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Comic Actor Harvey Korman


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Comic Actor Harvey Korman

by Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer


Comic Actor Harvey Korman . . . Then and Now

LOS ANGELES, California -- Harvey Korman, an Emmy-winning comedic actor best known for playing the self-described "luminous second banana" for a decade on television's "The Carol Burnett Show" and for starring in such Mel Brooks films as "Blazing Saddles" and "High Anxiety," died Thursday, May 29. He was 81.

Korman, who had undergone several recent major operations, died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center of complications from an abdominal aortic aneurysm that ruptured four months ago, according to his daughter, Kate Korman. "It was a miracle in itself that he survived the incident at all," she said in a statement to The Times.

"Everyone in the hospital referred to him as 'miracle man' because of his strong will and ability to bounce right back after several major operations," Korman's daughter continued in a statement. "Tragically, after such a hard-fought battle, he passed away."


Harvey Korman, (left), and pal Tim Conway

show off three Emmy Awards for 'The Carol

Burnett Show' in 1978

With a knack for physical humor and oddball accents, Korman was a master sketch comic who did his best-known work on Burnett's variety show beginning in 1967 in an ensemble that included Tim Conway. "It's a 45-year friendship," Conway said. "It was a great ride; we worked together probably 30 years, plus the Burnett show, which was about as good as it gets."

Brooks called Korman "a major, major talent, and he could have very easily have done Shakespearean drama. That's how gifted and talented Harvey was. . . . I loved working with him." Conway said Korman had "a complete understanding of comedy and comedy timing."

On the Burnett show, which steadfastly stayed in television's top 10 during its run, Korman showcased his versatility -- playing a robust Yiddish matron in one skit, then reappearing as a comic Rhett Butler while sending up "Gone With the Wind" with the show's star.


Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence

pose at a reunion for 'The Carol Burnett Show'

He scored as the big-bosomed Mother Marcus and hapless Ed, who was a member of the incredibly dysfunctional "Mama's Family," one of the more popular skits that became a series in the 1980s. "Give me something bizarre to play, or put me in a dress and I'm fine," Korman jokingly said in a 2005 Chicago Sun-Times interview.

Korman and Conway developed an uncanny rapport that made them arguably one of television's most lethal comic teams; Conway's on-camera ad-libs often made Korman crack up; producers wisely kept them in the show. For about eight years, until late last December, the pair toured the country in a stage show that, more than anything, was a homage to their years with Burnett.

They performed about 120 shows a year. "I don't know whether either one of us was the straight man," Conway said. "The most important thing in comedy when you're working together is for one guy to know when to shut up. And we both knew when to shut up; quiet show, actually."


Tim Conway (left) and Harvey Korman perform their famous dentist

sketch on 'The Carol Burnett Show'

One of their favorite routines from the Burnett show was the dentist sketch, "where I kind of anesthetize my entire body with Novocain" while trying to fill Korman's teeth, Conway explained. "They play it at all the dental schools, as kind of an introduction on how not to do it," Conway said.

In an interview several years ago with the Palm Beach Post, Conway said of the versatile cast that included Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner, "The five of us were the New York Yankees of our time."

With more than 1,000 sketches behind him, Korman left the Burnett show after 10 years. He was 50. "It was now or never, and if ever I planned to expand my career beyond sketch work, I'd better do it now," he said at the time, according to a 1990 Toronto Star story.

coloro-->ABC had promised him his own co Korman told United Press International in 1993. From 1983 to 1985, he appeared in "Mama's Family," the NBC sitcom that featured a number of Burnett alumni, including Lawrence and Burnett, who made a number of guest appearances.

Korman made more than 30 films, including four comedies directed by Brooks, who first discovered him when his wife, the late Anne Bancroft, singled Korman out on "The Carol Burnett Show."

"My wife said, 'You've got to see this guy. They're doing the Andrews Sisters [in a sketch] and this Harvey Korman is the best of the bunch .' . . . Harvey was so funny. When I was putting together 'Blazing Saddles,' I just knew he was a natural" for the role of Hedley Lamarr in the 1974 Western satire.


Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamar in 'Blazing Saddles'

"I had some real problems working with Harvey," Brooks said. "I used to look past his eyes. . . . If our eyes met, that's the end of the take. We would break up." Brooks also cast Korman in 1977's "High Anxiety," 1981's "History of the World -- Part 1" and 1995's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It."

Korman's other films included "Gypsy" in 1962, "Herbie Goes Bananas" in 1980, "Trail of the Pink Panther" in 1982 and "Curse of the Pink Panther" in 1983. In the 1978 television movie, "Bud and Lou," he played straight man Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett's Lou Costello.

Harvey Herschel Korman was born February 15, 1927, in Chicago, Illinois to Cyril and Ellen Korman. He started acting in school plays in kindergarten and turned professional at 12, when a local radio station signed him.

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Harvey Korman

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he enrolled in drama school in New York and tried to make it on Broadway but spent the better part of a decade waiting tables and pumping gas, he later recalled.

In the early 1960s, Korman moved to Hollywood and landed some sketch work on "The Red Skelton Show." In 1964, he began working regularly on "The Danny Kaye Show" and stayed with the musical-variety show until the end of its four-year run. Then came "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1967.

Angie Horejsi, Carol Burnett's assistant, said Burnett was devastated by Korman's death: "She loved Harvey very much." It was also reported that Mel Brooks described Korman as a "dazzling" comic talent. "You could get rock-solid comedy out of him. He could lift the material. He always made it real, always made it work, always believed in characters he was doing."


Harvey Korman

He would go on to guest-star in dozens of television shows and work as a voice actor until 2001. Offstage, Korman professed to being a determinedly unfunny person "who can't tell a joke if my life depended upon it," but his daughter Kate disagreed: "He was probably funnier in real life."

His first marriage, to Donna Ehlert in 1960, ended in divorce in 1977. The marriage produced two children, Maria and Christopher. In 1982, he married Deborah Fritze and two more children were born, Katherine and Laura.

Korman is survived by his wife, Deborah and four adult children, Maria, Christopher, Katherine and Laura, as well as three grandchildren. According to his family, services will be private.

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