Erik Greystone in The Kidnap (2_104)

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Knutzen, Eirik:  "Wizard of odds."  The Toronto Star 26 February 1983, Starweek supplement to The Toronto Saturday Star: S10.


Wizard of odds


by Eirik Knutzen


The comedy hit Taxi put Jeff Conaway in the driver’s seat, but he’s betting Wizards and Warriors will put him on the road to his own series


Feeling like an animal trapped in a cage after three years of portraying Bobby Wheeler on Taxi, Jeff Conaway knew he had to get out. Fast.

It was a gilded cage, of course, one that offered lots of money and enormous national exposure while Taxi was still a smash show on ABC. Its fortune sagged considerably after the switch to NBC last year, though not necessarily because of Conaway’s departure.

"I left the show because I wasn’t going anywhere personally or professionally," he says. "The problem was stagnation and no place to go. I just felt that I couldn’t sit there and collect a fat salary every week. I was wasting away.

"Not happy with my work, my life also became a mess. (I was) depressed all the time; it ruined my relationship with my wife and we split up. I knew it was time to get away from it all – to start bulding myself up and growing again. All I had going at the time was a Canadian feature called Dreamworld.

Several months away from Hollywood while shooting Dreamworld in Montreal was just what the doctor ordered for Conaway’s troubled mind. (No release date for Dreamworld has yet been set.) But getting back with his wife of three years, Rona (Olivia Newton-John’s sister), was another matter. "I always loved her – the problem was me."

The lanky, 6-foot-2, 32 year-old with blue eyes and long, shaggy blond hair got over the hump by landing the starring role of Prince Eric (sic) Greystone in CBS’ eight-part series Wizards and Warriors. If it catches on, Conaway will have a series to look forward to in fall.

Wizard and Warriors is set in the Middle Ages with Conaway playing a Sir Lancelot-type character. It’s loaded with magic, monsters and demons, and footage from the movie Excalibur will be edited in to spice up the battle scenes.

Conaway brings a lifetime of showbusiness tradition and 23 years of practical acting experience to his new role. His father, Charles Conaway, made his living as an actor and Broadway producer before becoming a commodities broker. His mother, Mary Ann Brooks, spent several years as a stage actress before semi-retirement.

"My parents split up when I was a little kid, so I spent a very lonely and unhappy childhood in New York," he recalls. "With no family life to speak of, I spent a lot of time watching TV and going to movies. I liked anti-hero guys like Marlon Brando."

He bugged his mother to let him audition for plays, finally landing a role in the Broadway production of James Agee’s All the Way Home on his 10th birthday. The one-year run was immediately followed by six months on the road in Critic’s Choice.

When he was 15, he joined a band called 3 ½ as lead singer and guitarist. The gig lasted nearly two years and culminated with a minor hit record, Donovan’s Hey Gyp.

"I loved all the attention from fans going bananas, big limos and flashy parties – but it also got me into a bad drug situation as a teenager. Breaking up the group broke my heart, but I also knew that I had to get out of that environment before it screwed up my future. I wanted to act."

He spent a year at the North Carolina School of the Arts before returning to New York and enrolling in the theatre program at NYU. "I left there three months before my graduation because they wouldn’t let me work. It drove me crazy to have to turn down professional roles that I had won in auditions." After a brief stint as Billy the Kid in an off-Broadway production of Wanted, Conaway replaced Barry Bostwick as Danny Zuko in the original Broadway version of Grease.

The Grease job lasted 2 ½ years. "John Travolta played Doody in the tour back in 1973 to my Danny Zuko. We were managed by the same person and figured that whoever’s career took off first would play Zuko in the film. When John’s Saturday Night Fever hit, I knew it was all over for me."

Much to his surprise, Conaway was offered the part of Kenickie in the 1978 film version of Grease. "My first reaction was to turn it down because I was all wrong for the role – he was supposed to be a little guy with no neck. I finally decided to go for it, spent a week preparing for the role by walking around in a leather jacket and with greased hair, and got it.

Taxi’s Bobby Wheeler job came along a couple of months later as part of a development deal with Paramount. "I read for the part, but was told that my competition for the role was every black actor in Hollywood."

Not all of his experiences as a cabby were negative ones, of course. "I’m grateful for the opportunity, though I probably left the show a little later than I should have. At the time, I needed something to follow up on the success of Grease. Taxi did keep me in the mainstream and continues to do so."

Conaway is now living with his wife and young stepson, Emerson, high in the Hollywood Hills. He relaxes by working as an assistant coach for the boy’s soccer team and is putting together a record album of his own "power pop" soft rock music.

But acting remains his first love. "I want to act, then direct, produce and write. I want to be Warren Beatty when I grow up."


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