Jeff Conaway, actor starred in ‘Grease,’ TV’s ‘Taxi’; at 60

JEFF CONAWAY JEFF CONAWAY (M. Buckner/Getty Images/File 2006)
By Lynn Elber
Associated Press / May 28, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — Jeff Conaway, who starred in the sitcom “Taxi,’’ played swaggering Kenickie in the movie musical “Grease,’’ and publicly battled drug and alcohol addiction on “Celebrity Rehab,’’ died yesterday. He was 60.

The actor was taken off life support Thursday and died yesterday morning at Encino Tarzana Medical Center, according to one of his managers, Kathryn Boole. He was taken there unconscious on May 11 and placed in a medically induced coma.

Mr. Conaway had been treating himself with painkillers and cold medicine while in weakened health, said Phil Brock, Boole’s business partner.

Family members, including his sisters, nieces, and nephews, and his minister, were with him when he died, Boole said.

“It’s sad that people remember his struggle. . . . He has touched so many people,’’ she said, calling Mr. Conaway a kind, intelligent man who was well read and “always so interesting to talk to. We respected him as an artist and loved him as a friend.’’

“He was trying so hard to get clean,’’ Boole added. “If it hadn’t been for his back pain, I think he would have been able to do it.’’

“He’s a gentle soul with a good heart . . . but he’s never been able to exorcise his demons,’’ Brock said after he was hospitalized.

The actor had acknowledged his addictive tendencies in a 1985 interview with the Associated Press, when he described turning his back on the dream of a pop music career. He had played guitar in a 1960s band called 3 1/2 that was the opening act for groups including Herman’s Hermits, the Young Rascals, and the Animals.

“I thought, ‘If I stay in this business, I’ll be dead in a year.’ There were drugs all over the place and people were doing them. I had started to do them. I realized that I’d die,’’ he said.

His effort to avoid addiction failed and his battles with cocaine and other substances were painfully shared on “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,’’ the VH1 series with television and radio personality Dr. Drew Pinsky. Mr. Conaway, who had back surgery, blamed his cocaine use and pill abuse in part on lingering pain.

Mr. Conaway was born in New York City to parents who were in show business.

He made his Broadway debut in 1960 at the age of 10 in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “All the Way Home.’’ By then his parents were divorced, and Mr. Conaway had spent a great deal of time with his grandparents, who lived in Queens.

“I used to hold in a lot of feelings. I’d smile a lot but I was really miserable. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve figured it out since. When I was on stage, I could make people laugh,’’ he said in 1985.

After abandoning music he returned to acting with a two-year stint in “Grease,’’ on Broadway and eventually with the touring company.

The musical about high school love brought Mr. Conaway to Los Angeles and television, including a small part on “Happy Days’’ that led to larger roles. He had roles in small films and then in the movie version of “Grease’’ (1978), although he lost the top-billed part to John Travolta.

In 1978, he won the “Taxi’’ job that put him in the company of Judd Hirsch, Danny de Vito, and Andy Kaufman in what proved to be a hit for ABC.

The tall, gangly actor, with a shock of blond hair and what the late longtime AP drama critic Michael Kuchwara called a “wide-angle smile’’ and “a television face, just right for popular consumption,’’ appeared a success.

But Mr. Conaway, who received two Golden Globe nominations for “Taxi,’’ said he tired early of being a series regular, although he stayed with the series for three years, until 1981 (“Taxi’’ ended in 1983 after moving to NBC the year before).

Mr. Conaway was wed twice, first to Kerri Young and then to Rona Newton-John, sister of pop star Olivia Newton-John. Both marriages ended in divorce.