Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Zack Allan (1950-2011)

My heart sank on Saturday when I heard the news that Jeff Conaway had died the day before. It was the sick feeling one gets not because the news is so unexpected but because the news had been expected for so long.

The NPR bulletin I heard identified him as the actor who had played Kenickie in the 1978 movie Grease. Other bulletins ID’d him as both Kenickie and Bobby Wheeler in the classic sitcom Taxi. Those two roles are certainly the ones for which most people knew Conaway. But some of us remember him primarily for his role on another TV series, but more about that later. (You know where this headed.)

Conaway had been in an induced coma for more than two weeks after being found unconscious. This sad development really wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. His problems with addiction had been known for years, and his appearances on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew did not foster optimism for his future course.

Jeff Conaway more or less got his start playing various roles in Grease on the stage, eventually including the lead role of Danny Zuko. When Randal Kleiser directed the film version, Conaway played a role he hadn’t played before: Zuko’s sidekick Kenickie. (He would later be married to his co-star Olivia Newton-John’s sister for five years.) Around the same time he was cast as aspiring actor Bobby on Taxi, which was his breakout role, although he had had small parts on TV beginning several years before. He was a hoodlum who harassed Ron Howard on an episode of Happy Days, and he was Lou Grant’s ex-girlfriend’s younger date at one of Mary’s disastrous parties on the Mary Tyler Moore show. He also had a small role in the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon.

Conway was a standout on Taxi, the cute one with the good hair and brash personality of a charmer, who got screams from young women in the audience. It seemed as though he was destined for bigger and better things, and he must have thought so too because he left after the fourth season. But he never seemed to reach his potential. He went on to a short-lived fantasy series called Wizards and Warriors, in which he played a prince named Erik Greystone opposite a princess played by Julia Duffy. From there he went on to the primetime soap Berenger’s, in which one of his co-stars was Claudia Christian—not the last time they would work together on a series. From there his work mainly consisted of TV guest shots (including The Love Boat, Matlock, the revived Burke’s Law and a stint on the soap The Bold and the Beautiful) and low-profile movies (including Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and Bikini Summer II, which he directed). Sometimes his appearances would reference his Taxi role, like a visit to former cast-mate Tony Danza’s show Who’s the Boss or playing a taxi driver in Tale of Two Sisters or a taxi driver/actor on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Then, in the mid-1990s, he became part of TV sci-fi history. The story out there is that he happened to catch a new show on TV called Babylon 5 (one of the stars was his former cast mate Claudia Christian) and liked it. So he went down to the studio to watch the filming, got spotted and was cast as one of the space station’s security guys. He became a recurring character in the second season, called Zack Allan, sidekick to security chief Michael Garibaldi, played by Jerry Doyle. For the remaining three seasons, he was a regular cast member. (He also appeared in the spin-off TV movies Thirdspace, The River of Souls and A Call to Arms.) While invariably in the shadow of the show’s main stars, Zack was an interesting character in his own right, whose backstory echoed Conaway’s own. We learned that Zack had had some problems with addiction but became a reliable crew member when given a second chance by Garibaldi. I recall B5 creator/showrunner J. Michael Straczynski saying something similar about Conaway in an internet discussion.

In the course of the story of Babylon 5, Zack was frustrated in his romantic interest in the telepath Lyta Alexander, and he became involved with the nefarious Nightwatch organization because it offered extra pay. In the end, he did the right thing and stood against Nightwatch and with the heroes of Bablyon 5. By the end of the fourth season, Garibaldi had resigned as security chief and Zack replaced him.

A constant goal of mine is to watch the entire series of Babylon 5 from beginning to end one more time. What I end up doing instead, though, is to pull out the DVD of the final episode “Sleeping in Light” (set 20 years after the rest of the series) and watch that. I did that again after I heard the news about Conaway. “Sleeping in Light” is a beautiful bit of television, and I always find it very moving. Inevitably, each time I see it, it seems to get a bit sadder. There is a scene where the dying John Sheridan brings together his old friends from the space station one last time for an evening of celebration. When they toast the ones who have not survived, we are reminded that the actor who played G’Kar, Andreas Katsulas, passed on in 2006. Joining the toasts is Dr. Stephen Franklin, and that reminds us that the actor who played him, Richard Biggs, died suddenly in 2004 and never got to be as old as the man he played in that final episode. And now, when we see Jeff Conaway in that episode, we will remember that he too is gone.

In “Sleeping in Light,” Zack does not take part in the celebration scene. His invitation does not find him because he is back on the space station, which is being readied for demolition. Thus it passes that he is the last person (human anyway) that Sheridan speaks to before he makes that final journey beyond the Rim of space. And Conaway is the last regular cast member to have a scene with Sheridan. By the end of the episode, our final look at Zack shows him on Centauri Prime, working on something with a distracted Emperor Vir Cotton. If you were not a follower of B5, that will all sound like gobbledy-gook to you. But if you’re a fan, you probably feel as I do that a bit of TV sci-fi history has died with Jeff Conaway.

His final movie role was in the thriller Dark Games, directed by Charles Hage, who previously worked with Conaway in The Utah Murder Project. It is scheduled for release this summer.

I think I’ll pour myself a drink and quote the line that JMS wrote for John Sheridan: “A toast… to absent friends, in memory still bright.”

-S.L., 2 June 2011

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