I grew up watching Grease constantly.
I knew every song by heart, loved all the dance moves, and at eleven years old, was totally and properly scandalized by the racy Greased Lightning scene. And even though John Travolta's Danny was the real heart-throb, I always had a soft spot for the weird-talking Kenickie with the goofy laugh who gets hit in the head with the car door right before his big drag race.
I saw Grease on Broadway when I was a senior in high school, wrote an essay about Grease's influence on my adolescence, and have spent countless Nonesuch road trips singing along to the soundtrack with newer, younger Grease fans who adore "Freddy My Love" as much as me. And I might as well admit it: I even liked Grease 2, the inferior sequel.
So the news that Jeff Conaway passed away today at the still-young age of 60 makes me sad indeed. Until today, I had no idea he'd become an incoherent, flailing drug addict on Celebrity Rehab thanks (in small part) to a back injury suffered during the filming of that gyrating Greased Lightning scene. No idea he'd lived a life beyond the grinning Rizzo-loving bad-boy who cheers with delight when he finds out she isn't pregnant after all.
I guess life goes on no matter how hard we cling to our childhood iconography and mythology. And yet I'll always be grateful to Jeff Conaway for teaching me that the side-kick can be just as cool as the leading role, that it's okay to back down sometimes and let someone else be the hero.