By Tom Cunneff
December 11, 1989 12:00 PM

On the Los Angeles set of the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful, Jeff Conaway is busy proving why he is the show’s MVP (Most Valuable Puckerer). In his role as the much-in-love photographer Mick Savage, Conaway is putting the moves on actress Teri Ann Linn. They kiss. And kiss. And kiss. After several takes, the smooched-out Linn finally looks to the control room and asks, “Can I come up for some air?” Conaway simply smiles, throws up his arms and says happily, “What a life!”

Or, more correctly, what a change for the 39-year-old actor, who had once played cabbie Bobby Wheeler on TV’s Taxi. Conaway became a Bold and Beautiful regular seven months ago, and “the mail response is good,” says the show’s co-creator Lee Phillip Bell. “Everybody remembers him from Taxi and wonders what he’s been doing.”

The answer is, not much. After three seasons in the Top 10 sitcom, Conaway broke his contract in 1981 in order to appear in a movie, which flopped, and followed that with two short-lived TV series (Wizards and Warriors and Berrengers). After that, his downward spiral accelerated: regional theater gigs, a marital breakup and then some of those oh-so-familiar troubles with drugs. By the time Bold and Beautiful came along, “I had taken off for a while,” says Conaway.

TV soaps aren’t exactly Shakespeare, but the steady work (plus some Taxi residuals) is paying the bills for a rented West Hollywood apartment and the ranch-style Palm Springs home that he owns. After taking a bounce off the showbiz floorboards, a regular spot on daytime TV looks pretty good to Conaway.

In fact, a regular anything looks good. As a young child from a broken family, he had shuttled between his grandparents’ home in South Carolina and the Flushing, N.Y., apartment that he shared with his mother and two older sisters. “There were times when he used to eat dinner at our house almost every night,” says record producer Rob Martin, a Conaway friend since those boyhood days in Flushing. “Jeff was really unsupervised in those early years. Then, of course, when he was 10, he started to make it in show business and practically supported his family.”

It was during that year that Conaway’s mother, a struggling actress named Mary Ann Brooks, took him along to her audition for Broadway’s All the Way Home. When director Arthur Penn said he was looking for a young boy with a Southern accent, Conaway put his South Carolina visits to use and ended up with a part—even though Mom didn’t. More stage roles followed, then modeling jobs and TV commercials for Clairol, Fab detergent and other products.

At 15, Conaway tried out for the singer’s slot in a rock band and within a week was on the road. It was then, he says now, that he got his first taste of drugs. Although he insists his own habits were limited to coke, pills and pot, within two years “all my friends were junkies,” he says. “I figured if I ended up as a musician, I’d have died.”

Instead, he enrolled in the North Carolina School of the Arts for a year, then switched to New York University, where he took dance classes from Martha Graham and acting classes from Olympia Dukakis. Shortly before graduation, the lead role in the Broadway production of Grease opened up, and Conaway was back onstage. A supporting part in the movie version in 1978 became his springboard to Taxi later that year.

Conaway says he still regrets breaking his four-year contract with the show in 1981 and admits, “I didn’t honor my deal. A man’s word is really all he has, and I went back on it.” He also began to regret his marriage to Rona Newton-John (sister of Grease star Olivia Newton-John), whom he had met at a cast party. She was seven years his senior, had a son from a previous marriage, and “I was in love with her,” says Conaway. “But we were always fighting. She had a problem with identity, being that her sister was such a big star and I was getting a lot of attention at that time.”

The couple divorced in 1985 after five years and no children, but by then Conaway was getting a good deal less attention from his public. As a sleeping aid, he began taking Halcion, a prescribed drug that would have disastrous effects. “I thought he was going to kill himself,” says old friend Martin, adding that Conaway behaved erratically. “Like if I asked him about his health, he’d fly off the handle. Then all of a sudden he was back to Jeff, sweet and normal. Then he told me about this sleeping pill the doctor had him on. Once that was over, he got his head together, and within a short period of time he was working again.”

Now, with a three-year TV contract, Conaway can even think ahead. Recently split from his girlfriend, a hypnotherapist, he is dating no one steadily but saving most of his romancing and energy for the cameras. “I would like to be a little further on with my career,” he admits. “Doing some feature films, a TV series, directing. But it’s got to take a little time. I’ve got to do some footwork all over again.”

—Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles