Jeff Conaway dies at 60; actor in ‘Grease’ and ‘Taxi’

Share via

Jeff Conaway an actor who came to fame in the late 1970s as a high school greaser in the hit movie musical “Grease” and as a regular on the TV series “Taxi” but in more recent years was known for his appearances on “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,” died Friday. He was 60.

Conaway was taken off life support at Encino Hospital Medical Center, said his sister Carla Shreve. He had pneumonia when he arrived unconscious at the hospital May 10, the result of “just too many prescribed drugs,” and was placed in a medically induced coma, she said.

Conaway had begun appearing in films and on television and had performed in the Broadway production of “Grease” before the movie version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was released in 1978.

Conaway played Kenickie, the Rydell High School pal of Travolta’s Danny Zuko.

“I got so many hickeys, people will think I’m a leper,” Stockard Channing’s Rizzo tells Kenickie at one point, examining her neck in a compact mirror.

“Cheer up,” Conaway’s character memorably replies. “Hickeys from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card.”

Later the same year, Conaway began playing Bobby Wheeler, the cab-driving struggling actor in “Taxi.”

The series about a group of New York cabbies, whose ensemble cast included Judd Hirsch, Danny De Vito, Marilu Henner and Tony Danza, ran until 1983.

Although the show gave Conaway continued national exposure, he broke his contract and quit after three seasons, having reportedly grown tired of being typecast as a “blond bimbo” and the butt of struggling-actor jokes.

“In ‘Taxi,’ I kept doing the same scene for three years,” he told the Toronto Star in 1989. “I was underused. It’s natural when there are seven people involved in a half-hour show.”

In a 1985 Associated Press interview, he said that he had become “very depressed” while doing the series.

“Hollywood can be a terrible place when you’re depressed. The pits,” he said. “I decided to change my life and do different things.”

His various projects, however, did little to further his career.

He returned to series TV in 1984, starring as Prince Erik Greystone on “Wizards and Warriors,” a fantasy adventure series that ended after eight episodes. Then came a role on “Berrenger’s,” a short-lived 1985 nighttime soap opera.

The same year, Conaway was on Broadway in “The News,” a rock musical about New York City tabloid journalism that closed after two days.

He later appeared in the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” and the 1990s sci-fi TV series “Babylon 5.” TV guest shots and roles in films and TV movies followed, as did stories of his substance abuse.

Conaway already was known for leaving VH1’s “Celebrity Fit Club” for a rehab attempt in 2006 when he joined eight other celebrities on the premiere of VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” in 2008.

He was so intoxicated the morning he checked in that subtitles were required to translate his slurred speech.

“Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” added a new dimension to Conaway’s faded celebrity.

“Everywhere I go, people say, ‘I watched that show. I was rooting for you, man. Keep it up,’” he told the News Journal, a Wilmington, Del., newspaper, in 2008. “It’s nice to know people care. I hope it helped some people. I was in terrible, terrible pain, and if I can beat the junkie with that kind of pain going on, so can you.”

In a Times interview in January, Conaway said he had developed an addiction to cocaine and pain pills after undergoing back surgery, and as he tried to quit those drugs on the program, he threw tantrums, shouted and blacked out.

But, he told The Times, he had ramped up his behavior for the camera.

“We all knew we were on TV,” he said. “I think everybody, like myself, made choices. Sometimes we would go a little bit further than maybe we normally would. You can’t help it. There are cameras sitting in front of your face.”

When “Celebrity Rehab 2 With Dr. Drew” began in November 2008, Conaway was back on the show.

He was born in Manhattan on Oct. 5, 1950. After his parents divorced, he spent time living with his grandparents in South Carolina and with his mother and his two older sisters in Flushing, N.Y.

His acting career was launched in 1960 when his mother, an actress, brought him with her to an audition for the Broadway drama “All the Way Home.” Director Arthur Penn cast the 10-year-old in the role of a young Southern boy.

He continued to act on stage, as well as landing modeling jobs and appearing in commercials before joining a rock band as a singer when he was 15. He began taking drugs on the road.

Within two years, he told People magazine in 1989, “all my friends were junkies. I figured if I ended up as a musician, I’d have died.”

After spending a year at the North Carolina School of the Arts, he enrolled at New York University, where he took acting and dance classes. He understudied a number of characters in “Grease” on Broadway and, shortly before graduating, took over the lead role of Danny Zuko, which was originally played by Barry Bostwick.

Conaway was once married to Olivia Newton-John’s sister, Rona.

Besides his sister Carla, he is survived by his wife, Kerri Young Conaway; another sister, Michele Goffin; and a stepson, Emerson Hall.