came from how he walked slowly and stiffly as a junior in high school after an opposing fullback ran helmet-first into his back. A later character, Dorf — the diminutive Scandinavian with the stereotypical Swedish accent — was the result of listening to his Romanian mother and her friends chat away when he was growing up. 

Last year, he still did about 55 shows across the country. “When Harvey [Korman] was alive, we used to do more,” he notes, before saying with a straight voice and wisp of melancholy, “but he doesn’t do it anymore. But we did about 130 shows a year. So we were out among ’em.” 

Now he teams up with impressionist Louise DuArt and former New York City TV personality Chuck McCann as the “Tim Conway and Friends Tour.” Many of the carefully crafted performances are for Catholic charities and schools, like the Feb. 17 event he’s doing alone to benefit the students of St. Michael School. 

So, in a sense, Conway’s back to where he began, playing charity gigs. When asked if the six decades as a comedian and actor has been a rewarding career, he pauses only a moment. 

“I think so, yeah,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to do something for an audience that is appreciative, obviously, and that you can make laugh. It’s like leading an orchestra, you know. I think it’s brought some good to the world.” And he holds up for a beat. “If not, don’t tell me about it.” 

“Tim Conway Live” will take place Feb. 17, 8 p.m. at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church, 5801 Kanan Rd., Westlake Village. Admission is $40; special patron passes to the show cost $150/couple and include the opportunity to meet the comedian after the event over wine and d’oeuvres. 

Msgr. David O’Connell, St. Michael’s pastor who recently performed at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood, will perform in a pre-show exclusively for patrons. Information and tickets: (323) 752-6101 or visit www.stmichaelspartans.com. 

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