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Jeff Conaway: Greased Lightning

by Legacy Staff

His acting career began at age 10 and spanned 40 years, but Jeff Conaway was known best for his role as John Travolta’s sidekick, Kenickie, in the hit 1978 movie Grease.

His acting career began at age 10 and spanned 40 years, but Jeff Conaway was known best for his role as John Travolta’s sidekick, Kenickie, in the hit 1978 movie Grease.

The movie is named in the headline of almost every news story and obituary published after Conaway died May 27, 2011, at 60.


Conaway struggled with emotional issues and drug and alcohol addiction, and his final onscreen appearances were on a reality show devoted to detox.

But Conaway’s legacy is much more than that.

His performance career began in 1960, when at age 10 he was featured in Broadway’s All The Way Home with Lillian Gish and Colleen Dewhurst. He was in the original cast of the Broadway musical Grease, moving from understudy to the lead role of Danny Zuko. (John Travolta was in the chorus.)

He made appearances on television shows including Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore, Barnaby Jones and Kojak and films including Pete’s Dragon.

Conaway charmed audiences in the movie Grease with his smooth delivery of lines like, “You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’?” and “A hickie from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card: when you only care enough to send the very best!”

From there, he moved to the television series Taxi, spending three seasons on the hit show.

Conaway earned two Golden Globe nominations for best supporting actor for his portrayal of struggling actor Bobby Wheeler. His Wheeler exhibited both brashness and vulnerability, projecting “a wide-eyed eagerness that made it possible to connect with, and laugh with, a character it would be easy just to laugh at,” Time magazine critic James Poniewozik wrote in a remembrance.

After leaving Taxi, Conaway made a movie, appeared on two short-lived television series and went back to Broadway. Each was a flop.

At age 39, Conaway was acting on the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. A 1989 article in People magazine detailed how Conaway became the show’s MVP, or “Most Valuable Puckerer.”

“In his role as the much-in-love photographer Mick Savage, Conaway is putting the moves on actress Teri Ann Linn,” the article said. “They kiss. And kiss. And kiss. After several takes, the smooched-out Linn finally looks to the control room and asks, ‘Can I come up for some air?’ Conaway simply smiles, throws up his arms and says happily, ‘What a life!'”

Conaway was open about his struggles with addiction and multiple suicide attempts. He spent two seasons on the reality show Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.

His early death was attributed to advanced pneumonia. The Los Angeles Times said his drug use “caused him not to realize how ill he was, keeping him from getting treatment for pneumonia until it was too late,”

“He is one of the nicest, kindest people. The most-gentle person, and that may have been his downfall in the long run,” his manager, Phil Brock, told The Hollywood Reporter. “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 onstage and entertaining others.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”

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