Unfortunately, Jeff Conaway's journey wasn't as charming as his looks. He grew up a survivor, he experienced the highs and lows of fame with humility and determination, yet he just couldn't get to win the fight against his crippling addiction.
1. He Grew Up Among Artists
Jeffrey Charles William Michael Conaway came to the world on October 5, 1950. His birthplace was New York City, and his parents were actors—so shouldn't be a surprise he chose acting as a career. His parents did not only theatre, but they also had ventures in music, producing, and publishing, which probably influenced Conaway too.
Sadly, the only thing that Conaway’s parents failed was something that mattered to Conaway the most—their marriage.
2. He Sought Shelter In The South
When Conaway was only three years old, his parents split up and Mrs. Conaway took Jeff away from his father. Conaway and his two sisters moved to South Caroline to live with their grandparents. Little Jeffrey was a toddler, so he probably had all his first memories down South—which paved the way for a mind-blowing adventure.
3. His Accent Was “Spot-On”
Mother Conaway was still going to auditions, yet she started to bring her ten-year-old son with her. One day, she took Conaway to a casting call for a Broadway play where he could showcase his talent—and most importantly, his Southern accent. Not surprisingly, Conaway charmed his way into a little role in this sensational play. He was ecstatic…until he learned the dark truth behind being in a Broadway play.
4. He Worked Too Hard
Even though it was Conaway’s dream to be on stage, from November 1960 to October 1961, all this teenager did was perform—the play ran 333 performances. Not only did he spend his childhood playing All The Way Home, but he also did another play called The Critic’s Choice in which he toured the country with the national company.
The schedule was grueling, and he was only a kid. He needed a way out.
5. He Even Played In A Rock Band
The 15-year-old heartthrob took a break from acting to give music a chance. He became the singer and guitarist for a rock band called “The 3 1/2”. In the following two years, he recorded a couple of singles—but everything couldn't come as quickly as acting. His band went nowhere—until fate finally brought him back home to New York, with a surprise in hand.
6. He Had An Enigmatic Marriage
When he was 21, Conaway tied the knot with an unnamed dancer. Both his wife and their marriage were mysterious as ever—no information about the union seems to exist. Moreover, this mysterious marriage ended in an even more enigmatic way: The two received an annulment shortly after they got married.
Conaway's life before his fame is mostly a mystery—but we do know one thing: This girl was about to regret losing Conaway after his next move.
7. He Scored A Cool Role
In 1972, Conaway got a role in a production that would be associated with his name for a long time. You guessed it right…it was Grease. However, you also might have guessed it wrong because Conaway didn’t play his iconic role on the magical stage of Broadway. Instead, he played Danny Zuko, a role people associate with John Travolta—who was about to be part of a puzzling role swap.
8. He Met A Lifelong Buddy
Conaway played the famous Danny Zuko for two years. Then he met John Travolta, who joined the Broadway cast. Travolta played a secondary character, Doody, and the two became close friends in no time. Sharing the same manager, both Travolta and Conaway scored roles in the movie debut of the same show—Grease.
But the tables were about to turn.
9. He Became The “Sidekick”
After the two got the news, Conaway made a painful realization: He wouldn't be playing Danny Zuko in the movie. Instead, his “sidekick” Travolta was playing the part, and he was playing Kenickie, Danny Zuko's best friend. Even though Kenickie became Conaway's most iconic role, it had to hurt—especially considering he'd played Zuko on stage for years.
Still, there was more news to come.
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10. They Made Him Slouch
It was bad enough that Conaway lost the lead part, but then they twisted the knife. The director reportedly asked Conaway to walk “slightly stooped” so that Travolta’s character Danny Zuko—the leader of their friend group—would appear taller. Yet despite the production team’s ill efforts to make Conaway less appealing, a certain lady couldn't help but notice this charming man.
11. He Met A Girl, Cute As Can Be
During filming Grease, Conaway went to a party with all of his co-stars—not knowing how life-changing that night would be. That evening, his fellow colleague Olivia Newton-John introduced Conaway to her elder sister Rona. She was older than Conaway, but he couldn't deny the butterflies he felt inside.
The two started dating right away. Still, the movie had one more “shocker” for him.
12. An Accident Changed Him
One of the most pivotal incidents of Conaway’s life happened while filming the musical number "Greased Lightning". At one point during the scene, Conaway fell and injured his back. It was just a moment, but it sent him down a terrible path.
He took some painkillers to ease the pain, but all they did was push him into a void we call addiction.
13. He Took Too Many Painkillers
Eventually, painkillers became irresistible to Conaway. He overloaded on them, alongside other prescription medications and some...less legal substances. Yet he didn't have time to focus on himself: He was in his prime. He had movies to make—and he was about to get even busier, with a TV show that ended up being pretty noteworthy in his life.
14. He Was About To Play A Main Character
After filming Grease and appearing in Happy Days, producers sought after Conaway for an aspiring comedy series that focuses on the lives of taxi drivers in New York. It was clear that the show—Taxi—would become a hit, so there were a lot of big names reading for the main characters. But Conaway stood above the rest, and he became the frontrunner to play Bobby Wheeler.
It would be one of the best roles of Conaway's career—but it almost fell apart before it started.
15. He Almost Didn’t Get The Part
According to Conaway, he talked with the casting director on the phone who said, “Well, it's not good news, but it's not bad news either”. The casting director then told Conaway that they were thinking of making Bobby's character Black, so they were going to start looking for Black actors instead. Conaway, not ready to give up, still insisted on reading for more time, and you guessed it—he got the part.
First the job, then the girl.
16. He Found A Lovely Wife
In 1980, Conaway was still going strong with his girlfriend, Rona Newton-John. In between his busy schedule and personal problems, Conaway managed to spare some time for love and decided to marry Newton-John. Of course, all of his Grease family, including his new sister-in-law Olivia Newton-John, was delighted by the news.
But a sister-in-law wasn’t the only addition to Conaway’s new family.
17. He Had A Famous Stepson
It was neither Newton-John’s nor Conaway’s first marriage, yet Conaway didn’t have any children, unlike Newton-John. In addition to becoming a husband, Conaway became a stepfather to Emerson Newton-John—a professional racing driver.
Of course, little Emerson Newton-John wasn’t a driver then, but he must have got something by watching his stepfather play one.
18. He Didn’t Like His Co-Star
Conaway was still starring in the hit TV show Taxi, yet he started to despise his time on the set. This was particularly because of a colleague—one Andy Kaufman. According to Conaway, Kaufman acted like thought he was better than any of his co-stars, which infuriated him to no end.
But it was even worse than that: Kaufman drove all of his colleagues crazy with his outrageous behavior, yet he managed to get away with everything for an incredibly frustrating reason.
19. His Colleague Was A Diva
Reportedly, Conaway and other stars often complained about Kaufman—but the show's producers gave him special treatment and turned a blind eye. Conaway's complaints fell on deaf ears. Though he wasn’t a hot-tempered person, Conaway was getting pretty fed up with Kaufman. One day at a team bonding event, Conaway got into an argument with him—and it quickly got out of hand.
20. The Words Weren’t Enough For Him
That night, Conaway was intoxicated as he reportedly shouted “You think you're better than the rest of us, Kaufman”. Kaufman didn’t usually attend these kinds of events and that day, Conaway gave him a good reason not to. When Kaufman didn’t respond to him, Conaway threw a good-old punch and knocked him into a table…it seems like we found the inspiration behind the infamous Will Smith incident at the Oscars.
While all this was news, it wasn’t particularly good news for Conaway—at least in the eyes of the Taxi production team.
21. It Was Time For Him To Leave
As the third season was coming to an end in 1981, Conaway was not getting along with the production team—he was mad because of his paycheck. Years after quitting the show, he said “They disrespected me, they didn't keep their deal. You know I didn't have to do a TV series at that time—I had a movie career going. I mean if I had not done that series I'd be a $20 million movie actor right now”.
He suddenly left the show, but was it all about the financials? Not everyone thought so.
22. There Was A Different Story About Him
While Conaway kept associating his exit with the financial problems and the lack of respect he got, the writer/producer of the show—Sam Simon—had a different perspective on what happened. On Howard Stern’s Radio Show, Simon told everyone that Conaway’s problem with the painkillers was the major deal-breaker for the team. Then, Simon went on to elaborate on a day that was heartbreaking for everyone.
23. He Wasn’t Able To Do His Job
Simon stated that one day on set, he found Conaway lying on the floor in his dressing room. He said that Conaway wasn’t able to get up because he was intoxicated—from god-knows-what—and that this incident was the last nail in the coffin for the blonde heartthrob.
No matter what the real story was, his journey as Bobby Wheeler was over for good. Jeff Conaway was back on the market again—but he was in for a rude awakening.
24. He Lost His Stardom
Unfortunately, Conaway didn’t find what he was looking for—he kept getting small roles or guest appearances in TV series such as the short-lived series Wizards and Warriors or the detective series Barnaby Jones. Day by day, Conaway was getting more upset…and just in time, another part of his life was on its last leg.
25. He Was All Alone
As of 1985, Conaway’s downhill in his career accompanied a failed marriage. Conaway and Newton-John agreed to get a divorce five years after the two tied the knot. It's possible that Conaway’s addiction played a role in the demise of this marriage—however, this didn’t stop him from spiraling into a worse place.
As they say, it gets worse before it gets better.
26. He Stopped Using For A While
When Conaway realized he didn’t like the direction his life was going, he took action. Near the end of the 1980s, he sought treatment. He said goodbye to his painkillers…even though he loved them so much. He was fast approaching rock bottom with a scrappy career and lots of lonely nights.
Still, he had hope.
27. He Wanted The Happy Wife, Happy Life
In the meantime, Conaway met a girl named Kerri Young. He was so hypnotized by her that he knew immediately she was the one. Luckily, Young had the same feelings toward him, and the two jumped into a relationship in the blink of an eye. But was he ready to commit himself to a relationship again?
28. He Got It Quickly
By 1990, Conaway was working on the big screen again—he was in the movie Tale of Two Sisters—but more importantly, his beautiful big-haired girlfriend was always by his side. This was the perfect time to get married and the two seized the opportunity. They tied the knot before the end of that year. It looked like Jeff Conaway had finally turned things around—but his trials weren't over yet. Not by a long shot.
29. He Saw An Interesting TV Show
Conway was always searching for new roles, and fate seemed to guide his way toward them. One day in 1993, Conaway was watching a TV show called Babylon 5—a series that tells the story of alien diplomats—which caught his attention. The whimsical movie star immediately drove to the production studio not knowing what to expect. It turned out to be an amazing decision.
30. They Cast Him On The Spot
When he went down to the production studio, the production team asked him to play a guest star named Zack Allen—a sergeant in the security forces. They must have liked Conaway’s performance, because they cast him as a recurring character in no time. He played Zack Allen for three seasons, and it eventually became one of his most notable roles. Shortly after, he'd revisit another iconic role.
31. He Played Himself
In 1999, a team reached out to Conaway, saying that they were making a movie about the life of Andy Kaufman—Conaway’s nemesis. In the biographical comedy-drama film starring Jim Carrey, Conaway made a cameo as himself. It was strange to see him accepting the offer to be a part of Kaufman’s legacy—but Conaway was no ordinary man.
32. He Relapsed
Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, maybe it was something else, but Conaway hit rock bottom and relapsed about the time he turned 50. The gruesome situation became alarming when Conaway joined the reality show Celebrity Fit Club for a second and left the show immediately. The reason why was scandalous. Conaway so clearly had a problem that the production team forced him out of the show and into rehab.
33. His Problems Became Too Public
By January 2008 Conaway was ready to join another reality TV show. This time, the show was more appropriate for him…it was Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which focused on the stories of well-known people who struggle with addiction. The show revealed some dire facts about Conaway’s life.
34. His First Appearance Was Frightening
When the first episode aired, the whole world was shocked by the way Conaway looked. He kept screaming threats that he would leave, though his manic and slurred speech was hard to understand. He later revealed to Dr. Drew that upon arriving at the Pasadena Recovery Center, he was riding high on coke and Jack Daniels.
In the second episode, it got even darker.
35. He Opened Up About The Ugly Truth
The second episode followed Conaway as he experienced withdrawal symptoms. You can see the suffering in Conaway’s eyes in this episode—he was having unbearable back pain and he looked agitated. He wasn’t even able to go to the toilet by himself. That was when he confessed to Dr. Drew that he was thinking of practicing self-harm.
When Dr. Drew asked how he would do it, it got horrifying.
36. He Was Descriptive
Conaway responded to Dr. Drew like he was in one of his countless thriller flicks. He glared into the mirror and said, “I see myself breaking that mirror and slicing my...throat with it”. It was impossible to believe that this is the same guy who looked into a mirror only to comb his slicked-back hair in Grease. As if this wasn’t scary enough, he later confirmed some other things about his history of self-harm.
37. This Wasn’t His First Rodeo
Despite Conaway’s terrifying idea on how to end his life, the reality was way soft and bitter. Conaway confirmed that he had actually tried to end his life before, but with pills mostly. Mostly? This is where it got disturbing—he also confessed that he tried not one, not two, but a total of 21 times!
He must have opened Pandora's Box, because more secrets kept pouring out.
38. He Had A Trauma-Dumping Session
Still on the show—shockingly—Conaway opened up about some of the horrendous experiences he had as a child. He discussed how older boys in his neighborhood would tie him up, threaten him, and put him into terrifying situations. He mentioned some more disturbing facts about being bullied, and he revealed that his affinity to addiction started due to these traumas.
But even more trouble was coming for Jeff Conaway—and its name was Vikki Lizzi.
39. His Codependency Exacerbated Everything
After ending his marriage with Kerri Young—out of the blue—he got involved with a musician named Victoria Spinoza, also known as Vikki Lizzi. The media described their relationship as “fiery” while people who worried about Conaway described their relationship as “codependent” and “detrimental” since she was also an addict.
Against all rumors, Conaway and Spinoza tried to show the world how good they were together.
40. He Was Finally Clean, Sort Of
As of June 2009, Conaway was getting back on track, staying clean and healthy. He even made a slight comeback to an actor’s life—first, he joined his fellow castmate at a movie premiere, followed by an interview with Entertainment Tonight. In the interview, he discussed his condition after a fifth back operation, saying that he “had yet to use painkillers again”.
But life has a way of throwing you curveballs just when things are going well.
41. He Grieved The Loss Of A Loved One
On March 10, 2010, Conaway lost one of his dear friends due to an addiction-related disease. It was actor Corey Haim who passed away at the age of 38. While Conaway was deeply affected by this loss, he told E! News that he had warned Haim about the dangers of addiction to prescription medicine. We wonder though…how could he expect anyone to listen to him when he wasn't listening to his own advice?
42. He Went Back To Music
While still going in and out of rehab, Conaway's girlfriend Vikki suggested they co-wrote and record an album together. Using a name from his past, Conaway launched the album “Saints and Sinners” as Vikki and Kenickie. The album was memorabilia for him, since it included Conaway’s old rock tunes as well as his famous role.
It was all charming and happy—until you removed the rose-colored lenses.
43. He Became Worrisome
In 2011, Conaway’s behavior started to bother Spinoza. In fact, it actually scared her so much that she had to call someone. Starting from December 2010, Spinoza noticed some marks of Conaway acting "mentally unstable and dangerous". She claimed he threatened her with a hammer, and said he was going to ruin her life.
Whether the allegations are a total sham or not, Spinoza was able to convince a judge.
44. His Girlfriend Filed A TRO
On February 28, 2011, Conaway received some news from the Los Angeles Superior Court. According to the Court, Spinoza obtained her temporary restraining order—in addition to obtaining a move-out demand which meant that Conaway couldn't come near her or their house. She also put on record that Conaway should “stop reporting lies and slandering [her] name to everyone”.
Of course, Conaway fired back.
45. He Retaliated
Less than a month later, Conaway told his version of the story to the coırt as the filed for his own TRO. He accused his girlfriend of stealing his medication as well as sneaking into their house while he was sleeping. Both of them continued to throw accusations involving threats, doing shady business, and theft. It was at this point, when no one knew what was going on, that Conaway filed some scandalous reports.
46. He Was Paranoid
Conaway’s claims were getting outrageous, so a lot of people worried that he might be making them up. He claimed that Spinoza—right after he filed a TRO for her—snuck into their house and as he put it, “injected something in [his] arm that left him drowsy all day”. In addition to this, he accused Spinoza of planting certain substances in the house to frame him.
47. An Old Friend Came To His Rescue
With one scandal after the other, Conaway was getting more depressed every day—that was when someone from his past gave him a hand. None other than John Travolta supported Conaway, though with questionable methods: Travolta encouraged him to take courses from the Church of Scientology to cope with his addiction and depression.
It seemed like this was working for him—but believe it or not, Scientology was not the answer to Conaway's problems.
48. He Collapsed
On May 11, 2011, authorities found Conaway lying unconscious at his home, so they rushed him to the Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center in California. After so many years of pain and struggle, his demons finally caught up with him. His sisters and his problematic girlfriend went down to the hospital where the doctors gave them the bitter news.
49. He Was In A Coma
Though everyone realized Conaway remained in critical condition, no one expected his coma to last for weeks. After the initial doctor’s reports, it was clear that Conaway was not waking up. From May 11 to May 27, he remained in a coma tied to life support until his family decided to pull the plug.
It was time to say goodbye, yet everyone was still curious whether this was because of the painkillers.
50. He Went Far Away
After initial reports by his old infamous doctor—Dr. Drew Pinsky—it was concluded that the patient was suffering from pneumonia with sepsis. Even though his loved ones were happy that his end wasn't addiction-related, the doctors noted that his addiction probably “hampered Conaway's ability to recognize how severely ill he was”.
In the end, he couldn't beat his addiction. It was a painful loss for everyone who loved sparkly, cheerful Kenickie, the witty, handsome Bobby Wheeler, and most of all, the unforgettable Jeff Conaway.