Jeff Conaway, star of Taxi and Grease and of an unfortunate tabloid/reality-TV saga, has died at age 60, after being taken off life support following a reported overdose of painkillers. It is sad news, and news that most of us would be lying to say we were shocked by. As chronicled on Celebrity Rehab, Conaway had fought addiction for years, and his ravaged appearance and voice on that show were an uncomfortable reminder of how much the years of abuse had cost him. (It also raised the uncomfortable question of whether the show, and shows like it, were helping or exploiting Conaway and those like him.)
But before Conaway became a cautionary tale, the world knew him as a young, vibrant actor, exuding flash as Kenickie in Grease and, on television, as Taxi’s Bobby Wheeler, an actor struggling in a very different way.
Taxi was a sitcom about work done by people who would rather be working somewhere else, and its characters broke down roughly into two groups: the relatively normal, relatable ones (Alex, Elaine) and the more extreme sitcom characters (Latka, Rev. Jim, Louie). Bobby was a sort of bridge between the two groups, with some of the comical bubbleheadedness of the show’s broader characters and the sympathetic, poignant difficulties of the more realistic ones.
Conaway gave the character brashness and vulnerability; he was a good-looking guy who, though not the brightest guy in the room, to some extent knew that his looks were most of what he had going for him. He had a little bit of the swagger of Conaway’s Grease character, with the bittersweet element of the knowledge that he was getting older, and not necessarily going to get where he wanted to go. He toughed his way through disappointments, from missing out on an audition to getting bad reviews, and Conaway gave him a wide-eyed eagerness that made it possible to connect with, and laugh with, a character it would be easy just to laugh at. And in scenes like the one above—in which Bobby helps coach Jim through a driving test—Conaway was able to turn the mere act of trying to think into physical comedy.
Like Bobby’s, Conaway’s career may not have gone exactly where he wanted it to, but today is a good day to remember the better parts. RIP.