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History and Interview with Jeff Conaway of Grease, Taxi Fame

After stint on Celebrity Rehab, it seemed unlikely he would've gotten sober

  • Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez in "Midnight in Paris."
  • Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez in "Midnight in Paris."
  • Owen Wilson as Gil in "Midnight in Paris."
  • Owen Wilson as Gil and Rachel McAdams as Inez in "Midnight in Paris."
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  • Owen Wilson as Gil in "Midnight in Paris."
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The best sitcom ever, was Taxi. It’s not even close.

I told Jeff Conaway that right before our interview, two years ago. He walked in very slow, with his body hunched over at a 90 degree angle. He was using a cane and it was painful to see. As he sat down, I said, "All my friends think Seinfeld is the best sitcom ever. No sitcom is better than Taxi." He smiled and said “Why would anyone say Seinfeld? It was a show about nothing.”

As he put his cane down to his right, he said his back injury, occurred during a fall, just keeps getting worse and worse. In 2010, he had another bad fall, which resulted in a broken hip and other injuries which some reports said were serious.

Last week, reports came out that Conaway overdosed on pain pills and cold medicine. He was brought to the hospital unconscious, and placed in a medically induced coma. Thursday evening he was taken off life support, and passed away Friday morning at Encino Tarzana Medical Center. One of his managers, Kathryn Boole, said “His family members, including sisters, nieces and nephews, and his minister, were with him when he died. He was trying so hard to get clean and sober. If it hadn’t been for his back pain, I think he would have been able to do it.”

For those of us that watched him on Dr. Drew’s reality show Celebrity Rehab, it seems unlikely he would’ve gotten sober.

Another member of Celebrity Rehab, bassist Mike Starr of Alice in Chains, passed away two months ago (at age 44). It makes me wonder how sober any of these celebrities get - Dr. Drew has them for a mere two weeks, and they film enough of them to make months worth of shows, which seems rather exploitive. Conaway had already appeared on Celebrity Rehab when we talked.

I didn’t want to tick him off with my first question, but I went with it anyway.

Does it bother you that John Travolta had the lead in Grease, when you who had the lead on Broadway? "No, no. We had a great time doing the film. Travolta was the star. The casting worked."

As he took a drink of water, I debated whether to bring up the fact that Travolta’s love interest in the film was Olivia Newton-John. In real life, he met Olivia’s sister Rona on the set, and had a five year marriage to her. I opted not to bring it up. She was Conaway’s second wife. As I prepare my next question, he starts to talk about his current girlfriend, Vikki. I remembered on the Celebrity Rehab, she seemed to be enabling him with his addiction. He would often yell at her for various things – both big and small. Conaway said “I’ve always been a performer. Not just acting in movies and TV, or on stage. I was a musician, too. We have a new musical act we do now called ‘Vikki and Kenickie’.” I asked him where we could see that performed and he smiled and said “Coming soon to a theatre near you. Maybe not, but you can order the CD off MySpace.”

Conaway died at 60, and having a life long battle with drugs and alcohol, I was surprised at how good he looked. His body might not be able to stand up straight, but he still had his matinee idol looks, even with a few years on him. He had a 40 year battle with drugs and alcohol. The last arrest of his to make news was in 1990, when he was convicted of a DUI for sideswiping a bicycle rider in Santa Monica.

I asked Conaway if he knew he wanted to act as a child. He said that he didn’t give it a lot of thought when he was little, and he started telling me about the abuse he suffered. He said that he was tortured by neighborhood boys, and another time, he was sexually abused. He didn’t give me many details and the things he said, I wasn’t writing down.

Conaway said “I thought more about music than acting. In the ‘60s, I was in band called 3 ½ (I couldn’t understand the name of the band he said, but I looked it up later). We opened for some big groups, including Herman’s Hermits. Remember them?”

Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and I’m Into Somethin’ Good. Their singer Peter Noone still tours. “His voice sounds great, still. Drugs were everywhere at that time, and I was using.”

I told him I thought everybody in music was doing drugs in the ‘60s. He said “Not everyone. I don’t think I ever saw Pete partake.”

It’s weird that you went into music, when you were on the Broadway stage in 1960, at the age of 10. It must’ve been great wanting to get into show business and growing up in New York City. “It was better luck that my father was an actor and producer. My mom was an actress, too.”

Conaway ended up touring with Critic’s Choice, and attended a high school for musicians and actors. He got a two-year stint in Grease on Broadway, as the lead of Danny Zucko. He ended up getting a small part in a TV show with another leather jacket wearing rebel in Happy Days. That led to him getting bigger roles, and finally a big part in Grease (although not as Zucko, but Kenickie). That same year (1978) he was cast in Taxi, with Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner, Judd Hirsch, and comedic odd-ball Andy Kaufman. Conaway played the cabbie that was trying to make it as an actor. The show made it, and was a hit for ABC. He ended up getting two Golden Globe nominations, but left the show two years before it’s final run in 1983.

Conaway found out what many actors before and after him also discovered – you can’t always make the leap to the big screen success you had on TV. So in 1983, he returned to TV for show called Wizards and Warriors. When he returned to Broadway in a rock musical called The News – it seemed like a match made in heaven for this former rocker. It closed after a few days.

The next really big thing he did was a four-year run in the sci-fi hit Babylon 5, starting in 1994. It would be another eight years before he made it back onto the radar, with Celebrity Fit Club. I said to Conaway, “I thought you had to be fat to be on that show.” He smiled and said “You didn’t watch. I had some extra weight. I needed to lose some of the pounds. I think more people saw the Rehab show. That’s probably a good thing. People have said my story touched them, so that’s nice to know.”

As we talk about Celebrity Rehab, he tells me, “They milked all the drama from the situations that were happening and showed all the exciting stuff. There was a lot of time we just sit around doing nothing, smoking cigarettes.” I immediately thought about the scene where he blacked out in a wheelchair, or some shouting matches he had with his girlfriend and other cast members.

Since I was talking to Conaway at a mini Grease reunion in Los Angeles, I saw some of the other cast members at the table. The director, and everyone from the cast, aside from Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, and John Travolta are here. I overheard somebody say “What are the chances Travolta will show up?” As Conaway is shaking hands and happy to see Barry Pearl (Doody), he turns his head to the guy that said this and responds, “That isn’t going to happen.”

I wanted to ask about his being involved in Scientology, which he said in some interview was helping with his battle against drugs. Travolta is one of the handful of famous actors involved in it.

It’s a shame that we lost another actor that never lived up to his potential, and somebody that could possibly be remembered more for his two celebrity reality shows. I’ll think about him the next time I hear Harry Chapin’s ballad Taxi.

There’s a line in there about him having a “wizard inside him” (Wizards and Warriors); and the song about a man leading an unhappy life driving a taxi, ends with the lyrics:

She was gonna be an actress/And I was gonna learn to fly

She took off to find the footlights/And I took off for the sky.

And here she’s acting happy/Inside her handsome home

And me, I’m flying in my taxi/Taking tips, and getting stoned

I go flying so high/When I’m stoned.