Growing up, I had thought of Jeff Conaway‘s career as star-crossed. But in the final years of his life – which ended today when he was taken off life support after years of struggling with drugs – it became clear that some of the problems in Conaway’s career lay not in the stars, but in himself.
Conaway was most famous for playing two roles that hit screens in 1978: as Kenickie in the movie version of “Grease,” and as cocky aspiring actor Bobby Wheeler on “Taxi.” Conaway had, in fact, played the lead role of Danny Zuko when “Grease” was still a stage musical, but he clearly wasn’t considered famous enough to headline the movie version, and the role went to John Travolta – who also scarfed up the show-stopping song “Greased Lightning,” which Kenickie sings in the play but Danny sang in the movie. Years later, while appearing as a haunting cautionary tale on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab,” Conaway would insist that the other actors had dropped him while filming that number, which led to a prescription painkiller addiction.
Conaway was only a regular in three of the five seasons of “Taxi.” Bobby often seemed like a problematic character for the writers to come up with stories for. Not only did he occupy a similar spot on the kinda-dumb, kinda-not continuum with Tony Danza’s character, but there were only so many times the show could do episodes about how Bobby just missed out on an audition. On occasion, though, they came up with a great idea for a Bobby story, like this episode where Danny DeVito’s Louie asks Bobby to impersonate him at his high school reunion so the kids who used to torment him wouldn’t see what he (didn’t) grow up to be (this is the full episode; jump to around the 10:20 mark for where it gets good):
I had assumed that Bobby was written out because there wasn’t much else the writers could do with him, while their attentions had obviously turned towards other, stranger characters like Christopher Lloyd’s Reverend Jim and Andy Kaufman’s Latka. And that was partly true, but the answer may have been more complicated. Not long after Conaway unfortunately came back into the public eye with “Celebrity Rehab,” “Taxi” writer Sam Simon called into Howard Stern’s show and explained that Conaway had problems with drugs while they were making the show, and that on at least one episode they had to give most of his lines to his co-stars – and in the process realized just how thin and irrelevant a character Bobby Wheeler had become to the show.
Conaway hung around the business for the next 30 years, never again approaching the profile of those two early gigs with any acting work. (The most prominent – and certainly longest-lasting – post-“Taxi” job was as “Babylon 5” security officer Zack Allan.) But he kept struggling with addiction, and ultimately achieved a new level of infamy with those “Celebrity Rehab” appearances. Where many of the show’s other participants seemed to be doing it mainly for the publicity, it was clear that Conaway – who arrived in a wheelchair, badly slurring his words and talking about the cocaine binge he had the night before – had a very grave problem, a problem that Dr. Drew Pinsky was never able to do much about.
Having seen some of those early “Celebrity Rehab” episodes, I was prepared for the news about his death, but I’d much rather push that image out of my mind and think about the young, confident, talented Conaway, who could do such a spot-on Danny DeVito impression, or who could perform one of the all-time great TV comedy duets with Lloyd in this classic scene where Bobby and the others help Jim pass his driving test. I’ve embedded the entire scene, which is hilarious all-around, but the famous part between Lloyd and Conaway comes around the 4-minute mark.
If Simon and the other “Taxi” writers ultimately decided that Bobby had become interchangeable with the other characters, this scene is a nice reminder of the specific role he played in the show’s early days. The gag is funny enough on its own that it would still work with Alex or Elaine or Tony as the unfortunate foil, but there’s something that feels particularly inspired about choosing Bobby, who fancied himself cool and cocky and fast-moving, and who has to really rein all of that in to do a good deed for this weirdo.
Rest in peace, Jeff Conaway. Whenever the history of TV comedy is considered, “What does a yellow light mean?” is going to be in the discussion, and he was one-half of that. It’s maybe not the legacy he might have hoped for as a rising actor in the ’70s, but it’s better than most actors – including wannabes like Bobby Wheeler – ever come close to achieving.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com