Jeff Conaway in 1998
|Born||Jeffrey Charles William Michael Conaway
October 5, 1950
New York City, New York, USA
|Died||May 27, 2011
Encino, California, USA
Cause of death
Jeffrey Charles William Michael "Jeff" Conaway (October 5, 1950 – May 27, 2011) was an American actor best known for his roles in the movie Grease and two US television series, Taxi and Babylon 5. Conaway was also featured in the first and second season of the reality television series, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. In May 2011 after spending just over two weeks in the hospital, Conaway died at the age of 60 due to complications related to pneumonia and the degenerative brain condition known as encephalopathy.
Jeff Conaway was born in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was raised in the Astoria, Flushing, and Forest Hills neighborhoods in the New York City borough of Queens. His father, Charles, was an actor, producer and publisher. His mother, Helen, an actress who went by the stage name Mary Ann Brooks, taught music at New York City's Brook Conservatory. They divorced when he was 3, and Conaway and his two older sisters lived with his mother. He also spent time living with his grandparents in South Carolina, which gave him enough of a Southern accent that when he accompanied his mother to a casting call for director Arthur Penn's Broadway play All the Way Home, the 10-year-old Conaway landed a featured role as one of four boys. The 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning play was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and ran 333 performances and one preview from November 29, 1960, to September 16, 1961. Conaway remained for the entire run, then toured with the national company of the play Critic's Choice.
Conaway worked as a child model, and attended high school at the Quintano School for Young Professionals. After playing with the rock band "3 1/2" beginning at age 15, he attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and later transferred to New York University.
Grease and Taxi
The following year Conaway appeared in the original cast of the Broadway musical Grease, as an understudy to several roles including that of the lead male character, Danny Zuko, and eventually succeeded role-originator Barry Bostwick. He played the role for 2 1/2 years while his friend John Travolta, with whom he shared a manager, later joined the show, playing Doody in the chorus. The two would reunite in the 1978 motion picture musical Grease, in which Travolta played Zuko and Conaway his buddy Kenickie.
After breaking into series television in 1975 with Happy Days, followed by other sitcom and drama appearances and three more movies including Grease, Conaway was cast as vain and struggling, but goodhearted and handsome, aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler in the workplace comedy Taxi, which premiered in fall 1978. He had appeared in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the same producers, and, he said in 1987, was originally considered for the role of John Burns, which eventually went to Randall Carver:
But then one day I got the whole script and became real interested in the actor character, then called Bobby Taylor. And [the producers] said they had been thinking along the same lines, so I read again. Later I got a call from [original casting director] Joel Thurm, who says, 'Well, it's not good news, but it's not bad news either.' He says I'm the only choice for a white actor, but that they'd had a meeting and thought that maybe Bobby should be black and that now they're looking at black actors. ... So I went back to read, and it was me, Cleavon Little, and somebody else.... I ended up reading with [star] Judd Hirsch and it went really well."
Conaway left Taxi after the third season. Part of the reason was his drug abuse after season one.Taxi writer Sam Simon recalled in 2008 that during production of Simon's first script for that show, a missing Conaway was found in his dressing room too high on drugs to perform, and that his dialogue for that episode was divided between his co-stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd who delivered the jokes well enough so that Conaway's absence had little negative impact on the actual episode. This caused the show's producers to realize that he was expendable and contributed to Conaway's eventual firing. Conaway was reported at the time to be dissatisfied with being typecast as a "blond bimbo" and the "butt of struggling-actor jokes", along with finding the nature of the role repetitive. He also felt creatively stymied:
I wanted to do things with Bobby, but as the show went on, I could see I wasn't going to get that chance. ... Lemme tell you – I loved Bobby, I identified with Bobby. So, yeah, I kind of took everything personally. I had a lot of meetings with [the producers] because I was unhappy. ... Sure, partially it was ego, but let me do what I do best. It was frustrating. I remember leaving the studio feeling guilty and unhappy. I just couldn't appreciate it and use it as just a job, as a learning experience. Instead I saw it as, 'Hey, anybody could do this character.' Like nobody else could do Louie or Jim, they were such defined characters. But Bobby – anybody could walk in and say, 'Hi, Alex.'"
Conaway went on to star in the short-lived 1983 fantasy-spoof series, Wizards and Warriors. He made guest appearances on such shows as Barnaby Jones, George & Leo and in four episodes of Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in films such as Jawbreaker, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Do You Wanna Know a Secret?. From 1989 to 1990, he was cast on The Bold and the Beautiful, in the role of "Mick Savage". In 1993, he appeared onstage in Real Life Photographs. From 1994 to 1999, he played Sergeant Zack Allan, on Babylon 5.
In addition to acting, Conaway also dabbled in music. In the mid-1960s, he was the lead singer and guitarist for a rock band, The 3 1/2. They recorded four singles for Cameo Records in 1966 and 1967:
- "Don't Cry To Me Babe" / "R & B In C" (Cameo 425, 1966)
- "Problem Child" / "Hey Mom Hey Dad" (Cameo 442, 1966)
- "Hey Gyp" / "Hey Kitty Cool Kitty" (Cameo 451, 1967) (This single was produced by Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, who also wrote the B-side. The A-side is a song by Donovan.)
- "Angel Baby (Don't You Ever Leave Me)" / "You Turned Your Back On Love" (Cameo 485, 1967)
The CD Saints & Sinners, by Vikki and Kenickie, was released independently via the internet in 2008, featuring Conaway singing and rapping with Vikki Lizzi (Spinoza). They promoted the CD on The Howard Stern Show on April 2, 2008 and performed live shows in the Los Angeles area.
Conaway was married three times. His first, short-lived marriage (when he was 21) was to a dancer he had been seeing for two years; it was annulled. His second marriage, from 1980 until their divorce in 1985, was to Rona Newton-John, elder sister of his Grease co-star, Olivia Newton-John. His stepson, Emerson Newton-John, is a racing driver. His third marriage was to Keri Young from 1990 until 2000.
After experiencing a crisis in the mid-1980s, Conaway came to grips with the fact that he had a substance abuse problem. He underwent treatment in the late 1980s and often spoke candidly about his addictions.
By the mid-2000s he had relapsed. Conaway appeared in VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, but was forced to leave and entered rehab. In early 2008, Conaway appeared with other celebrities in the VH1 reality series, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. The show revealed that Conaway was addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and painkillers, and that he was in a codependent relationship with his girlfriend Vikki Lizzi, also a user of prescription opiates. Conaway had suffered a back injury earlier in his career on the set of Grease while filming the "Greased Lightning" scene, which had been exacerbated recently by lifting boxes in his home.
Conaway's appearance on the show's first and second seasons drew much attention because of his severely crippled state, his constant threats to leave the facility, and his frequent inability to speak clearly. Upon arrival at the Pasadena Recovery Centre (which was filmed as part of Celebrity Rehab's first episode) Conaway, using a wheelchair, arrived drunk, mumbling to Dr. Drew that the night before he had binged on cocaine and Jack Daniel's whiskey.
During the second episode of Celebrity Rehab's first season, Conaway, fed up with his dorsalgia, withdrawal symptoms, and the humiliation of having to be assisted while using the toilet, told Dr. Pinsky that he was thinking of killing himself. After Pinsky asked him to elaborate upon how he would carry out a suicidal act, Conaway glared at the mirror in his room and said, "I see myself breaking that mirror and slicing my fucking throat with it." During group sessions, Conaway revealed he was "tortured" during his childhood, as older boys in his neighborhood would put him into dangerous situations, tying him up and threatening him. When he was seven years old, he was a victim of pedophiles and child pornographers. Conaway stated that he had been an addict since he was a teenager.
With John Travolta's support, Conaway took courses and auditing from the Church of Scientology to cope with his drug problem and depression, although he did not intend to become a Scientologist.
In August 2009, Conaway was interviewed by Entertainment Tonight. In the interview, the actor claimed he was much better after a fifth back operation, and that he had yet to use painkillers again. He also discussed unscrupulous doctors and enablers.
On May 11, 2011, Conaway was found unconscious from what was initially described as an overdose of substances believed to be pain medication and was taken to Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in Encino, California, where he was listed in critical condition. After initial reports, Dr. Drew Pinsky, who had treated Conaway for substance abuse, said the actor was suffering not from a drug overdose but rather from pneumonia with sepsis, for which he was placed into an induced coma. Though his pneumonia was not directly a result of drug usage, drug usage hampered Conaway's ability to recognize how severely ill he was and to seek treatment for pneumonia until it was too late.
On May 26, 2011, Conaway's family took him off life support after doctors decided there was nothing they could do to revive him. Conaway died the following morning at the age of 60. Conaway's doctor attributed his death to his addiction, stating, "What happens is, like with most opiate addicts, eventually they take a little too much ... and they aspirate, so what's in their mouth gets into their lungs ... That's what happened with Jeff."
- 1978 nomination, Best Supporting Actor, Comedy or Musical Series (for Taxi)
- 1979 nomination, Best Supporting Actor, Comedy or Musical Series (for Taxi)
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- Lovece, Frank, with Jules Franco. Hailing Taxi: The Official Book of the Show (1988) New York: Prentice Hall Press, p. 41. ISBN 0-13-372103-5, ISBN 978-0-13-372103-4
- Cunneff, Tom. "Jeff Conaway Took a Wrong Turn After Taxi, but Now He's Back on Track as a Soap Stud", People vol. 32, #24, December 11, 1989.
- All the Way Home at the Internet Broadway Database
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- Grease at the Internet Broadway Database
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