Jeff Conaway, the star of Grease and Taxi whose later years were marked by a long and very public struggle with substance abuse, has died. Conaway had lapsed into a coma earlier this month, and while initial reports said that he had overdosed, his former Celebrity Rehab supervisor Dr. Drew Pinsky disputed that claim, saying that Conaway was instead suffering from pneumonia and sepsis. Doctors took him off life support yesterday with the approval of his family (though against the objection of his longtime girlfriend, who filed an unsuccessful attempt to stop them in court). Conaway died earlier today. He was 60.
A Broadway-bred actor who had roles in ’70s films like I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and Pete’s Dragon and TV shows such as Happy Days, Conway truly broke out in 1978’s Grease, playing John Travolta’s cocky, lothario fellow T-Bird, Kenickie. His character’s romance with Stockard Channing’s Rizzo (and the pregnancy scare that results) provides one of the more dramatic storylines in the film, but Conaway’s star moment was far lighter: The rousing number “Greased Lightning,” in which Conaway, combs at the ready, straddles a sports car and nearly swaggers off with the whole movie.
After Grease put him on top of the world, Conaway landed a starring role on the seminal sitcom Taxi, playing the would-be actor Bobby Wheeler—a character every bit as vain and shallow as Kenickie, but whose constant struggles with breaking into the acting business make him decidedly loveable. Conaway was with the show through its third season before he was let go, after the producers became increasingly concerned about his drug abuse.
Post-Taxi, Conaway landed a starring role on the CBS fantasy series Wizards And Warriors, but it was canceled quickly. He also played the lead in the 1984 movie Covergirl, though Conaway spent most of the ’80s turning up in guest star parts on shows like Murder, She Wrote, The Love Boat, Tales From The Darkside, and Who’s The Boss?, as well as contributing a small but memorable role to Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark. After spending most of the decade in what he would later term as a “crisis,” Conaway first sought treatment for his addictions in the late ’80s, and seemed to turn his life around: By 1989 he had a recurring role on The Bold And The Beautiful, and soon after he even made his directorial debut (even if it was the Jessica Hahn-starring comedy Bikini Summer II).
But things got much brighter in 1994, when Conaway took on what would prove to be his longest-lasting job on the sci-fi series Babylon 5, playing Security Chief Zack Allan from season two until the end of the show, as well as in three made-for-TV movies. The role had shades of Conaway’s personal history, as Allan is granted the position as a chance for redemption after being fired several times over for drug and alcohol abuse. And much like Conaway during this period, Allan proved over the course of the series to be a reliable and likable guy, with his most defining characteristic being his unflappable optimism.
Conaway landed another cult role in 1999, playing the father to Julie Benz’s prototypical Valley Girl in Jawbreaker. Again, the part nodded to Conaway’s past, putting him alongside other parental figures played by fellow past ’70s icons P.J. Soles and William Katt. (Conaway would later wink at his teenage idol days more directly with a cameo in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.)
Unfortunately, around this time Conaway also relapsed heavily into drug use, and he would spend the rest of his days being famous primarily for his often-scary battles with addiction, beginning with an appearance on 2006’s Celebrity Fit Club. His painkiller habit fully exposed by the third episode, Conaway was asked to leave and enter rehab, though he would soon return to VH1 for 2008’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Over two seasons, Conaway would candidly—and angrily—delve into the ugly reality of his drug usage, which he claimed began with an injury sustained during the “Greased Lightning” number that led to him abusing painkillers.
Conaway soon became one of the most talked-about cast members in the history of the show due to his severely ravaged physical and state, his frequent outbursts, and his admissions of feeling both depressed and suicidal—an infamy that unfortunately threatened to overshadow his acting career. Since then, Conaway continued to struggle with painkiller abuse, his reliance on them exacerbated by a nasty fall he took while intoxicated that left him with a broken hip and landed him in a convalescent home. Still, though he would often talk with typically mordant humor about thoughts of suicide, Conaway hung on and even continued to work sporadically. His final on-screen appearance can be seen this July in the independent thriller Dark Games.
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