Meetings that made entertainment history: When Olivia Newton-John met John Travolta
The 1978 musical, Grease, created one of the big screen’s most iconic couples: John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. The nostalgic love story of bad boy Danny and naive new girl Sandy, set at a 1950s American high school, captured everyone’s imagination.
During an era of disco music and Saturday Night Fever, Grease was something completely different. Teenage girls wanted to be Sandy and the film’s most famous song, You’re the One That I Want, topped the UK singles chart for nine weeks in the summer of 1978.
Grease went on to become the seventh-highest grossing musical in the history of cinema, earning £327 million at the global box office. It has achieved legendary status and the stage show is constantly on tour all over the world. It is currently enjoying a successful five-month run in London’s West End.
Following the sad news that Newton-John had lost her brave battle against cancer on 8th August, at the age of 73, her co-star and friend Travolta paid a moving tribute to the iconic star.
“She made all of our lives so much better,” he said, after writing an emotional Instagram post describing the “incredible impact” his “dearest friend” had made and signing off as “your Danny”. The actors became lifelong friends after starring in Grease together and admired each other as professionals, as well as friends.
Early life and career
The youngest of three siblings, Newton-John was born in September 1948 in Cambridge. Her family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, when she was six and she was educated at Christ Church Grammar School, in the suburb of South Yarra in Melbourne.
She formed a girl group, Sol Four, with school friends at 14 and they played local gigs at her brother-in-law’s coffee shop. Using the stage name, Lovely Livvy, she was soon snapped up to appear on children’s TV series The Happy Show. Her career took off after winning a talent contest in 1965 on TV show, Sing, Sing, Sing.
The prize was a trip to Britain, where she recorded her first single, ‘Til You Say You’ll Be Mine, in 1966 for Decca Records, when still only 18. She formed a musical duo called Pat and Olivia with her friend Pat Carroll and later joined the group, Toomorrow, releasing two singles and an album.
Achieving chart success as a pop singer during the 1970s, Newton-John won various awards including Best British Female Vocalist two years in a row. She won a Grammy for her single, Let Me Be There, and she was also voted the 1974 Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year.
Written in 1971, Grease was already an established Broadway musical before it became a film version in 1978. Newton-John was 28 when she was first asked to play the role of high school senior Sandy by producer Allan Carr.
Fearing she was too old for the part of a love-struck teenager, she refused at first, insisting on having a screen test. She was also concerned her Australian accent would be hard to disguise in a film about American students.
The producer wanted her in the movie so much, he changed the script to accommodate her accent. The original character of US teenager Sandy Dumbrowski became Sandy Olsson, an Australian teenager who was sent to Rydell High after her family emigrated to America. Her on/off romance with Danny Zuko was the main focus of the plot.
When Olivia Newton-John met John Travolta, her future co-star, he was six years her junior and already a mega-star through his role as Tony Manero in the 1977 hit film, Saturday Night Fever.
Almost all the actors playing high school students in Grease were older than their characters, the oldest being Stockard Channing, who was cast as Rizzo at the age of 33. They all had screen tests, including close-ups to make sure they were feasible as teenagers.
It was reported how Happy Days star Henry Winkler, famous as biker “The Fonz”, had been first choice for Danny, but he turned down the role because he feared being typecast as a bad boy. As it turned out, Travolta, who had been in the stage show of Grease, was an inspired choice for the film.
His on-screen chemistry with Newton-John was undeniable from the start and they became arguably the most iconic movie couple of all time. In an interview in 2018, when asked what his favourite moment was during the filming of Grease, Travolta said it was meeting Newton-John.
Newton-John said at the time she agreed totally, as she rated being introduced to Travolta as the best thing to come out of making the film. Describing meeting Travolta as a “magical, magical day”; she said it was actually Travolta who talked her into playing Sandy, helping her to overcome her doubts.
Grease, released in the United States on 16th June and in the UK on 14th September 1978, was an instant box office hit. At the time, it was the highest-grossing musical in history, beating a 13-year record held by The Sound of Music.
Although the two stars appeared in dozens of projects following their first meeting on the set of Grease, they always found time in their busy schedules to catch up over the next four decades. Travolta said they met up in person two or three times a year and always kept in touch by email and text.
The actors reunited for the romantic comedy Two of a Kind in 1983. Travolta played failed inventor Zack Melon, who tried to rob a bank to solve his crippling debts. Bank clerk Debbie Wylder, played by Newton-John, pretended to give him a sack of money, but he later found she had double-crossed him, giving him a bag of worthless bank deposit slips!
Newton-John and Travolta had an emotional reunion playing Sandy and Danny for the last time in 2019 at an epic Grease sing-along screening event in Florida. Even at the ages of 71 and 65 respectively, they still wowed everyone in their Grease outfits. They took part in a post-show question and answer session with fans at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre, in West Palm Beach.
Following Newton-John’s death, after her 30-year battle with cancer, Travolta paid tribute to his old friend, telling reporters, “There was only one person in the world who was Sandy – and that was Olivia Newton John.”
The late star founded the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, an independent global research charity studying plant medicine as a treatment for cancer. She said her dream was to realise a world beyond cancer.
The show business world has been rallying round to support her cause in memory of the star. One of the first fundraising events announced is a charity screening of her 1980 musical, Xanadu, at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana on 25th August, with proceeds being donated to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund.
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