Jeff Conaway was born on Oct. 5, 1950, in New York City, the middle son of a struggling actress and a hard-drinking ad man.
He landed his first acting job when he was 10, playing a sulky adolescent in the Broadway drama All the Way Home. He later worked as a model, played bit parts on TV, and spent a few semesters at N.Y.U. But he abandoned college when offered a chance to be the understudy in a new musical called Grease. Two years later, the show had become a massive hit and Conaway was starring as the lead.
When he was first approached about a movie version of Grease, Conaway felt sure that he'd be asked to reprise his leading role. Instead the starring roles went to John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Conaway was offered the role of Kenickie, Travolta’s bad-boy sidekick. Despite reservations, he accepted. The movie, which debuted in 1978, was the highest grossing film of the decade, turning the handsome young actor into a household name.
A few months after Grease opened, Conaway was chosen to play struggling actor Bobby Wheeler on NBC's new show Taxi. Though he was a huge hit with viewers, he was dismissed after three seasons, largely because of his increasing drug use after the show's first season. Taxi writer Sam Simon recalled in 2008 that during production of his first script for that show, Conaway was found in his dressing room too high on drugs to perform, so his dialogue for that episode was divided between his co-stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd.
When his problems with drinking and cocaine started to affect his career, Conaway sought treatment for substance abuse in a series of rehabs. But after managing several months of sobriety, he always returned to his old habits.
Following a brief stint on Babylon 5, the actor was unemployed for several years. In 2006 he was chosen to be team captain for season three of VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club. He arrived on the show looking like he hadn't slept in two days. After three episodes, he left to enter rehab.
Despite protests from his agents and managers, Conaway agreed to join the cast of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Ailing from long-time back problems, he showed up for the show's first episode wasted and in a wheelchair. Later he told Dr. Drew that he had binged on coke and Jack Daniels the night before. He admitted that he was addicted to cocaine, alcohol and painkillers. During a group session, he talked about being a victim of pedophiles and child pornographers as a seven-year-old boy. He also brought up the subject of suicide, telling Dr. Drew, "I see myself breaking that mirror and slicing my fucking throat with it."
Conaway told Inside Edition he finally kicked his drug habit by practicing Scientology at the urging of his old friend, John Travolta. “I've been doing Scientology...my doctor was like, Holy cow! Whatever you've been doing keep doing it because it's really working. John and I stayed friends but he couldn't watch me going down the tubes...he gave me a whole library of Scientology books and he's given me an auditor who comes almost every day."
Although Conaway said he had stopped using alcohol and cocaine, he rejoined Celebrity Rehab for a second season to cure his addiction to painkillers. But during the show's final episode, he was ordered to depart the treatment center after he kicked his girlfriend Victoria Spinozza in the ribs during a violent argument.
Conaway and his girlfriend, Victoria Spinoza, released a CD under the band name "Vikki and Kenickie." Called “Saints & Sinners,” the album included such song titles as “Krazee,” “Masturbate” and “I’m So High.” But the two had a volatile relationship. At one point they both got restraining orders, accusing each other of theft and violence.
Conaway told Entertainment Tonight, "My life is pretty much an open book. If I can help somebody avoid the mess that I made and the horrors that come from using drugs—it's all nice in the beginning, but afterwards it's not so nice."
Asked about his stint on Celebrity Rehab, Conaway confided to The Hollywood Reporter that the show's producers were constantly pressing him to to ramp up the drama. “I think people are just enamored with other people's problems because they have enough of their own, and they want to stop thinking about their own and think about somebody else's for a while. I think that's what television is all about, really."
Conaway told Entertainment Tonight, “When I used to get really loaded, I would go to bed and say, ‘I wonder if I’m gonna wake up.’ I’d be so out of it that I really expected to die in the middle of the night.”
Shortly after the overdose of actor Corey Haim, Conaway told E! News that he’d warned his old friend that he would die if he kept abusing prescription drugs. But he didn't seem to heed his own warning. In 2010, a serious fall left him with a brain hemorrhage, a broken hip and a fractured neck, and led to a series of surgeries. His chronic physical pain fueled his addiction to painkillers. Appearing on Howard Stern’s radio show he admitted, “I’ve tried to commit suicide 21 times.” Asked about his methods, he said, “Mostly it’s been with pills.”
Conaway’s girlfriend, Vikki Lizzi, told E! News: "This is just devastating. I tried to save him from himself by trying to get him help...He wants to die at home. He knows the meds are killing him. He can't get off them. He's talking about being burned on a boat and sent out to sea like a Viking funeral. It sends chills up my spine. We're all trying to save his life, and he's not listening."
Conaway was found unconscious after an apparent overdose of painkillers. Reports said he might have been in that state for 10 hours before he was found. His manager says the actor was suffering from pneumonia and was already sick at the time of the overdose.
For the next nine days the actor remained in a coma at Encino Tarzana Medical Center, surviving on life support. He never regained consciousness. Friends and family members flooded into his hospital room to deliver their last respects. But his girlfriend, Vicki Lizzi, was pointedly left out. When she demanded to see Conaway, the actor's sister got a judge to issue an injunction to bar her from the hospital. When it became clear that the he would not recover, the family decided to pull him off life support. He died a day later at the age of 60.
Conaway was pronounced dead in Encino, California, nine days after being put into a medically-induced coma. He was 60. Dr. Drew said on his HLN show, "Jeff was a severe, severe opiate addict with chronic pain, one of the most serious and dangerous combination of problems you could possibly interact with. The pain seemed to be motivating him back to the opiates, and I told him for years that it was going to kill him. What happens is, like with most opiate addicts, eventually they take a little too much, not much more than usual, and they aspirate, so what's in their mouth gets into their lungs. That causes a rapidly progressing and overwhelming pneumonia that they usually don't know that they have, because they're sort of too out of it because of the drugs and by the time they get to the hospital it's too late. That's what happened with Jeff."
Whether Dr. Drew is correct or not will not be known for another six weeks or so, when toxicology results taken during at a May 29 autopsy by the L.A. county coroner are due. Meantime, former colleagues including Grease stars Travolta and Newton-John, and Taxi's Marilu Henner, released statements paying tribute to Conaway. His agent, Phil Brock, conveying what may be the Hollywood community's peculiar view of the afterlife, told The Guardian, "We lost someone that we loved. [But] we know that right now, someone in heaven is getting a hickey from Kenickie."
Alison Prato is a writer and editor specializing in entertainment journalism. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar U.K., Health, New York, Playboy and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, baby and dog.
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