In this edition of Legend Has It, we honor the September 26th birthday of recently passed Australian actress/singer Olivia Newton-John and her blockbuster movie-musical Grease. Released in 1978, Grease was the most commercially successful movie-musical up until that time, and is still cherished by millions today.
The tributes have been pouring in from around the globe. Ardent fans are “hopefully devoted” to the songstress lovingly known for singing those words. Yes, Olivia Newton-John of 1978’s blockbuster Hollywood movie-musical Grease passed away this past August 8, 2022. She was 73. A prolific singer who topped both country and pop music charts during her heyday of the 1970s and ‘80s, she was known for her sweet, soulful, wispy vocals, and her radiant smile and blonde locks. Who didn’t love Olivia?
Blessed with seemingly universal appeal, she was, however, best known for Grease. It’s the film that catapulted her from highly respectable singer to downright sky-high superstar. Think Grease posters lining every schoolgirl’s bedroom walls. And parents in their cars singing along to the film’s songs blasting out from the radio.
But Grease was a global pop culture phenomenon that long outlived the 1970s. A romantic comedy set at an American high school in the 1950s, it tells the story of opposites Danny (a rebellious “greaser” played by John Travolta) and Sandy (a naïve Australian transfer student played by Olivia Newton-John). Can these two keep their “summer nights” love alive once the school bell rings in September? Or will their peers, the Pink Ladies and T-Birds, ruin their chance for true love?
Grease is still revered today as a “bubblegum fun” romp down Memory Lane, chock full of 1950s nostalgia and innocent love. Think poodle skirts and black leather jackets. And, of course, that iconic hair grease. It set the bar high for what can be achieved when assembling the best music, actors, costumes, and even set design. All in all, Grease was Hollywood “lighting in a bottle” (in addition to that iconic hair grease). It was the most commercially successful movie-musical up until that time.
So, what made Grease special? Let’s peek behind the curtain of this foot-tapping, melodious flick.
10 Fun Facts About Grease
1. Olivia Newton-John Was a Reluctant Sandy Olsson
Top spot on this list goes to Olivia Newton-John. Looking back, the world is in agreement that no one else could’ve played the sweet, naïve, lovable Australian exchange student Sandy Olsson. But brace yourself. Legend has it that Olivia didn’t want the role. At 28, she felt she was too old. After all, her character would be 17. But enter John Travolta, the actor who would be her on-screen love interest, Danny Zuko. He paid a cordial visit to Olivia’s California home to persuade her to take the part, assuring her that the big ensemble cast consisted of many “non-teenagers” like herself. What’s more, John himself was in his early 20s. Phew. These two made an iconic, sizzling couple together on-screen. What a shame if this sizzle had never happened.
2. Character Sandy Olsson Was Originally Sandy Dumbrowski
Grease was based on a 1971 play of the same name, and the female lead was named Sandy Dumbrowski – a 1950s high school “chick” of Polish-American ethnicity. However, kudos to proud Aussie Olivia Newton-John who inspired the powers that be on the film to tailor the role to fit her Australian descent. Thus, Sandy got to keep her distinct Australian accent. Even dialogue was tailored to that Australian tip. Example – wry Pink Lady bad girl Rizzo (played by Stockard Channing) makes a comment about Sandy and dancing, saying, “Hey, don’t worry. Maybe you’ll invent the kangaroo bop.” Ouch. Maybe not the warmest welcome for Australian transfer student Sandy. But still, a fun nod to this newly-minted Australian version of Sandy.
3. Henry Winkler of TV’s Happy Days Was Almost Danny Zuko
He was a perfect, logical choice to imagine in the role. After all, he was a huge TV star, playing in the 1950s nostalgia-based comedy sitcom Happy Days. But alas, that’s precisely why superstar Henry Winkler turned down the role of 1950s “greaser” character Danny Zuko. He felt he’d be typecasting himself into a 1950s cage.
4. Hopelessly Devoted To You Was a Last-Minute Soundtrack Addition
Go figure. It’s the only song from Grease nominated for a prestigious Oscar, and yet it wasn’t even written until after the movie’s filming wrapped! Yes, this soulful, iconic Olivia Newton-John ballad almost never was. Who can imagine the movie Grease without Hopelessly Devoted to You, and Olivia sadly crooning it in the backyard at a slumber party? We can thank the movie gods eternally for this last-minute song inclusion. Thank you. Full stop.
5. Elvis Presley Was Added
The 1971 play version did not have Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, mentioned in any songs. However, the 1978 film version decided to spice up the song Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee by mentioning Elvis and his notorious pelvis. Blush! It was a brilliant lyric decision. It definitely played into the film’s sweet, but still risqué sex appeal. Sidebar – but who could have ever guessed that Elvis Presley would die the day of filming this song. Yes, August 16, 1977. Legend has it this scene was especially difficult to shoot for the cast, unsurprisingly.
6. Grease Was Almost A Cartoon
For all you animation lovers, here’s your big 1950s ice cream “scoop.” Yes, as is the case with many film projects on their way to being greenlit, ideas get tossed around by powerful movie execs looking to finalize the best option for big bucks. And for Grease, one of the first ideas was to make it an animated film. Well, history speaks for itself. Grease never became an animated classic, which most would say is a good thing. However, the opening credits are animated.
Turns out the credits are a beloved part of the movie, too. Many Grease fans cite the clever, cute opening credits as one of their favorite parts of the movie. Kudos to the powers that be for still incorporating some “cartoon.”
7. John Travolta Choreographed Awesome Dance Moves
Fresh off the mega-success of Saturday Night Fever, one of 1977’s most popular movies, and one of the most sizzling dance movies of all time, John Travolta brought that dance coolness to Grease. He helped choreograph the dance scenes for the song You’re The One That I Want. Modern, smart, and oozing with playful sexy-ness, this song is arguably crucial to the success of Grease. Specifically, John offered up the “four corner hip sway” move. Beyond cool.
8. The Leads Were Astrologically Compatible
We can thank our lucky stars for this one, quite literally. John Travolta, born on February 18th, and Olivia Newton-John, born on September 26th, are both compatible “air” signs in Greek/Roman astrology. John was an Aquarius and Olivia was a Libra. What does this mean for non-astro aficionados? It means they were likely awesome pals together on the set of Grease. Air signs are known for their strong communication abilities, and their intellect. For starters, we have to give props to John for being “intelligent” enough to want Olivia as his on-screen paramour, right? (We can refer back to #1 on this list.) These two were cosmically linked, and it translated perfectly, beautifully on-screen.
9. The Supporting Cast Was Old Hollywood Royalty
Think the school principal, which was played by 1946 Oscar nominee Eve Arden of the film Mildred Pierce. Then the principal’s secretary was played hilariously well by Dody Goodman of TV’s The Tonight Show fame in the 1950s. There was also the coach, played by 1950s TV great Sid Caesar of Your Show of Shows. And that’s not all. One of the waitresses is none other than Old, Old Hollywood royalty Joan Blondell.
Joan’s first movie was released in the Stone Age year of 1930! She starred in well-known movies such as The Public Enemy (1931), Golddiggers of 1933 (1933), Desk Set (1957) along titan actress Katharine Hepburn, and many, many more. To have star power like this for Grease’s supporting cast was a genius move, making this movie appealing to both young and old generations. And, of course, we can’t exclude that dreamy (pun intended) Teen Angel, who sings Beauty School Dropout in Grease. He’s played by the one and only 1950s actor/singer Frankie Avalon. He was one of the original teen idols and heartthrobs of Hollywood.
10. The “Dream” Theory Wasn’t True
In 2016 a conspiracy theory went around that the bulk of Grease was actually just a dream. Theorists point to the fact that characters Danny and Sandy lift off into the clouds at the film’s finale. Driving up to heaven in their snazzy convertible, right? And earlier on, Danny sings about Sandy that he “saved her life, she nearly drowned,” which theorists took to mean that Sandy died in their summer beach romance at the film’s start. But alas, the play’s author has debunked this theory. Sorry to the “metaphysical” romance crowd. This theory, however, points to the enduring popularity of Grease. People just can’t get enough of this film, wanting to analyze all the magic within it.
Musically touching, humorously heartfelt, Grease is a movie that will undoubtedly be loved by generations to come. It’s a whopping 44 years old here in 2022, and it’s still as fresh as the day it was released. Want to catch it on TV? It’s still being shown regularly. Want to find it on your favorite streaming service? You shouldn’t have to look far. And as for its exquisite lead actress Olivia Newton-John? She, too, will undoubtedly be loved by generations to come. Thank you, Olivia Newton-John, for your eternal brightness. You will live on this precious work of art. Rest in peace and beauty.
I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.