"Taxi," "Grease" Star Jeff Conaway Dies at 60

"It's sad that people remember his struggle with drugs ... he has touched so many people"

Friday, May 27, 2011  |  Updated 3:44 PM PDT
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Jeff Conaway has died.

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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," has died at the age of 60.

The actor was taken off life support Thursday and died Friday 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.

"Jeff Conaway was a wonderful and decent man, and we will miss him," John Travolta told E! News of his "Grease" co-star.

Conaway had been treating himself with pain pills and cold medicine while in weakened health, said Phil Brock, her 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 with drugs ... he has touched so many people," she said, calling Conaway a kind and 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 and sober," 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 Conaway 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'd 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," Conaway told the AP.

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 TV and radio personality Dr. Drew Pinsky. Conaway, who'd had back surgery, blamed his cocaine use and pain pill abuse in part on lingering pain.

Conaway was born in New York City on Oct. 5, 1950, to parents who were in show business. His father was an actor, producer and agent and his mother was an actress.

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 Conaway had spent a great deal of time with his grandparents who lived in the Astoria section of 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.

He toured in the national company of the comedy "Critic's Choice," then attended a professional high school for young actors, musicians and singers. After abandoning music he returned to acting with a two-year stint in "Grease," on Broadway (playing the lead role of Danny Zuko at one point) and eventually with the touring company.

The musical about high-school love brought 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 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).

"I got very depressed. Hollywood can be a terrible place when you're depressed. The pits. I decided I had to change my life and do different things," he said.

His movie career failed to ignite, however, and Conaway shifted back to TV with the short-lived 1983 fantasy series "Wizards and Warriors," and the 1985 flop "Berrengers," a drama set in a New York department store. He made a bid to return to Broadway in "The News," but the rock musical about tabloid journalism closed within days.

A 1994-98 stint in the sci-fi TV series "Babylon 5" as security chief Zack Allan proved successful, but it was followed by only scattered roles on stage, in films and TV shows. He was in the reality series "Celebrity Fit Club" in 2006 and then in "Celebrity Rehab," in which the frail Conaway used a wheelchair and blacked out on camera.

A fall in 2010 caused a broken hip and other injuries that left him in more precarious health.

Conaway told the Los Angeles Times in a January 2011 article that series producers asked him to "give them drama." But he also said he welcomed the support he received from those who viewed his struggle.

"I got a lot of love from people, and when people stop me on the street and say, 'Man, your story touched me so much,' it just makes all this pain worthwhile, you know?" he said. "I don't know where actors go after they die, but I know people who help other people have a nice place to go. And I would like to go there if I can."

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.

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