Academy of the Underused

Jeff Conaway, the actor who died last week, was a star of one of the U.S.’s greatest television series, yet he wasn’t. He’s probably best known at this point for the part in Grease, but (with apologies to Babylon 5) the most important work he participated in was Taxi, a show where he was the second-billed star, and where he got a fair number of episodes built around his character, yet where he was probably the second least-essential character. (The least essential was “John,” the friendly hick played by Randall Carver, who was quietly removed after the first season.) Obituaries for Conaway went back and forth between saying he left because he felt underused or that he left because of his drug problems; probably both are true. The thing is, though, that the show did several Bobby-centric episodes per season, so he wasn’t getting completely shoved to the side. The problem was that Bobby episodes were almost always the weakest of a given season. That can’t be entirely Conaway’s fault, but it can’t be entirely the writers’ fault either.

Probably the concept of the character was a bit limited. Every character on Taxi was a loser; that’s what the show was about. But most of them had different ways they could lose, or maybe they could win sometimes for a change of pace. The Bobby character had only one real goal in life – becoming a successful actor – so most of his episodes were about him almost getting his break and then losing it in some heartbreaking way. (When they brought him back for a farewell episode in the fourth season, they did that plot again, beat-for-beat: Bobby gets a part in a TV pilot, the pilot is picked up, but he’s re-cast.) The first Bobby episode, “Bobby’s Acting Career,” is pretty good, though very dark. But once they’d gone through that plot they didn’t have a lot of other places to go with him.

So for the most part, Conaway’s legacy on the show is setting up other people’s great scenes. Most famously he’s the guy saying “slow down” in the “What does a yellow light mean?” sequence. And in another Bobby-gets-his-chance-and-loses-it episode, “Bobby’s Big Break,” Louie’s visceral hatred of Bobby – or at least the great joy he takes in humiliating him – leads to one of Danny DeVito’s best scenes ever. Bobby is barely in the scene at all, but his character set it up. I think you could argue that some of the darkness went out of the show after he left, just because Louie didn’t have a character he could hate as much as he hated Bobby.

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