The prime-time Emmys were a few nights ago, and I didn’t watch it because, well, television is not my thing. It’s different when sports are on, but by and large, anything that is being turned out today doesn’t interest me at all. But a news story did arise from the Emmys, and it’s worth a few minutes of our time to look at it.
Apparently, like the Oscar awards show, the Emmys pay tribute to those in their field who have died within the past year. Some of the people, it seems, are in the “Wasn’t he/she already dead?” category, while others are in the “Not sure who that is, but someone thinks they’re important” group. And some–but not many–are in the “I can’t believe they aren’t with us anymore” group.
But the news story from last night wasn’t in any of those groups. Instead, it was the “celebrities who passed away in the last year but weren’t significant enough to make the RIP reel” group that drew attention. That group was headed by Jeff Conaway, who played Bobby Wheeler on Taxi for three seasons. But there’s more to it with Jeff Conaway than that.
Conaway was the understudy for the major male roles in Grease when it first went to Broadway in 1972. For years, he would show up at the theaters (and there were three of them in the first year of the show), not knowing who he would be playing that night, or if he would be onstage at all. And then, his big break came. Barry Bostwick, who had played Danny Zuko from the beginning, went to film The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Brad (Asshole!), and Conaway took over the role of Danny Zuko. He played this role for years as the show became a huge success on Broadway.
Along the way, another actor who had the same manager as Conaway joined the show in the lesser role of Doody. That actor was named John Travolta. When Travolta appeared on the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter in the fall of 1975, he became a huge star that went on to make movies such as Carrie and Saturday Night Fever.
When the time came to make Grease into a movie, Conaway probably thought that the lead role should have been his. Instead, he got passed over in favor of Travolta, and had to play the role of Kenickie instead. It did make him a star in a way that he never was before, but it had to be tough watching Doody, for crying out loud, take over as the hero.
Conaway later got the Taxi gig, but only appeared in about half of the episodes. He appeared in other TV shows, most notably Babylon 5 in the 90s, but any attention he got from the public seemed to be because of his various addictions. As Conaway’s manager put it, he wasn’t able to “exorcise his demons” before he fell into a coma and died in May of this year.
Conaway claimed that he was abused by others over the course of his life, and that probably contributed to his problems. But whenever the star of the show–any show–has to play second fiddle to the guy who was once in a minor role, it won’t end up good for someone. And Jeff Conaway happened to be that someone.
Grease came out of nowhere–if Taft High School on the northwest side of Chicago fits that description–and will be playing on a stage somewhere for decades to come. Jeff Conaway was a part of that, in a bigger way than most people know about. And that’s what helped lead to his downfall, three decades later.