Actor Kevin Conway (1942-2020) would have been 80 years old today had he not died of a heart attack just over two years ago. The supporting actor wasn’t the most well-known, but he possessed a rough-edged classical quality that reminded me something of Oliver Reed and that I particularly prize. Conway seemed less Irish-American than straight up Irish, straight off the boat; it’s this “old country” quality that made him seem right for my Hall of Hams. Interestingly, his training was in realism; he studied at HB Studios in New York, though his style was a bit more flashy and flamboyant than one normally associates with such a background. He came to acting fairly late, having first served a hitch in the Navy and then worked for several years at IBM.
Conway’s high point in terms of visibility was probably the early ’90s, when his hot streak included roles as a sleazy doctor in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose (1991) with Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, and Robert Duvall; a police chief in Jennifer 8 (1992) with John Malkovich, Uma Thurman, and Andy Garcia; an Irish-American sergeant of the Union army in Gettysburg (1993); and a gunslinger in Sam Raimi’s all-star western The Quick and the Dead (1995).
But Conway’s career had taken off on stage and screen over two decades earlier, starting with the original Broadway production of Arthur Kopit’s Indians in 1969. He next went on to replace William Devane in a 1971 off-Broadway revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Other stage work of the time included the title role in Circle Rep’s production of When You Coming Back, Red Ryder? (1974) for which he won a Drama Desk award, then the original Broadway production of Michael Weller’s Moonchildren (1972), Broadway revivals of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (1973) and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1974) opposite James Earl Jones, and the original Broadway production of The Elephant Man (1979), as Trewes, the part Anthony Hopkins played in the film version the following year. (Though Conway got to resume the role in a 1982 television adaptation of the play). This role was likely his artistic high water mark.
During the same years he was also in several movies, starting with the screen version of Israel Horowitz’s Believe in Me (1971), George Roy Hill’s adaptation of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1972), Ernest Lehman’s screen version of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1972) starring Richard Benjamin, Shamus (1973) with Burt Reynolds (1973), F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley (both 1978, with Sylvester Stallone), and Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981) as one of the Barkers:
Other appearances included roles in Flashpoint (1984) with Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams, Funny Farm (1988) with Chevy Chase, Homeboy (1988) with Mickey Rourke, Mercury Rising (1998) with Bruce Willis and Alec Baldwin, The Confession (1999) with Baldwin and Ben Kingsley, Thirteen Days (2000) with Kevin Costner, Black Knight (2001) with Martin Lawrence, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) and American Loser a.k.a. Trainwreck (2007) which I wrote about here. His most sustained TV work was as the Control Voice on the reboot of The Outer Limits (1995-2002), but he also did guest shots and recurring roles on such shows as Oz, JAG, The Good Wife, Law and Order, The Bronx is Burning, Homicide, Star Trek: The Next Generation (as a Klingon), and many other shows. His last credits were for narrating true crime documentaries on the ID Network in 2018.
Ultimately, Conway’s BIG playing style probably doomed him to a more modest career than he might have enjoyed a half century earlier. That is precisely why we think him worth celebrating.