June 13, 2011 12:00 PM

For years Jeff Conaway struggled with inner demons. “I had a hard life,” the actor told PEOPLE in ’06 before being treated for addiction to alcohol and pain medication on the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab. Besides his chemical dependencies, Conaway also grappled with “lifelong” depression and memories of childhood abuse at the hands of a neighbor. “I’m not afraid [to die],” he said. “It’s got to be better on the other side.”

On May 27 friends got the grim news they had long feared. Conaway, 60, had died at an L.A.-area hospital, nine days after being found unconscious in his home-the apparent result of pneumonia and physical damage from prolonged drug use. He was taken off life support, “based on advice from physicians,” says his manager Phil Brock. “The situation was hopeless.”

It was a bleak end for the onetime sex symbol, who starred alongside John Travolta in the hit 1978 musical Grease, followed by the sitcom Taxi. When he began battling addiction, his prospects dried up. “I’m a great actor,” he lamented in ’06. “Nobody will give me a chance.”

After multiple stints in rehab, Conaway suffered a serious setback in 2010, when an accident left him with a broken hip, arm and neck and a brain hemorrhage-exacerbating the chronic pain that first led to his addiction to pain medication. Now friends hope he will finally be at peace. “He touched many people,” says Dr. Drew Pinsky, who treated him on Celebrity Rehab. “He was an unusually talented and rich human being.”

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