Sunday, January 17, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Week: Tom Conway

He was good-looking, suave, and always seems poised for a lead role that would propel him to film stardom--like his brother George Sanders. Unfortunately, Tom Conway never quite made it, though he forged a steady career in "B" pictures and headlined a couple of a cult classics.

Born Thomas Charles Sanders, Tom's family fled Russia at the outbreak of the Revolution and settled in England. As a young man, Tom tried his hand at several jobs (e.g., copper mining), but eventually entered show business. After working on the British stage, he went to the U.S. in 1941 at the invitation of his brother. Allegedly, Tom and George flipped a coin to see who would keep the family's last name; they were concerned that Hollywood producers might get confused if there were young male actors named Sanders.

Tom's first big break came when George wanted to depart from The Falcon series. George had played B-film "gentleman detectives" in five Saint films and three Falcon films. After a strong supporting performance in Rebecca (1940), Sanders was ready to graduate to "A" pictures as a lead. RKO, though, was making a tidy profit with The Falcon movies. So, in a case of inspired casting, RKO introduced Tom Conway as The Falcon's Brother (1942). The plot has the original Falcon (played by George) being killed and his brother, Tom Lawrence (Conway), solving the murder and taking over as the new Falcon!

Conway made ten Falcon movies, making it one of the most successful "B" detective series. The best of the bunch is The Falcon and the Co-Eds, which benefits from an delightfully atmospheric seaside setting. Concurrently, Conway was cast in major roles in three of Val Lewton's acclaimed horror/suspense films:  Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Seventh Victim (1943).

In the 1950s, roles became more scarce and Conway found himself working in low-budget films, television, and radio (providing the voice of both The Saint and Sherlock Holmes). His best post-1940s performance was as a ventriloquist in IThe Glass Eye",  a classic episode on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alcholism took its toll in the 1960s and a newspaper article revealed that Conway was practically broke and living in a cheap flophouse. He and George had become estranged by then.

Tom Conway died in 1967, at age 62, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Several of Conway's film have been reviewed at the Cafe. You may want to check out the following (click on the title to read the post):  The Seventh Victim, The Falcon and the Co-Eds, and A Toast to New Year's Eve Movies (includes Repeat Performance, which co-starred Conway).


  1. Rick ,I have never gotten into The Falcon" B" Films but I like Cat People. I'll have to check them out . Good post.

  2. Rick, Awesome post!! My favorite Tom Conway movie is... I Walked with a Zombie (1943). i know, i's cheesy, but.. i love that movie.

  3. Dawn, I think I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is an effective version of JANE EYRE, with Tom as an appropriately brooding Rochester.

  4. I don't know Tim very well, but I did enjoy his performance in THE 7TH VICTIM (and you should probably delete the link to the review of said film, as it's horribly written and very dull).

  5. Hey, Sark, you're too hard on your own reviews! THE SEVENTH VICTIM write-up is awesome. Tom is very good in it, but my favorite of his Lewton performances is as the unethical psychiatrist in CAT PEOPLE. And Paul, THe Falcon movies are a mixed bag--sometimes, there is too much comic relief. But THE FALCON AND THE CO-EDS is a nifty little "B" mystery.

  6. Great post Rick. I have always liked Tom Conway. He is a good choice for underrated actor. I like the Falcon series and have seen many of them. I think he always gave a strong solid performance in every movie he made. You know I think he resembles Errol Flynn. Enjoyed reading about him.

  7. Rick, thank you for a wonderful tribute to Tom Conway! I think he always gave a reliable performance and am so glad you chose to honor him with an Underrated Performer post. Well done!