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Jeff Conaway, the troubled actor of Taxi and Grease fame whose addiction problems were well chronicled for years by reality TV and the media, has died, his manager, Phil Brock, confirms to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 60.
He was taken off life support Thursday (May 26) and died Friday at 10:30 a.m. in Encino, nine days after being put into a medically induced coma. He was surrounded by his sisters, nieces, nephews and ministers.
“We loved Jeff as a person, respected him as a consummate performer and entertainer. Somewhere in heaven, somebody is getting a hickey from Kenickie,” Brock said. “On a darker side, we’re happy his personal struggles are now over. We do not have memorial plans yet. The family has asked for forbearance and privacy today. It’s a very difficult time.”PHOTOS: Stars gone too soon
“Our staff has been with him through his struggle over the last few years,” Brock adds. “He is one of the nicest, kindest people. The most gentle person, and that may have been his downfall in the long run. He was a really nice guy in general, a person who would give the shirt off his back for anyone. He loved and lived to be on stage and entertaining others.”
Brock said the actor was found unconscious May 11 after an apparent overdose of painkillers. Reports said he might have been in that state for 10 hours before being found. Brock said the actor was suffering from pneumonia and already was sick at the time of the overdose.
The actor discussed his addiction struggles as part of the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew in 2008. He was a team captain for Season 3 of the cable outlet’s Celebrity Fit Club in 2006 but struggled and left after three episodes to enter rehab.
Conaway was on the record as saying producers of those reality shows told him to amp up the drama, and he told THR‘s Shirley Halperin in a March 2009 interview: “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.” PHOTOS: An icon on-set
Conaway was born Oct. 5, 1950, in New York and began acting as a child; his first Broadway credit was 1960’s All the Way Home. He later was an understudy in the long-running original Main Stem production of Grease and eventually took over the lead role of Danny Zuko. He also toplined the ill-fated 1985 Broadway musical The News, which ran for only four performances.
Conaway got his big break with NBC’s sitcom Taxi, playing the vain struggling actor/cab driver Bobby. The show was a critical hit but struggled in the ratings despite its cast of stars including Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Tony Danza, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd and Andy Kaufman. Conaway was nominated for Golden Globes in 1979 and ’80 but left the show after the third season, though he guest-starred in two episodes during Season 4.
He is perhaps best known for co-starring as Kenickie in the 1978 film adaptation of Grease, the highest-grossing musical domestically with $188.4 million. Conaway featured prominently in two of the film’s most popular musical numbers, which also were released as singles: “Summer Nights,” which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Greased Lightnin’,” which failed to crack the Top 40.
Grease starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and Conaway married Newton-John’s sister Rona in 1980. They divorced in 1985. Conway’s second marriage was to Kerri Young.
Conaway had scores of roles during his 40-year career in TV and film, including a 1989-90 stint on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. His most prominent post-Taxi TV role was as Zack Allan on the cable sci-fi series Babylon 5 from 1994-98. He also appeared in three Babylon telefilms during the late ’90s.
He mostly did TV guest roles on such shows as Murder, She Wrote, Happy Days and Barnaby Jones. His film credits include The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Pete’s Dragon (1977) and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988). He also wrote and directed the 1992 direct-to-video sequel Bikini Summer 2.
But Conaway’s name most often surfaced in connection with his drug and alcohol problems. U.K. newspaper the Mirror reported that he pulled a knife on Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis backstage at a Marilyn Manson concert in Los Angeles in May 2008.
While attempting to clean up after that incident and his Dr. Drew appearance, the troubled actor fell down a staircase in January 2010 and suffered a fractured neck and a brain hemorrhage, as well as a broken hip and arm. He was released from a nursing facility in April 2010 and was said at the time to be weaning off painkillers, an addiction stemming from an earlier back surgery.
“Unfortunately, most people think: ‘It’s not gonna happen to me. You’ll see; I can do it.’ But, it does happen to you,” Conaway told Halperin. “Before you know it, you’re hooked and locked down. And it’s not a pretty ride.”
Brock said Conaway had a rough childhood. “When he was 7 years old, his grandmother let him taste the moonshine she made in her bathtub; when he was 10 and a child actor, his dad took all his money and ran away,” Brock told Reuters. “Later, Jeff had the world in his hand and would find ways to destroy it.”
Brock said that during the past month, Grease co-star John Travolta offered to pay for Conaway to go to rehab. “Jeff wasn’t opposed to it, but he wasn’t ready yet,” Brock said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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