Tell me more, tell me more: It has been 45 years since “Grease” was released in theaters, making John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John household names.
The movie, which was released on June 13, 1978, followed Sandy Olsson (Newton-John) and Danny Zuko (Travolta) as they struggled to make their relationship work due to the fact that they come from two completely different worlds. Danny is a greaser and Sandy is a good-girl cheerleader.
Their love story quickly captured the hearts of America, becoming such a hit it inspired the sequel, “Grease 2,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the female lead, Stephanie, in her breakthrough role.
As the movie celebrates a milestone anniversary, here’s a look at some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the making of the musical.
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Olivia Newton-John almost turned down the role of Sandy
While it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role of Sandy, Newton-John initially turned down the opportunity to star in the film. The film’s casting director, Joel Thurm, told Fox News Digital in February 2023 that Travolta really wanted Newton-John to play his love interest but that she was hesitant to take on the role.
Thurm said the late actress wasn’t happy with her performance in the 1970 film “Toomorrow,” telling Thurm, “I was embarrassed by the last movie that I did, and I don’t want that to happen again.”
“She met John and she liked him. She also liked the role of Sandy, but she was really cautious,” Thurm said. “By this time she’s a huge worldwide star and busy on tour. But we all thought she was perfect, that she was Sandy. So, she said, ‘All right, well, in that case, I’d like a screen test.’ That is the first and only time I’ve ever heard of an actor or actress asking for a screen test.”
After a successful screen test, it was clear to Newton-John and to executives that she was the right choice. Thurm said he was happy she accepted the role, saying, “We had no backup for the role. She was it.”
She also thought she was too old to play a high school senior, however, seeing herself in the screen test helped convince her she was more than capable of pulling it off.
Newton-John also detailed her own experience filming the musical in her memoir “Don’t Stop Believin’.” In one recollection, Newton-John remembered Sandy arriving to the school carnival wearing a skin-tight leather outfit, and the actress said she had to be sewn in and out of the leather pants each day.
“They were so old, and there was just one pair, so there was no room for error. One rip and disaster,” she wrote. “When I tried on those pants for the first time, the zipper was broken and [the costume designer] Albert didn’t want to rip them trying to put in a new one or remove the old one. Instead, I’d be sewn into them each morning!”
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She wrote in her memoir that her first thought after hearing the costume designer’s idea was, “What if I need to pee? What am I going to do?”
Making the musical’s music featured improvisations and near-cuts
During an interview with Bustle, the film’s director, Randal Kleiser, revealed that the drive-in scene with Sandy and Danny was somewhat improvised. While the dialogue between the actors was scripted, what the characters were watching was a last-minute decision.
To make the scene feel authentic, Kleiser asked for a bunch of ’50s movie trailers and spent the whole day with his crew looking for the right one to use for the scene, finding the perfect one to pair with Danny’s ballad over losing Sandy.
“Then I saw the one where the hot dog jumps into the bun, and I said, ‘Hey, do you think we could sync that moment with the playback, so it ends the song at that moment?’ These technical guys figured out how to take the playback tape and make it happen, which is pretty complicated to do. Digitally it would be very easy, but back then, with tape and playback, I don’t know how they did it. But when we saw it, it was perfect.”
Another one of Danny Zuko’s most iconic moments in the film is when Travolta sings “Greased Lightning,” during which he and his gang are getting their car ready for a big race. It turns out, Travolta was not the first or even second choice to sing the song.
Producers originally wanted The Beach Boys to sing the song, but after those plans fell through, Travolta fought for his character to sing it and won. It was also believed that Jeff Conaway would sing it, since his character, Kenickie, sings it in the Broadway play.
“I have to be completely honest with you,” Travolta told Vanity Fair. “I wanted the number. And because I had clout, I could get the number.”
Four original songs were written for the movie, including the film’s theme song, “Grease,” which plays during the opening credits of the movie. They also added “Sandy,” which Danny sings at the drive-in, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and the duet “You’re the One That I Want,” both of which were written for Newton-John.
“He came into my trailer at, like, 6 in the morning because he had been up all night,” Newton-John said about songwriter John Farrar, who wrote “You’re the One That I Want.” “He played it for me and said, ‘What do you think?’ I went, ‘Oh, God, it’s amazing.’ It just had this fantastic energy.”
While these songs were added, a few other songs were almost completely taken out of the movie, including Rizzo’s (Stockard Channing) big solo “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” which she sings after a pregnancy scare. Channing had to fight to keep her song in the movie, arguing it added depth to the character.
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“[Producer-writer] Allan [Carr] was very wishy-washy on the song,” Channing told Vanity Fair. “He thought it was a downer. … That’s how you know what’s inside this little person, otherwise she’s just all that surface stuff.”
Elvis Presley was considered as the ‘Teen Angel’
“Grease” centers around high-schoolers, however, the show’s stars had been out of high school for quite some time.
“I would get up close to them and see if they had any crow’s feet around their eyes, and that would show they were beyond the surreal age that we had determined would work,” Kleiser told Vanity Fair in 2016. “High school kids could not have crow’s feet.”
Newton-John was 28 when she was approached to play the 18-year-old Sandy Olsson. Travolta was 23 years old when he began playing 18-year-old Danny Zuko and Jeff Conaway was 26 when he was supposed to play the teenage Kenickie. Other actors in the iconic T-Bird gang included Michael Tucci (Sonny), 31, Barry Pearl (Doody), 27, and Kelly Ward (Putzie), 20, all of whom played teenagers as well.
Meanwhile, the Pink Ladies featured Jamie Donnelly, 30, playing Jan, Didi Conn playing Frenchy at 26, Dinah Manoff playing Marty at 21 and Channing playing Rizzo at 33.
Although everyone played their roles perfectly, casting directors were considering a few other options when it came to some of the characters. Legendary singer Elvis Presley was offered the role of Frenchy’s guardian angel – the “Teen Angel” – who encourages her to graduate from high school and drop out of beauty school.
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Ultimately, he turned down the opportunity, and the role was given to singer Frankie Avalon. Presley was still mentioned in the film, however, in the song “Sandra Dee,” which Rizzo sings in the sleepover scene to make fun of Sandy. The sleepover scene was filmed the night Presley died in 1977.
“It was all over the news, so everyone knew,” Kleiser told the New York Post in 2010. “We did this number, and everybody kind of looked at each other, like, ‘Yeah, this is creepy.'”
Prior to casting Travolta, the studio wanted Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie on “Happy Days,” to play Danny Zuko. Winkler, on the other hand, turned down the offer because he had just played a very similar character for many years and was afraid of being typecast in Hollywood.
After Travolta was cast, the next step was to cast the female lead, and Kleiser turned to an unlikely place to find his lead. According to Vanity Fair, when he heard his friend George Lucas was making a new sci-fi movie, “Star Wars,” he wanted to see if Carrie Fisher would be a good fit, but he moved on when he couldn’t determine if she could sing based on what he saw from her in the early cuts of “Star Wars.”
Susan Dey, Deborah Raffin and Marie Osmond were also considered before they landed on Newton-John. Osmond got the closest to landing the role but decided to walk away when she found out Sandy would make the transition into a bad girl at the end.
In addition to Travolta – who had previously starred in the early ’70s Broadway play as Doody – securing the role as Danny, he got his sister a small role. Ellen Travolta played the waitress who gets excited to see Danny and Sandy on TV. She got the role after visiting her brother on the set.
“So, the next day, they wrote me in a part,” Ellen told the Spokesman-Review in 2018. “That’s how loose it was and never knowing the success it would become. I get residuals every 13 weeks for 40 years. And I only worked two days, maybe one day, with Joan Blondell and that group, and I had a lot of fun.”
There was a pitch for ‘Grease’ to be an animated movie
In 2018, the film’s co-creator, Jim Jacobs, told Yahoo News that when the movie’s rights first became available, many people were interested, one of which was Ralph Bakshi, who is known for the X-rated cartoon “Fritz the Cat.”
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“They wanted to do it as a cartoon like “Fritz the Cat,” and they had certain changes with the script,” Jacobs told Yahoo News.
Ultimately, the classic film audiences know and love today came about when Allan Carr bought the rights to the film. Cartoons were still incorporated into the final cut of the movie, with the opening credit scene featuring animated cartoon versions of all the characters.
Before it became a massive success and the songs became hits, “Grease” was a hit Broadway play. The play opened on Broadway in February 1972 and ran until January 1980, with a total of 3,388 performances. There were revivals in 1994 and in 2007.
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The success of the movie came as a shock to everyone, including the network, Paramount Pictures. Everyone thought another movie filming on the lot, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” was going to be a bigger success and put their time, attention and money into that film.
“There were two films being made [on the lot] at the time, ‘Grease’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ and they thought [‘Sgt. Pepper’s’] was going to be the big hit,” Kleiser told Bustle in 2015. “At our cast and crew party, we had hamburgers and hot dogs, and they had shrimp. We were like the secondary movie when it was being made here. There wasn’t a lot of interference because the studio thought this was just a routine musical. They didn’t give us any notes or anything; they just let us go.”