Jeff Conaway: I would like to go to a 'nice place' when I die
The actor, known for playing Kenickie in the film "Grease" and as a star of the TV show "Taxi," died Friday after a long battle with health issues, most notably a serious and well-publicized drug addiction. In 2008, he signed up for the first season of the VH1 reality show "Celebrity Rehab," which features public figures struggling with issues such as drug and alcohol dependency while at Dr. Drew Pinsky's live-in facility.
Conaway spent two seasons on the show, trying to kick an addiction to cocaine and pain pills; he threw tantrums, shouted and blacked out. For my article, I wanted to talk to him about his experience of trying to get clean on-camera, so I called his publicist. Within hours, Conaway himself left me a voice-mail message, ending it by wishing me a merry Christmas, happy Hannukah or joyous Kwanzaa. It appeared he was eager to chat, no matter how personal the subject matter.
When we finally connected over the telephone, the actor quickly began telling me how he had become addicted to drugs.
One day a few years back, he recalled, he was moving into a new house in Tarzana. He said he was trying to hang a big old oak mirror on the wall, but that when he lifted it up, he had a back spasm that later required him to have surgery. The pain from the injury eventually became so intense that he started buying "black market pain pills" and doing cocaine to ease it, he said.
Conaway said that just when he had decided he needed to enter a rehabilitation program, he received a call from a television producer asking if he'd be interested in joining "Celebrity Rehab."
"I said, 'Are you kidding me? Somebody is going to pay me to do what I was about to pay grands for?' Boy, God was saying, 'Do I have a present for you,'" he said.
"I would have gone into rehab one way or another, and I had a story to tell," he said plainly. "If I can tell my story, and help anybody else in the interim, then that's icing on the cake. I've always been pretty open about my past days of drug addiction. My life is pretty much an open book."
Indeed, Conaway was refreshingly honest and almost uncomfortably open about his struggles. On the phone in December, he said was depressed and had begun to "go through all these things over again." He was writing stories about his feelings to try to get through the difficult period.
At the time, he was readying himself for a January hip replacement. He had also recently finished a CD with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Victoria Spinoza, called "Vikki and Kenickie" that he requested I tell readers to look up on iTunes.
Toward the end of the conversation, when he began to talk about his ongoing struggles, he started to weep. What got him through each day, he said, was the love he received from passersby on the street who told him his story had touched them.
"I don't know where actors go after they die," he said, "but I know people who help other people have a nice place to go. And I would like to go there if I can."
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: Jeff Conaway at the TV Land Awards in 2008. Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images