A feathered-hair heartthrob during a brief period in the 1970s, Jeff Conaway's career became rocky following his moment in the sun as Kenickie in the musical "Grease" (1978) and his stint on the classic ABC sitcom, "Taxi" (ABC, 1978-1982). His three years on the sci-fi series "Babylon 5" (TNT, 1994-98) notwithstanding, Conaway's career during the 1980s and 1990s consisted mainly of made-for-TV and direct-to-video films, with his high-profile drug and alcohol abuse earning him the most attention. From his appearance in 2006 on VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" (VH1, 2005- ), the actor slid further, ending up on the network's "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" (VH1, 2008- ), where the frail and seemingly suicidal actor bore almost no resemblance to the handsome smart aleck whose career had once been so promising. In the end, Conaway became a kind of cautionary tale of addiction, dying much too young after numerous public struggles.
Born Oct. 5, 1950, Conaway was raised in New York City. He hit the boards of Broadway at age 10, appearing with Colleen Dewhurst and Lillian Gish in "All the Way Home" (1960). At 20, he made an eerily prescient feature film debut as a druggie in the heroin-soaked "Jennifer on My Mind" (1971). After making his debut in the syndicated "Sea to Shining Sea" in 1974, he began making guest appearances on numerous series, among them "Movin' On" (NBC, 1974-76) and "Happy Days" (ABC, 1974-1984). During that time, Conaway served as an understudy during the Broadway run of "Grease," eventually taking over the lead role of cocky Danny Zuko.
The film adaptation of the musical "Grease" would mark Conaway's big screen break in 1978, though the lesser-known actor had to cede the leading role to the newly minted star John Travolta by playing the second male lead, sexually active tough guy, Kenickie. No matter. From the moment Conaway's vulgar T-Bird with a soft spot for "Greased Lightning" cars and fast women hit the screen, he managed to steal scenes from not only Travolta, but his onscreen girlfriend, Stockard Channing, who memorably played his hardened Pink Lady, Rizzo. The same year - in an incredible 1-2 punch of good luck - he was cast as Bobby Wheeler, the handsome (if dimwitted) out-of-work actor who moonlights as a cabbie on the classic sitcom "Taxi." Holding his own opposite such veteran actors as Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch and comic oddballs like Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd, Conaway earned Golden Globe nominations for his performance in 1979 and 1980.
During his high-profile stint on "Taxi," Conaway continued to try to make inroads towards a film career with TV movie turns as a love-struck medical student in "For the Love of It" (ABC, 1980) and a country singer kidnapped by two female convicts in "Nashville Grab" (ABC, 1981). Conaway left "Taxi" in 1982 with his sights set on a film career, but he was back on TV the following year in the heroic role of Prince Erik Greystone on the fantasy adventure series, "Wizards and Warriors" (CBS, 1983), and supporting Joan Collins in "The Making of a Male Model" (ABC, 1983). Conaway was cast as the lothario who could barely keep his pants zipped on the short-lived "Berrengers" (NBC, 1985), but by the mid-1980s, his problems with drugs and alcohol were coming to light. The actor was very open about his addiction and the steps he was taking to get his life back on track.
After a round of rehab, Conaway seemed back on track when he was cast as one of the team of the revived "Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission" (NBC, 1988), and after an appearance in the campy movie, "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark" (1988). He was invited to join the CBS soap "The Bold and the Beautiful" (1987- ), but after less than a year on the series, the out-of-control actor was back in the headlines when he sideswiped a bicycle rider on Santa Monica Boulevard in L.A. and was arrested for drunk driving. He was ordered to 60 days house arrest and three years probation with mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous five days per week for three years. During the 1990s, Conway starred in numerous low budget and direct-to-video productions, such as "A Time to Die" (1991) and "Almost Pregnant" (1992). He was associate producer of "Sunset Strip" and made his directorial debut with "Bikini Summer," both released direct-to-video in 1992. Finally in the mid-1990s, Conaway found some stability portraying security chief Zack Allan on three seasons of the sci-fi series "Babylon 5." Things continued to look up when he returned to his Broadway roots in 1997, this time playing disc jockey Vince Fontaine in the revival of "Grease."
By 2006, however, Conaway's career dipped when he appeared on VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club." Sadder still, he was forced to leave the show due to a drug relapse and in 2008, a wheelchair-bound, incoherent Conaway was relocated to another VH1 reality series, "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." During his unsuccessful attempt to stay clean, the suicidal ex-heartthrob admitted he had been a drug addict since he was a teenager, and had problems staying away from the painkillers he was prescribed for a serious back problem. When it was deemed that Dr. Drew and the rehab facility could not help the ailing Conaway, he left and was taking painkillers on camera shortly thereafter. In early 2010, Conaway's health declined further after he fell in his home and suffered a broken hip, a broken arm, a fractured neck and a brain hemorrhage. The story only became sadder when in May 2011, Conaway was found unconscious - lying on the floor for perhaps as long as 10 hours - before being rushed to the hospital. His manager confirmed the actor was in a deep coma and was suffering from pneumonia and sepsis, a severe bacterial illness. On May 27, 2011, Conaway died after his family took him off life support, with the actor never having gained consciousness. He was 60 years old.