Taxi to Babylon 5
Jeff Conaway's brother answered the phone when I called to interview the actor, dragging his very tired-sounding sibling into the room. "My son got married last night," the Babylon 5 star explained sheepishly. "I think I partied a little bit too much." Thus I discovered not only that Conaway is older than he looks, but also that the roguishly good-looking actor is a grandfather.
At age 48, Conaway is in a bit of transition, though that's hardly a new experience for the veteran actor. Having finished four seasons of Babylon 5, he was optioned to become a series regular on the sequel series Crusade. But for reasons which aren't completely clear to Conaway - "I guess TNT wanted all-new people" - he was informed in August that he won't be appearing weekly on the upcoming series, which took a recent hiatus from production as the network tweaked its schedule for next year.
"They said that they want me to do some guest shots, and I said I would love to if I'm available," reported the actor, who plays security officer Zack Allan. "To be completely honest, I would rather have known back in March that I wasn't going to be on the show. I was very disappointed for a few weeks - I thought I had a job."
Conaway will appear in the completed-but-unaired Babylon 5 films River of Souls and Call To Arms - the first of which is set during the current show, and the second of which launches the new one. It's a longer run than he was expecting for Allan, who began as "a really small part" he was offered on the series of which he was already a fan.
"I really liked the show, I had been watching it - I just loved the look of it," Conaway recalled. "I love science fiction anyway so I just started tuning in weekly. When they called for me to go meet, the casting office said it was a really small part, and I said, 'I don't care, I love the show so I would like to do it.'"
The actor knew from his first episode that Allan might replace Lou Welch, a recurring character played by an actor who was no longer with the series. "They came to me while I was doing the first show and asked me if I would want to do more shows, and I said yes, I think that'd be great." The producers were pleased to have Conaway - already well-known as a series regular on Taxi and from several feature films - and began fleshing out the role for him. "They said, 'Look, we didn't realize we were going to get you for this part, so give us a little while to come up with a story idea'...and I said, 'Whatever, I'm fine, I'm here.' So they just started bringing me back, and that's when they came up with the Nightwatch scenario."
The Nightwatch was an organization launched by the Ministry of Peace, which Allen seems initially to have joined for the 50 credits a week, rather than out of a real desire to find people who were working against the "public good." He was shocked when he realized the totalitarian implications of the group and his role with them. Zack seemed rather gullible about this, and somewhat naive as well in his singleminded devotion to Sheridan at a time when Garibaldi resigned over the captain's illegal treatment of the Shadow emissary Morden, though as Conaway laughingly points out, "Zack got smarter as they needed him to."
As for whether he's like Zack, Conaway splutters, "Gee whiz. That's a rough one. Zack is a very kind of a blue collar guy, he's your everyday kind of working man's hero, not the intellectual type. In ways I'm like him, and in ways I'm not like him - I'm a little more happy-go-lucky than Zack is. He's got a sense of humor but he's a little serious; he's got all that responsibility all over him. I think Zack is more prejudiced than I am, Zack's got a problem with telepaths, and a problem with Narns."
"In the beginning, my backstory for Zack was that his career was doing pretty good and then he probably punched out a senior officer and got busted, just decided that he wanted to go into space to get away from everything," the actor continued. "He was left wondering, what's it all about? So what better place to find out what it's all about than in space?" Conaway noted that people used to ask him how much of himself was like Bobby Wheeler from Taxi, "and I was a lot like Bobby Wheeler and I was nothing like Bobby Wheeler. It's the same thing with Zack. I don't live the part - when I was younger I used to do that, but I got older and wiser, I hope. Like Zack."
During Conaway's first season on the series, Allan declared that he slept through history class, but by last season he was flying a Starfury. "Somewhere along the line, I must have gotten an education, or hidden talents!" he joked, adding that he thinks his own request may have been the impetus behind creator J. Michael Straczynski's allowing Allen to have a ship. "I went into Joe's office once and said, 'You know, Zack would really like to fly a Starfury.' He said, 'I'll make a note of that,'" the actor admitted, adding that he wanted to be an astronaut in his youth.
That wasn't the only time Straczynski listened to one of Conaway's comments; the actor revealed, "There were times when I'd have a conversation about something with him and in a twisted kind of a way, it would end up on the show. There was one time I was saying how those gray uniforms made us look fat. I do a lot of situps, and I said, 'I do all this stomach work, but this thing looks puffy!' So sure enough, something ends up in the script, how I hate the way the uniforms make me look." (Andy Lane's Babylon File cites Allan's line as, "I look like a circus tent. Any minute now a little teeny car with sixteen clowns is is gonna come flying outta my butt.")
On a more serious note, "I'm a Christian, so all of a sudden Zack has spiritual beliefs now, which is great. But you had to be careful of what you said to him - it would end up in the character."
Conaway doesn't hide his regret that he won't be a regular on Crusade. "You know, I've been in this business long enough that whatever happens happens, but I love doing the show - I was disappointed, I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I figured I was on the show, because I had the option out. If they'd said, we're just moving on and using all new people, it would have been easier to deal with." He expresses hope that the Babylon 5 movies which Strazynski has discussed will come about: "I would love to play Zack again. I hope it doesn't go away. Keep old Zack alive!"
In the meantime, the New York native goes to a number of conventions each year, which he said he enjoys greatly. "I love doing the conventions - they're a lot of fun and the fans are great, they know so much about what we do. They're fun to talk to. I was talking to a fellow the other day, he knew everything I did - this guy was talking about some obscure credits, it's like he got Who's Who and studied everything I did! He was asking me questions about projects that I didn't think anybody knew I did!"
I pointed out to Conaway that there are over 50 items on his Internet Movie Database listing, which doesn't even include his theater credits. "That's probably not totally complete either," he noted. "My career is pretty varied. I just really enjoy what I do."
The New York native recently had a chance for a reunion of sorts on an old project when he filmed scenes for Man on the Moon, a biopic of Taxi star Andy Kaufman, who died of lung cancer at a tragically young age. The film stars Jim Carrey as Kaufman, but the rest of the Taxi cast - including Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd, and Judd Hirsch - appear as themselves as well as their characters from that series. "I was playing both Bobby Wheeler and myself - it was surreal," said Conaway, who added that he had reservations about doing the movie because the Taxi era was a difficult time in his life.
"The thought of doing it was tougher than actually doing it; I didn't think I wanted to do it, I was really on the fence about it, but then one night the phone rings and my wife answers it, and she turns to me and says, 'Milos Forman's on the phone,'" he related. "And what am I going to do, say no to Milos Forman? 'No, Milos, I don't want to work with you'? So I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'm coming to work with you, could you send me the script?' I read the script, and it was terrific. I thought, this will be wonderful. And I also thought it might be a good thing to do it - maybe it would kind of complete a circle for me. So I went, and it could not have worked out any better. I was just so happy that I did it in the end."
Conaway and Kaufman were friends, but their relationship started out rather acrimoniously. "I had punched Andy in the mouth once, at the Golden Globes, right after we had won Best Comedy," Conaway admitted. "I was the last guy in the world you would have thought was going to hit somebody. He was being a real pain in the butt around the set, and I thought, maybe I should talk to the guy and find out a little bit about him. So I said, 'Andy, tell me about yourself, tell me your story,' and he tells me this whole long story about his childhood and how hard he worked to get into show business and everything, and I thought, that's great, he's paid his dues and he's worked hard. So I said, 'Then why do you treat us like such crap?' And he spits in my face, 'I don't give a f*** about any of you,' and before I knew it, I punched him. We were rolling all over the tables. The next day I called him and apologized - no matter what, violence is not an answer - and he was so human, he apologized to me, 'I'm sorry too, I guess I kind of instigated it, I didn't expect you to hit me!'"
"After that, we would go out and have lunch together and hang out a little bit," continued Conaway. "We were walking down the street once, it was when he was wrestling women, and these three girls come up and say, is that still on, $500 for anybody that can pin you? He says sure. She says, let's go, and he says, all right, Jeff, you referee! So there I am on Melrose Avenue and these two are wrestling on the cement. It was bizarre! She almost beat him. I said, 'One, Two, Andy, you better hurry up, and just as I was about to say Three, he flipped her over. He won."
These incidents did not make it into Man on the Moon, which Conaway found to be a very nice tribute not only to Kaufman but to Taxi. "Everybody slipped right back into character so quickly that it was eerie - you could have given us a Taxi script to do, we could have done the show right there and then. It was just amazing. It was a lot of fun seeing everybody again, and kind of repairing some of the old wounds, you know?"
Although the scenes were scripted, including lines for the actors playing themselves, Carrey began improvising "right off the bat," so the rest of the cast felt free to take some liberties as well. "I love improvisation, so I just stood right up and started doing it with him - I ended up getting a lot bigger part because of that," said Conaway, who added that Carrey "did a terrific job" as Kaufman.
Among other favorite roles from his past, he cited Kenickie from the film Grease. "I had a lot of fun doing that; I'm Kenickie to everybody, I'm just the big Kenickie," he joked. "I think the revival is great. I get kids of all ages that are Grease fans and Kenickie fans. Grease will never die." Conaway played lead role Danny Zuko onstage for more than two years in the early 1970s, then returned last spring to play Vince Fontaine in the Broadway revival which later featured Xena star Lucy Lawless as Rizzo. "I wish I'd been able to see her do it, it would have been fun, but I left town - I got out of Dodge the minute it was over," noted the actor.
"I love New York, New York is my hometown, but L.A. has a lot of good about it," said Conaway, who moved to the west coast when he was 24 - half his life ago. "It's a beautiful place to live, the climate you can't beat. L.A. is what you make it; it can be a great town or it can be a crummy town." A professional actor since the age of ten, Conaway gave up his dreams of becoming an astronaut at age seven when he learned that wearing glasses would disqualify him; it took me a couple of years to figure out what I wanted to do," he laughed.
The young Conaway discovered performing while helping to put on a puppet show. "I was watching the way the audience was reacting to the puppets, and I said, I think that's what I want to do, I want to be onstage. I wish I had been in an operating theater or something and said, oh, I think I'll be a doctor!" Of course he has gotten to be a doctor, and an astronaut, on film, which he says is "a dream come true."
Conaway would like his next project to be a change from acting, however: he has written 35 Christian songs this year, and would like to record a Christian CD. "That's what I've been really concentrating on for the past few months," he said of the lyrics he has composed since January, mostly in his trailer at work. "I'd be waiting to do my next scene and I'd get an idea for a song, so I'd write the lyrics. I probably wrote 20 of them waiting to do Babylon 5, and I wrote three while I was doing Man on the Moon."
The actor found that writing music actually contributed to his performances and vice versa. "When you're in that creative flow of work, it's a great way to keep the creative juices concentrated, working on lyrics," he observed. "You don't want to just sit there and think about what you're going to do - you can over-rehearse yourself. So I would write some lyrics for awhile, then I would go over my scenes again and think, is there anything I'm missing? Sometimes if you just away from the scene, when you come back to it you see it fresh."
The music is important to Conaway because his faith has had a huge impact on his life, helping him kick a drug habit and find a kind of inner freedom. "I was brought up Catholic - I was an altar boy until I was about fifteen, at one time I thought I'd be a priest, but that was short-lived," he explained. "What happened was I realized that my walk was a little crooked as a teenager, and I felt hypocritical about the things I was doing. I thought, why go to confession and confess the same things every week? So I basically left the church and stayed away for a long time. I never stopped believing, and I would pray and say, 'I know I'm doing everything wrongs, but I still believe in You and I don't know what to do about it.' I thought I was going to Hell for everything."
"Eventually I was directing a play, and some of the girls in the play were Christians," he continued. "I heard them talking, and I was curious. I took them out to dinner and started asking them questions. I liked what I was hearing - love and forgiveness and obedience, He died for us because He loves us, not because we're terrible people, not because we're all going to Hell. He died for our sins so that we won't go to Hell. And everything was all turned around in a way which made total sense to me. It was a much more forgiving God, merciful and full of grace, and therefore I could start believing and walking that way. I started going to church."
This was in the early 1980s, but Conaway explains, "It takes a long time. Overnight you don't all of a sudden get rid of all your bad habits. I had a problem with drugs and it took me years off and on to get rid of that addiction. Over the years, I would stop doing drugs for a year or two at a time, thinking, 'Now I can take it once in awhile,' and I couldn't. The next thing you know I'd be worse than I was before. I didn't even understand that God didn't want me to do drugs. Slowly, I got it. Finally, seven or eight years ago, I was able to get out of it. I've been freed from the chains that bound me, and I'm so grateful about that - my life is so different and so good now, where I'm at right now is I can't imagine why I ever took a drug. It makes no sense to me. I'm completely the other way, and happy about it."
Conaway is also happy about his son's marriage to the mother of his grandchild: "They had a baby two years ago, and just got around to getting married, but they did the right thing," he said. The son lived with his mother most of his childhood, though "I did as much as I could to be around him; he lived with me a couple of times getting older. All you can do is give them love and understanding."
In addition to the music, Conaway's career ambitions include wanting to do a few more features like those he did during the past year, and he'd be willing to try another sitcom - "I wouldn't mind doing a good sitcom again, I don't want to do one of these horrible sitcoms, but if I was lucky enough to get another really well-written sitcom, I would love to do that again."
Otherwise, he said, "I'd like to just keep on doing what I've been doing. And just go where God wants me to go, and that's that."