Erik Greystone in Vulkar's Revenge (8_87)

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Bark, Ed. "How Wrong Turn Leads to Dead Ends." Dallas Morning News 23 February 1994: 1C


How Wrong Turn Leads to Dead Ends


by Ed Bark


Jeff Conaway is in the pages of the latest Parade magazine, but not in the way he'd prefer.

Not on the cover, not in Walter Scott's Personality Parade, not even on the receiving end of one of those astonishingly insipid show-biz profiles by James ("I, me, my") Brady.

Mr. Conaway instead is telling readers to "Take It From Me, Jeff Conaway...Learn To Use A Computer In Less Than 1 Hour!" He's pictured in the upper-left-hand corner of the full-page ad as "Jeff Conaway, Bobby' from TV's Taxi."

It has been 13 years since Mr. Conaway was Bobby on TV's Taxi.

In that time, he has gone from fame to anything to pay the rent.

Namely, the Video Professor computer course - "as seen on TV" - and Bikini Summer 2 with noted thespian Jessica Hahn. Meanwhile, Robert Urich and Jack Scalia somehow keep working. More on this later.

There once was a window of opportunity for Mr. Conaway, who left Taxi prematurely in hopes of becoming a bigger shot. His starring vehicle was CBS' Wizards and Warriors series, a very funny, inventive spoof of medieval times co-starring Julia Duffy as a ditsy princess.

Mr. Conaway played Prince Erik Greystone, who occasionally relied on the magic of the batty Wizard Tranquil. But no potion was potent enough to make viewers watch Wizards instead of ABC's competing T.J. Hooker. The series premiered in February 1983 and went poof in less than three months.

Wizards already was in serious jeopardy when CBS tried to give it a promotional push during a spring press event in New York. Mr. Conaway pleaded for TV critics to save the show and openly feared for his career if they didn't. Two years later, he was reduced to a superfluous supporting role in the quickly canceled NBC prime-time soap Berrenger's.

Mr. Conaway's congealed career embodies the worst fears of innumerable one time TV stars who have lost their grip on the fame they once flaunted.

Television had no bigger star in the late 1970s than Erik Estrada of NBC's CHiPs. But in the closing seasons of the series, Mr. Estrada became better known for contract disputes and his wars with co-star Larry Wilcox. Hence, Mr. Estrada hasn't starred in an American TV series since CHiPs crumbled in 1983. At the recent National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Miami, he was touted as the star of a Spanish-language soap opera titled Two Women, One Direction. Mr. Estrada is Juan Daniel Villegas, described as a "likable, easygoing truck driver of around 40." Alas, he is fated to fall in love with a temptress named Tania. Univisa Inc. says Two Women, One Direction is an "exciting, dynamic and forceful soap opera calling for the performance of the internationally styled artist Erik Estrada, appearing in a Mexican soap opera for the first time."

In recent years, fame also has been fleeting for Bonnie Franklin (One Day At a Time), Donny Most (Happy Days), Daniel Hugh-Kelly (Hardcastle & McCormick), Mindy Cohn and Lisa Whelchel (The Facts of Life), Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice), Jason Bateman (The Hogan Family), Larry Linville and Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H), Robin Givens (Head of the Class) and the entire cast of Fame.

It isn't always the case, but "difficult" or troubled stars often have difficulty getting second chances once the gravy train unloads. Take Mr. Most, reportedly a consummate behind-the-scenes whiner during his tenure as Ralph Malph on Happy Days. I witnessed his volatile temper during a charity softball game in the late 1970s between the Happy Days cast and crew and a team of Milwaukee-area celebrities and ex-jocks.

Mr. Most, a heckuva ballplayer, ripped a shot into left-center field at Milwaukee County Stadium. Happy Days producer Garry Marshall, who was coaching third base, at first held Donny up before belatedly waving him home. Mr. Most, who was thrown out at the plate, erupted into an expletive-laced tirade directed at Mr. Marshall. Not a smart move.

Television executives, who prefer that their comments not be attributed on this subject, say that nice guys always are in high demand for TV series and movies on racehorse production schedules.

There is seldom time to indulge the "artistic temperament" when you're grinding out an episode a week. Action series are even more demanding. Mr. Urich and Mr. Scalia, each with more than a half-dozen failed series under their belt, keep getting the call because they remain telegenic and accommodating. Being a joy to work with can still pay dividends in the TV biz, where Mickey Rourke need not apply. A partial exception to this rule is Robert Blake, who self-destructs with alarming frequency. Mr. Blake disappears for long periods of time, fighting his various demons and then pronouncing himself cured. CBS, the latest network to take a chance on him, gave Mr. Blake the starring role in last season's grisly The John List Story. He responded with a performance that won him an Emmy nomination. At a news conference promoting the film, he also distributed copies of an unpublished autobiography in which he pointedly denied having a drug problem.

"I haven't been near street drugs in 30 years," he wrote, "and this town is full of cheap little tinhorn (expletive) punks that like to start rumors, and I would just like to say that anybody who says I have a drug problem or have been around drugs for the last 30 years is a (expletive) lying bag of (expletive) and his mother is commode scum who eats her dinner on all fours."

Get me Robert Urich, willya?


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