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'Taxi,' 'Grease' star Jeff Conaway dies at 60

In this Oct. 13, 2009 file photo, Jeff Conaway arrives at the 2009 Fox Reality Channel Really Awards in Los Angeles. Conaway, who starred in 'Taxi' and played Danny Zuko's buddy Kenickie in 1978's 'Grease,' has died at a Los Angeles area hospital. He was 60. In this Oct. 13, 2009 file photo, Jeff Conaway arrives at the 2009 Fox Reality Channel Really Awards in Los Angeles. Conaway, who starred in "Taxi" and played Danny Zuko's buddy Kenickie in 1978's "Grease," has died at a Los Angeles area hospital. He was 60. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
By Lynn Elber
AP Television Writer / May 27, 2011

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LOS ANGELES—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," died Friday. He was 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.

"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."

Family members, including Conway's sisters, nieces and nephews, and his minister, were with him when he died, Boole said.

He was taken to the hospital unconscious on May 11 and placed in a medically induced coma while being treated for pneumonia and sepsis, which is blood poisoning caused by a bacterial infection.

Conaway had failed to seek medical aid, instead trying to treat himself with pain pills and cold medicine, said Phil Brock, Boole's business partner.

"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.

Conaway is the second person who appeared in the VH1 reality series "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" who later died. In March, former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, who was on the show in 2009, was found dead in Salt Lake City. The month before, police there had arrested him on suspicion of possession of medications without a required prescription.

Messages seeking comment from the show's Dr. Drew Pinsky, a physician and radio and TV personality, were not immediately returned Friday.

On his HLN network show, "Dr. Drew," Pinsky said Friday he was angry about Conaway's death, decrying what he called the ready availability of prescription opiates for a "severe drug addict" with chronic pain like Conaway.

"I told him for years it was going to kill him," Pinksy said.

What happened to Conaway is not uncommon, he said: An addict consumes too much of a drug, it enters the user's lungs and causes rapidly progressing pneumonia that he or she fails to recognize because of impairment.

There is no evidence Conaway intentionally overdosed, Pinsky said.

Conaway 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 in two stints on "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew." Conaway, who'd had repeated back surgeries for an injury, blamed his cocaine use and pain pill abuse in part on his lingering back problem.

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 play "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 -- playing vain, struggling actor Bobby Wheeler -- 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 Rona Newton-John, sister of singer and Conaway's fellow "Grease" star Olivia Newton-John, and then to Kerri Young. It was unclear if he and Young were married at the time of his death, Boole said.

Details on funeral plans were unavailable Friday.