06/16/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Carol Burnett was casting her classic TV variety show, a certain lanky actor came to mind. "I thought we needed a Harvey Korman [type]," she says. "Then I thought, my God, why not get the real Harvey Korman? I was in the CBS lot and there he was, about to get into his car. I pushed him over the hood and said, 'Please, you've got to do my show.' Obviously, it worked out."
Before The Carol Burnett Show, the Chicago-born Korman, who died at 81 on May 29 from complications of an abdominal aortic aneurysm, knocked around Hollywood, doing voice-overs and bit parts. But the beloved 1967-1978 series made him a star. With his gift for parody, Korman's comic gallery included a pseudo-Rhett Butler and shifty Hedley ("not Hedy") Lamarr in Mel Brooks' 1974 Blazing Saddles. "His timing was impeccable—he was the best," says Brooks. Korman long partnered with pal and Burnett alum Tim Conway. For years they toured, reprising old bits. Inevitably a Conway ad-lib cracked up Korman. "Whatever I said, he'd fall down," Conway says.
Wed 25 years to second wife Deborah, Korman had four children. "He was more than a father; he was my best friend," says daughter Kate, 25. "He made people feel special, like the only person in the room." Burnett knows that better than anyone. "He was the consummate actor," she says, fighting tears. "I miss him something terrible."