Jeffrey Charles William Michael Conaway (October 5, 1950 – May 27, 2011) was an American actor and singer. He was known for playing Kenickie in the movie Grease and for his roles in two American television series: struggling actor Bobby Wheeler on Taxi and security officer Zack Allan on Babylon 5. Conaway was also featured in the first and second seasons of the reality television series Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
Conaway was born in Manhattan, and raised in the Astoria, Flushing and Forest Hills neighborhoods of Queens, New York.
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 three, and Conaway and his two older sisters lived with their 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, a story set in Knoxville, Tennessee, 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.
While at NYU, he appeared in television commercials and had the lead in a school production of The Threepenny Opera. He made his movie debut in the 1971 romantic drama Jennifer on My Mind, which also featured future stars Robert De Niro and Barry Bostwick.
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 the supporting role of Doody. 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 guest spots in several other TV shows, and three more movies including Grease, he was cast as aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler on 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, had been 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. Conaway’s 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 effect on the episode. This development caused the show’s producers to realize that Conaway was expendable and contributed to his termination. 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 starred in the short-lived 1983 fantasy-spoof series Wizards and Warriors. He made guest appearances on such shows as Barnaby Jones, George & Leo, and 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 played Mick Savage on The Bold and the Beautiful. In 1993, he appeared onstage in Real Life Photographs. From 1994 to 1999, he played Sergeant, later promoted to Security Chief, Zack Allan on Babylon 5. In 2010 he provided voice-over for the English version of the animated short film Dante’s Hell Animated (released in 2013), in which he is credited as “Hollywood legend Jeff Conaway”.
In addition to acting, Conaway dabbled in music. In the mid-1960s, he was the lead singer and guitarist for a rock band, The 3 1/2, which recorded four singles for Cameo Records in 1966 and 1967:
In 1979, Conaway recorded a self-titled debut album for Columbia Records. “City Boy” was released as a single. Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Mike Appel, produced the album. In 2000, he released the album It Don’t Make Sense You Can’t Make Peace on the KEGMusic label.
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 race car driver. His third marriage was to Kerri Young from 1990 to 2000.
After experiencing a crisis in the mid-1980s, Conaway came to grips with having 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 rehabilitation. 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, who was 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, and he had turned to substances to manage the pain.
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 Center (which was filmed as part of Celebrity Rehab’s first episode) Conaway, using a wheelchair, arrived drunk, mumbling to Drew Pinsky 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 back pain, withdrawal symptoms, and the humiliation of having to be assisted while using the toilet, told 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. He also related that he was molested when he was seven years old. 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 June 2009, Conaway joined Celebrity Rehab castmate Mary Carey at the premiere of her parody film Celebrity Pornhab with Dr. Screw.
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.
In March 2010, shortly after the death of actor Corey Haim, Conaway told E! News that he had warned Haim about dying because of prescription drug abuse.
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, 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, it 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 determined they could do nothing 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.”
An autopsy performed on Conaway revealed that the actor died of various causes, including aspiration pneumonia and encephalopathy, attributable to drug overdoses.
Golden Globe Award
|1971||Jennifer on My Mind||Hanki|
|1976||The Eagle Has Landed||Frazier|
|1977||Delta County, U.S.A.||Terry Nicholas|
|1977||Pete’s Dragon||Willie Gogan|
|1977||I Never Promised You a Rose Garden||Lactamaeon|
|1980||For The Love of It||Russ|
|1983||Making of a Male Model||Chuck Lanyard|
|1988||Elvira, Mistress of the Dark||Travis|
|1989||Ghost Writer||Tom Farrell|
|1989||Tale of Two Sisters||Taxi driver|
|1990||The Sleeping Car||Bud Sorenson|
|1991||Dumb Luck in Vegas|
|1991||Total Exposure||Peter Keynes|
|1991||A Time to Die||Frank|
|1992||Mirror Images||Jeffrey Blair|
|1992||Eye of the Storm||Tom Edwards|
|1992||Almost Pregnant||Charlie Alderson|
|1992||Bikini Summer II / Bikini Summer 2||Stu Stocker (also director)|
|1993||In a Moment of Passion||Werner Soehnen|
|1994||2002: The Rape of Eden||Reverend|
|1997||The Last Embrace||Jagger|
|1998||Shadow of Doubt||Bixby|
|1999||Man on the Moon||Jeff Conaway – Taxi Actor||Uncredited|
|2001||Do You Wanna Know a Secret?||Agent Owen Sacker|
|2002||Curse of the Forty-Niner||Reverend Sutter|
|2002||The Biz||Gavin Elliot|
|2004||Pan Dulce||Gabriel Levine|
|2004||The Corner Office||Dick|
|2006||The Pool 2||Agent Frank Gun|
|2005||From Behind the Sunflower||Leo|
|2006||Living the Dream||Dick|
|2006||The Utah Murder Project||Sheriff Dan Patterson|
|2010||Dante’s Inferno: Abandon All Hope||40-minute short film|
|2010||Dark Games||Tom Doyle||Released 2017|
|1975-1976||Happy Days||Rocko||2 episodes|
|1975||Joe Forrester||1 episode, 1975 “The Best Laid Schemes”|
|1975||Movin’ On||Mike / Mike Miller||2 episodes, 1974 “Landslide” (S01, E16), 1975 “The Long Way To Nowhere” (S02, Ep10)|
|1976-1977||Barnaby Jones||Jeff Saunders||2 episodes|
|1976||Mary Tyler Moore||Kenny Stevens||1 episode|
|1977||Delta County, USA||Terry Nicholas||TV movie-ABC|
|1978-1982||Taxi||Bobby Wheeler||69 episodes|
|1978||Kojak||Bert Gaines||1 episode “May the Horse Be with You”|
|1978||California Jam II||Host and interviewer||Tv Special by ABC, first aired on May 19 1978|
|1979||Breaking Up Is Hard to Do||Roy Fletcher||TV movie|
|1980||For the Love of It||Russ||TV movie|
|1981||The Nashville Grab||Buddy Walker||TV movie|
|1983||Making of a Male Model||Chuck Lanyard||TV movie|
|1983||Wizards and Warriors||Prince Erik Greystone||10 episodes|
|1984-1994||Murder, She Wrote||Howard Griffin / Nolan Walsh / Tom Powell||4 episodes, 1984, 1986, 1993, 1994|
|1985||Berrenger’s||John Higgins||11 episodes|
|1985||The Love Boat||Andy Jackson||1 episode|
|1985||Who’s the Boss?||Jeff||1 episode, 1985|
|1986||Matlock (NBC)||Daniel Ward||1 episode, “The Affair” (S01, E5)|
|1987||Bay Coven||Josh McGwin||TV movie|
|1987||Hotel||Eric Madison||1 episode|
|1984-1987||Mike Hammer||Harry Farris||2 episodes, 1984 and 1987|
|1987||Stingray||Ty Gardner||1 episode|
|1987||Tales from the Darkside||Peter||1 episode|
|1988||The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission||Sergeant Holt||Television movie|
|1989-1990||The Bold and the Beautiful||Mick Savage||61 episodes|
|1989||Freddy’s Nightmares||Buddy Powers||1 episode|
|1989||Monsters —||Phil||1 episode|
|1990||Good Grief||Winston Payne||1 episode|
|1990||Shades of L.A.||Richard||1 episode|
|1993||Matlock (ABC)||Slick/Waiter||1 episode, “Matlock’s Bad, Bad, Bad Dream” (S08, E11)|
|1994-1998||Babylon 5||Zack Allan||74 episodes|
|1995||Burke’s Law||Dr. Alex Kenyon||1 episode|
|1995||Hope and Gloria||Bud Green||1 episode|
|1996||Mr. & Mrs. Smith||Rich Edwards||1 episode|
|1997||George & Leo||1 episode, “The Cameo Episode”|
|1998||Babylon 5: The River of Souls||Zack Allan||TV movie|
|1998||Babylon 5: Thirdspace||Zack Allan||TV movie|
|1999||Babylon 5: A Call to Arms||Zack Allan||TV movie|
|2000||L.A. 7||Manager of Radio Station||1 episode|
|2004||She Spies||Zachary Mason||1 episode|
|2006||The John Kerwin Show||Guest||1 episode|
|2012||Planet Houston ||Scareglow||Voice, 1 episode, “Dedicated to Jeff Conaway”, Conaway’s final project|