Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys here today to pay a small tribute as part of our irregular series on show biz siblings to a highly underrated actor, Tom Conway — the older brother (by two years) of the Oscar-winning, marvelously dyspeptic Addison DeWitt (aka George Sanders).
Conway is often confused these days with Tim Conway, veteran, Ohio-born TV sketch comedian best known for his regular role in the McHale’s Navy tube series in the Sixties and as a featured player on The Carol Burnett Show in the Seventies.
Tim’s first name was actually Thomas, but when he came to Hollywood he had to change it. That’s because Sanders’ frere was already established as a studio actor, and Guild rules dictated that no two actors could professionally perform under the same name.
To further confuse all this, Tom Conway was born in 1904 under the name Thomas Charles Sanders. When he followed George to Hollywood, he lost a brotherly coin toss and changed his surname to Conway. In time, the likeable Conway was referred to as “the nice George Sanders.”
Comparisons with his much more successful younger brother apparently never bothered Conway as the two got along pretty well. It was George who persuaded his brother to try Hollywood after his desultory radio and stage appearances in their adopted country. The Sanders came from a wealthy St. Petersburg family who had fled the Russian revolution to England.
In Hollywood, Sanders was a supportive sibling. The fact that Tom made an unsuccessful (screen) test should not depress him, he wrote in a 1937 letter to their father. I have made plenty of unsuccessful tests, and so has everyone else in the business. And the fact they said Tom did not photograph well should be no cause for alarm, since they said precisely the same thing to Ronald Colman!
After a stint at MGM, Conway shifted to RKO where he made his most memorable film appearances. He starred in 10 titles of the studio’s profitable Falcon mystery series, taking over the lead abandoned by brother George — on his way to bigger things.
But to fully appreciate what a solid actor Conway was, we suggest you take a look at two classics, 1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I walked With A Zombie, both directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton.
In the former, Conway is silkenly ominous as Dr. Louis Judd, the villainous Freudian psychiatrist treating star Simone Simon as a kittenish Serbian immigrant with feline issues. In the latter, he plays a more complex character, the proprietor of a Caribbean plantation beset by voodoo, a zombie wife and lust for costar Frances Dee.
In both these excellent movies, Conway is terrific. He appeared in a supporting part as the aristocratic “Whitfield Savory II” in the 1948 fantasy musical One Touch of Venus, starring Robert Walker and a young Ava Garner on loanout from MGM.
By the Fifties, Conway concentrated on television, and logged a host of credits on several tube seires. In all, his career encompasses some 75 movie and TV roles.
The careers of both Conway and brother Sanders did not end well. Battling problems with alcohol and failing eyesight, the former died more or less destitute in 1967 at 62. Sanders expired by his own hand — he said he was bored with life — five years later at age 65.
They rank today as one of Hollywood’s most interesting and productive actor-brother duos.