Jeff Conaway

Globe Photos/

It was always something with Jeff Conaway.

The actor's life was a string of near misses.

The role that could've made him. The fire that could've killed him. The rehab stints that might've saved him.

Born in New York City in 1950, Conaway was a fast starter. Acting on Broadway at the age of 10. Opening for classic rock acts such as The Animals as a teenager. Starring as T-Bird leader Danny Zuko in the stage version of Grease in his early 20s.

As Zuko, Conaway joined an elite group of young leading men, including John Travolta, who'd strutted in the role on Broadway.

"I knew sooner or later that a movie would be made of Grease, and one of us would do it," Conaway said in 1978, "whoever was the biggest star."

By the time the film was cast, Travolta was the biggest star—a bona fide heartthrob. And so he was anointed Zuko. Conaway was cast as the sidekick, Kenickie; his character's show-stopper from the stage, "Greased Lightning," was reassigned. 

Released in 1978, Grease was an instant smash that made superstars of Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

Conaway professed no bitterness. He was tall, blond and handsome—a "stud," as Newton-John described Conaway to her sister, Rona, who would marry the actor. He moved from Grease straight into Taxi. The workplace sitcom won Emmys, but Conaway wasn't happy with his character, Bobby Wheeler, an actor who made a better cabbie.  

"I didn't like the way he was being written to represent actors," Conaway said in 1981, the same year he left the show, three seasons into its five-season run. "It was coming down to that same old self-centered, egocentric stereotype everybody already thinks of."

While Taxi was hardly a ratings hit, the show was respected, and Conaway's departure was viewed as unwise, especially after his subsequent 1980s series, including Wizards and Warriors, for its day the most expensive show in prime time, came and went quickly.

Conaway again professed no bitterness. He said he didn't regret leaving Taxi, and he claimed to be glad to be done with TV, although it seemed just as likely that TV was done with him, too, at least as a leading man.   

In his 40s, he landed a supporting role on Babylon 5, the cult sci-fi series that was a bright spot in his increasingly dark world, marked by DUI busts and more.    

"I spent a good part of my life on substances—alcohol, pot, cocaine," Conaway told E! News in 2010.

The temptations dated back at least to his rock days. "I thought if I stay in this business, I'll be dead in a year," he said in 1985.

Death seemed to loom large in Conaway's thoughts—and he had his share of scrapes. In the 1970s, he credited his dog with saving him from a house fire. In 2008, he told Howard Stern he'd tried to commit suicide 21 times. "Mostly it's been with pills," he said. "I've taken enough pills to knock an elephant out."

Few who heard his slurred, slowed speech in interviews doubted the toll of his addictions; few who saw his two stints on Celebrity Rehab doubted his physical and emotional pain. (For what it's worth, Conaway insisted he was merely playing to the cameras.)

Maybe missed connections and lost opportunities caught up with him, or maybe they never mattered.

Maybe. Could've been. Might've been.

The story of Conaway's life.

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share