Thursday, June 2, 2011

Inflated Egobits

Both these guys had it made, but were undone by self-absorption and substance abuse. And an attitude that, despite their success, they were entitled to something even better.

Joseph Brooks


There are hit songs, and there are smash hit songs. Once or twice in a generation, there is a song so huge it becomes a world-wide phenomenon. Brooks is responsible for one of those phenoms, the 1977 mega-hit "You Light Up My Life." For composing this treacly bit of saccharine, he won the Oscar, the Grammy, the Golden Globe, and sat atop the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. The song turned singer Debby Boone into one of the most famous One-Hit Wonders, and the film which featured the tune returned a 400% profit on its modest budget. It was undoubtedly the high point of Brooks's career, which was filled with self-obsession and hubris.

Our hero had a thriving career as a composer for commercials in the 60s (he called them "50-second hits"), and was responsible for brain-clogging jingles for Pepsi, Geritol, American Airlines, Dial Soap, Dr. Pepper, and Maxwell House coffee. He won a whopping 21 Clio Awards for his commercial work before he turned his attentions to the big screen. The films he wrote and produced, including You Light Up My Life, If Ever I Saw You Again ( in which he also starred), and Invitation to the Wedding, were universally trashed by the critics.

Brooks was known for possessing the biggest ego in Hollywood, and he took that ego to Broadway in 2005 with In My Life, surely one of the most bizarre musicals ever to hit New York (he produced the show with his own money, and wrote the music, the lyrics, the book, and directed the thing, too). In it, God sang Brooks's Volkswagon jingle.

The higher they are, the harder they fall, and Brooks dropped like a stone. He had a stroke in 2009, but that did not stop him from luring dozens of hopeful starlets to his Manhattan apartment and raping them. Allegedly. He was facing criminal charges for these acts when he killed himself last week.

Jeff Conaway


This guy had a charmed career which he trashed with pills and booze and the belief he was more talented than he was. At the age of 10, he accompanied his actress mother to an audition for All The Way Home; she was rejected, but Jeff was cast, and made his Broadway debut opposite Colleen Dewhurst, Arthur Hill, and Lillian Gish. Throughout his childhood, he modeled and appeared in commercials. Later, he dropped out of NYU to return to Broadway as an understudy in the original 1971 production of Grease. He graduated to the leading role of Danny Zuko when original star Barry Bostwick left the production.

Conaway's career peaked in the late 70s. In 1978, he was cast in the film version of Grease, but was relegated to a supporting role. The leading part went to John Travolta, who was in the midst of his emergence as a superstar; I wonder how Jeff felt about this casting development. He knew Travolta from their Broadway days, when John, who was playing the role of Doody at the time, was Jeff's understudy. Now, the tables had been reversed. Travolta first gained national attention in the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, and graduated to film stardom with Saturday Night Fever. But in 1978, Conaway's career went in the opposite direction. His big break in films (Grease) was followed by a supporting role in a sitcom. Three months after Grease opened, Taxi premiered on ABC, and was a substantive hit. In that ensemble piece, Jeff played a perpetually unemployed actor moonlighting as a cabbie.

It was during this period that Conaway's drug use began to affect his work. He left the sitcom after a few years, publicly proclaiming his dissatisfaction with his character's lack of development. Other sources revealed that he had been fired from the show; writer Sam Simon later told the story of Jeff's being found high and incapacitated in his dressing room on a night of taping. He was quickly written out of the episode, with his dialogue going to Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd. Nobody's irreplaceable.

In the years from 1978-82, Jeff Conaway was on top of the world, but he was unable or unwilling to fulfill the promise he showed with his performances in Grease and Taxi. In subsequent years, he spent time on Babylon 5 and The Young and the Restless, but his descent into substance abuse made him difficult to hire. He recently appeared on reality television's Celebrity Rehab. Well, at least he recognized he had a serious problem, but what kind of egotistical personality does it take, to publicly promote one's attempts at recovery?

Conaway apparently relapsed in recent months, and had been hospitalized in a medically-induced coma until his plug was pulled last week.