Tom Conway

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Tom Conway
Tom Conway in Grand Central Murder trailer headcrop.jpg
from the trailer for Grand Central Murder (1942)
Thomas Charles Sanders

(1904-09-15)15 September 1904
Died22 April 1967(1967-04-22) (aged 62)
Washington Hospital, Culver City, California, U.S.
Education Brighton College
Years active1940–1964
(m. 1958;div. 1963)
Lillian Eggers
(m. 1941;div. 1953)
Family George Sanders (brother)

Tom Conway (born Thomas Charles Sanders; 15 September 1904 – 22 April 1967) was a British film, television, and radio actor remembered for playing detectives (including The Falcon, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, and The Saint) and psychiatrists, among other roles.


Conway played "The Falcon" in 10 episodes of the series, taking over from his brother, George Sanders, in The Falcon's Brother (1942), in which they both starred. He also appeared in several movie thrillers produced by Val Lewton, notably Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie .

Early life

Conway was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. His younger brother was fellow actor George Sanders. [1] The family moved from Russia to Britain when Tom was thirteen. He was educated at Brighton College then moved to Africa to find work. He returned to England, worked as a glass salesman, then became interested in acting. [2]



He started by appearing in amateur theatre, then joined a repertory company for a year and a half. After this he appeared in touring productions of plays like Dangerous Corner, Private Lives and By Candlelight as well as acting on radio. Then Conway's brother George suggested Tom join him in Hollywood. [2]


In May 1940 it was announced Tom had signed a contract with MGM. During this time, he changed his last name from Sanders to Conway. [3] He had small roles in Waterloo Bridge (1940), with only his voice heard, Sky Murder (1940) with Walter Pidgeon, and The Wild Man of Borneo (1941). He had a bigger part in The Trial of Mary Dugan (1941) with Robert Young, then was back to small parts in Free and Easy (1941), The Bad Man (1941) with Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore, The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941) with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore, and Lady Be Good (1941) with Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton.

Conway was a villain in Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, Mr. and Mrs. North (1941) with Gracie Allen, and Rio Rita (1942) with Abbott and Costello. He was a murder suspect in Grand Central Murder (1942) with Van Heflin and had an uncredited bit in Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

RKO: The Falcon and Val Lewton

At RKO, Conway's brother George Sanders had starred in three popular "B" movies as The Falcon, eligible man-about-town and amateur detective, constantly being accused of crimes and using his wits to trap the guilty parties and clear his name. Sanders had tired of the role, so the pencil-mustached Conway took over as The Falcon's Brother (1942), co-starring with Sanders (Sanders's character was killed off, leaving his brother to assume the mantle of The Falcon). Producer Maurice Geraghty later revealed that RKO executives recruited Conway so they could induce Sanders to make one more Falcon picture, after which the series would end. "So it was astonishing to them when Tom Conway caught on right away and carried the series on -- even outgrossing the pictures George had made." [4] RKO signed Tom Conway to a long-term contract. [5]

Conway followed this success with an excellent role in Cat People (1942), the first of producer Val Lewton's legendary horror cycle. He had the male lead in a second film for Lewton, I Walked with a Zombie (1942), now regarded as a horror classic. [6] Conway was top-billed in Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943) playing the same role he did in The Cat People though his character was apparently killed in that film.

In April 1943 he said "what I should really like to play is sophisticated comedy." [2] Between his Falcon and Val Lewton assignments, RKO starred Conway in B mysteries: A Night of Adventure (1944), Two O'Clock Courage (1945), and Criminal Court (1946).

Conway was borrowed by United Artists for Whistle Stop (1946), in which he supported George Raft, Ava Gardner, and Victor McLaglen. In June 1946, Conway obtained a release from his RKO contract. His next film was to be Strange Bedfellows at United Artists. [7]

Freelance actor

On radio, Conway played Sherlock Holmes during the 1946–1947 season of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes , following Basil Rathbone's departure from the series. [8] :302 In spite of a similarly refined England accent, Conway was not as well-received as Rathbone by audiences; he played Holmes for only one season.

He was a leading support actor in Lost Honeymoon (1947) and Repeat Performance (1947) for Eagle-Lion, Fun on a Weekend (1947) for United Artists, and One Touch of Venus (1948) for Universal.

Bernard Small, the son of independent producer Edward Small, had secured the film rights to the Bulldog Drummond character and made two Drummond mysteries for Columbia Pictures release. In 1948, he moved the franchise to his father's Reliance Pictures, an independent company distributing through Fox, and hired Tom Conway to play Bulldog Drummond in The Challenge (1948) and 13 Lead Soldiers (1948). Independent producer, Sam Baerwitz, cast Conway in low-budget crime stories released by Fox; The Checkered Coat (1948), Bungalow 13 (1948), I Cheated the Law (1949), and The Great Plane Robbery (1950).

Into the 1950s and early 1960s

When George Sanders married Zsa Zsa Gabor, Tom Conway joined the wedding party on April Fool's Day, 1949. She recalled in her memoir, "With an unexpected generosity, George chartered a plane and flew the wedding party [to Las Vegas]. His brother, Tom Conway, as warm and outgoing as George was cool and restrained, was best man, and came on the plane with a shotgun over his shoulder. 'Just in case the old boy gets cold feet,' he said." [9] Conway appeared on the early television panel show Bachelor's Haven (1951), an advice-to-the-lovelorn forum patterned after the successful New York-based series Leave It to the Girls . He recruited his sister-in-law Zsa Zsa to join him on the program. [10]

In 1951, he replaced Vincent Price as star of the radio mystery series The Saint , [8] portrayed by Sanders on film a decade earlier.

Feature films

Back in the movie studios, Conway had supporting parts in Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951) and Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Apart from a lead in Confidence Girl (1952), he played supporting roles: Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953), Paris Model (1953), and Prince Valiant (1954).

Conway went to England to star as Berkeley Gray's private detective Norman Conquest in Park Plaza 605 (released in America as Norman Conquest, 1953), and (using his own name instead of the Conquest tag) Blood Orange (1953). He also had leads in the British Barbados Quest (1955), Breakaway (1955), and The Last Man to Hang (1956). In 1956, brothers Tom Conway and George Sanders appeared (as brothers) in the film Death of a Scoundrel , with the star Sanders killing supporting player Conway. Conway's last British project was Operation Murder (1957).

In America, Conway co-starred in The She-Creature (1956) and Voodoo Woman (1957). He was featured in The Atomic Submarine (1959), and 12 to the Moon (1960). He provided his voice for Disney's 101 Dalmatians (1961) as a quizmaster in What's My Crime?—a parody of the game show What's My Line? —and as a collie that offers the dalmatians shelter in a barn, later guiding them home. His wife at the time, Queenie Leonard, voiced a cow in the barn. His final feature-film assignment was the all-star comedy What a Way to Go! (1964).


From 1951 to 1954, Conway played debonair British police detective Mark Saber in Inspector Mark Saber – Homicide Detective , [11] produced by Roland D. Reed. In 1957, the series resumed on NBC, now filmed in England and renamed Saber of London , with Donald Gray in the title role. [12]

Conway performed in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "The Glass Eye" (1957) as Max Collodi, receiving critical praise. He had a supporting role in The Betty Hutton Show television series (1959–60). In 1964 he appeared on the top-rated Perry Mason series in "The Case of the Simple Simon," playing Guy Penrose, leading actor in a traveling repertory company.

Another actor made his network-television debut as "Tom Conway" on The Steve Allen Show in 1961, while the established actor Tom Conway was still working. To avoid confusion, the younger Tom Conway changed his professional name to Tim Conway in June 1962.

Final years

Conway's health began to fail in the mid-1950s. In 1956, he was briefly hospitalised for an operation. [13] Weakened eyesight and alcoholism took their toll on him in later years. A 1960 drunk-driving arrest was reported in the national press; "I can't take a drunk test -- I'm too drunk", Conway stated after crashing his vehicle into a parked car. [14]

His first marriage to New York model Lillian Eggers ended in divorce in 1953. [15] His second wife (Leonard) divorced him in 1963 because of his drinking problem. His alcoholism also cost him his relationship with his brother, George Sanders, who broke off all contact with him. [16]

Conway's career was finally stalled by health problems. He underwent cataract surgery in both eyes during the winter of 1964–1965, and his mobility was affected by a swollen left ankle. In September 1965, he briefly returned to the headlines when he was living in a $2-a-day room (monthly $60, equivalent to $557in 2022) in a small Venice, Los Angeles hotel at 23-1/2 Windward Avenue, operated by former vaudevillian Agnes Lavaty. Conway's friend, Mary Robison of Venice, notified the local newspaper of the actor's troubles, and a reporter visited Conway. "I find myself this way after many years of making considerable amounts of money", he told the reporter, who noted, "Mr. Conway still appears well-groomed, with a mustache and neat appearance. He is 60 years old. He said Mr. Sanders knew little or nothing about his plight because they had not been close in recent years." [17]

The immediate aftermath brought phone calls "every five minutes," in Conway's words, but none from showbusiness colleagues with only one exception; "I looked up, and coming through the door was Lew Ayres, whom I hadn't seen in years and years. It was a very nice feeling." [18] Conway commented, "I have a place where I'll be able to live, and it looks as if there may be a job in the offing for me." Gifts, contributions, and offers of aid poured in for a time, but offers only hinted at soon fell through or never came to fruition. He refused to consider living at the Motion Picture Country Home, a haven for retired actors. "There you're retired completely and have to give everything up. You're simply through. It's only a question of time until I'll be well. Then I want to operate a retreat in Baja California. I think I can get backers interested. It'll be like a sleepy Mexican fishing village." [19]

Conway estimated he had earned $900,000 in his career -- "Fairly high living. Keeping up a front." -- but was now subsisting on small amounts of federal aid. His Perry Mason appearance proved to be his last; "I don't particularly want to act," he said. [20] He said he lost his last $15,000 to swindlers in a lumber deal. [21]

Hospitalized in April 1966 after being diagnosed with a liver ailment, he lapsed into a coma. In July he emerged from his comatose condition, his doctor saying he was "remarkably improved." [22] Former sister-in-law Zsa Zsa Gabor claimed that she visited Conway in the hospital and gave him $200. "Tip the nurses a little bit so they'll be good to you," she told him. According to Gabor, the hospital called her to say that Conway had left with the $200, gone to his girlfriend's house, and become gravely sick in her bed. Gabor's account differs from published reports, [23] which state that Conway was transferred from the hospital to a convalescent sanitarium, where he stayed three months.

He emerged in late 1966 with new health and spirit. He had given up drinking "completely. I'm on the wagon and I find the old brain works better... [I want to develop] a couple of gimmicks I devised while lying in the hospital. I've got a million things cooking." He even contemplated a return to acting: "It'll be a cold start, but acting-wise I think I'm at my peak." [24] His living conditions, while still modest, had also improved; he was back in Los Angeles, living in a modern, $135-a-month apartment (equivalent to $1,218in 2022) on Wilshire Boulevard. He decided against installing a telephone, and greeted visitors in person.

Conway never could capitalize on his plans. His rally came to a halt three months later, when he died of liver damage at Washington Hospital in Culver City, California on Saturday, April 22, 1967, at the age of 62. [25] His funeral was held in London, [26] [27] [28] and his ashes were inurned inside a private vault at Chapel of the Pines Crematory.

Despite his up-and-down professional and personal fortunes, Conway remained optimistic until the end. In his last newspaper interview, he said, "You've got to hang on and wait for the breakthrough." [29]


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  2. 1 2 3 "Star's keen sense of humour makes him favorite on lots". The Ogden Standard-Examiner. 25 April 1943. p. 25.
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