IT was enough to make John Travolta stop singing mid-note, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.
He’d got his first sight of Olivia Newton-John in the skin-tight black outfit that would soon send the world into a spin and turn her into a global superstar.
As the world mourns the passing of the Grease icon, who died this week aged 73, in exclusive extracts from her autobiography, the late Dame Olivia tells how she initially turned down the role of Sandy – and how close she and Travolta came to being a couple off-screen . . .
In her own words
I never thought of my role in Grease as only playing one character.
Most of us have Sandy No1 in us, with her all-American pure looks — but we also have a bit of Sandy No2.
Number two smoked, wore black leather and high heels and wrapped her legs around a boy as he danced her through the grounds of the high school.
Sandy No2 was deliciously wild, and there was a great build-up of excitement inside me to finally bring her to life.
Costume designer Albert Wolsky found these body-hugging, high-waist, skin-tight, black sharkskin pants (even better than leather!) from the 1950s. They were so old and there was just one pair, so there was no room for error.
When I tried them on for the first time, the zipper was broken and Albert didn’t want to rip them trying to put in a new one. Instead, I’d be sewn into them each morning!
What if I need to pee? What am I going to do?
One of the most memorable moments of my entire career was the first time I stepped out of the trailer in full Sandy No2. I had the sexy curly hair, thick black eyeliner and mascara galore.
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My lips were slathered in bad-girl red lipstick, my top was squeezed tight and my legs and bee-hind were poured into those pants. Tell me about it, stud, indeed!
The red peep-toe, sky-high heels were my own. Don’t ask me how I used to wear these shoes, but I did.
There were gasps, catcalls and a lot of whistling. John was filming the song Sandy as I strutted across set.
He stopped singing, mid-note, as his head jerked up and his eyes popped.
“Tell me more! Tell me more!” he stood up and shouted. We laughed so hard. It was exactly the reaction I wanted.
John Travolta remembers: “I couldn’t believe it. It was just so right to see her with that Marilyn Monroe hairdo. It was so perfect. And I knew the audience would have the exact same reaction — a heart palpitation.”
It felt empowering as pure adrenalin and the idea of claiming my own sexiness rushed through my body. All the men on the crew began to do double and triple takes as they turned around to stare at me with jaws that headed south. I think a sandwich or two hit the floor.
All the girls on set immediately wanted that outfit, and all their guys were willing to buy it for them. If only I had thought to make copies of those pants and sell them, I could have made a fortune.
Later, people would say it was a terrible message to give young girls, that we were telling them to sex it up to get their man.
But it was about choice. Wear those pants, or a dress down to the floor. Empowerment comes from calling your own shots and being who you want to be.
That outfit would pull the shy Olivia Newton-John out of her comfort zone in other ways, and later it even gave me the courage to release the song Physical. That last scene in Grease instantly changed my image.
In 1971 composers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote Grease about youth culture, girls and greasers and set it in a high school.
John Travolta was the easy first choice for handsome, rugged Danny Zuko. I was so busy touring the world that Grease wasn’t even on my radar.
In 1976, fate intervened. Australian singing legend Helen Reddy invited me to a dinner party at her house in Los Angeles. There I met producer Alan Carr, who said he’d optioned the film rights. It was going to be a worldwide phenomenon.
“We haven’t cast the female lead,” Alan said. “You would make a wonderful Sandy.”
I was 28 and John 23. I couldn’t play a high school student at 28.
“I’m too old for Sandy,” I told Alan. “And I can’t do an American accent.”
He would change the script to make Sandy an Australian transfer student.
Wow, they were really trying to make this work for me. But I was still hesitant.
I agreed that I would at least see the play before I made any final decision. In London, Richard Gere had the lead role on stage as Danny Zuko at that time. He was beyond wonderful in it.
Something about Grease began to nag at me. It’s so much fun. The songs are wonderful. Sandy is a great character and would give me the opportunity to play two different types of girls. Could I even pull that off? I decided I would pass.
Then Danny Zuko himself walked up my front steps.
In person, John Travolta radiates pure joy and love. He is one of the most genuine and sweet people on earth and he really cares for other human beings on a deep level. That day, John greeted me with a big hug like we were already life-long friends. There were no expectations or promises.
We were just two people who were lucky enough to spend a gorgeous sunny afternoon enjoying each other’s company.
“I was asked who would be my perfect leading lady in Grease and there was only one human being on this planet I could see as Sandy,” John said.
“That person was Olivia Newton-John. I told the producers, ‘I promise you that Danny Zuko’s Sandy is Olivia and no one else should play it’.”
I was asked who would be my perfect leading lady in Grease and there was only one human being on this planet I could see as Sandy.
In the end, we agreed that an actual screen test would be a good way to make me feel comfortable. How could you say no to John Travolta?
A week later, I was on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. John came out to greet me. Our eyes met. When we walked inside the room together it was magic, and everyone saw it. They couldn’t deny this kind of chemistry.
“Yes,” I finally said. “I’ll do it.” Those four words changed my life.
Shooting took place during the summer of 1977. John and I shot the opening beach scene at Malibu’s gorgeous Leo Carrillo State Beach, a quick minute from my house.
John and I frolicked on the shore and then raced each other into the foamy ocean. We were in the moment, flirting, kissing and establishing what would later become one of the most beloved couples in movie history.
I wasn’t very experienced in the acting world, but I had so much support from the cast.
John was equally protective of me. During the big bonfire scene, I did the first take, only to have him walk right in front of the camera during my close-up.
“Sorry, I messed up,” he apologised.
He took me to one side. “Liv, I did that on purpose because I don’t want them to use that take,” he whispered. “I know you can do better.” I had great love and support from him — and the feeling was mutual. I would be forever grateful for his concern.
Now, let’s set the record straight. Did I ever date John? On the Grease set, he would tell me: “Liv, it’s every guy’s dream to have you as their girlfriend.”
“I don’t know about every guy,” I teased. Yes, we really liked each other and there was an attraction, but we would never date because we were both involved with other people at the time and both of us have a loyalty streak that runs deep.
The truth is it never went beyond friendship with John, despite the fact that the fans wanted (badly) for us to become a couple in real life.
This is what John remembered: “It almost happened between us a few other times, but it didn’t. Sometimes life just offers you the wrong timing. We had to leave it as dear friends.”
It wasn’t tough having to kiss John — professionally speaking — although having to do it in front of the crew was a new thing for me.
On screen, it was the type of chemistry you can’t fake. You either have it or you don’t.
We had it — thank goodness. We wrapped Grease in the autumn of 1977 and had the long wait until June 16, 1978 — our official release date.
There was a general anxiety about how audiences would respond to such a clean movie set in the 1950s.
The premiere was on June 2 at Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. All of a sudden, it seemed quite real — and quite big.
John and I rolled down Hollywood Boulevard in the actual Greased Lightning car, a 1948 Ford Deluxe con-vertible. As we neared the theatre, we got an inkling of what was to come.
It was quickly becoming clear that Grease wasn’t some Fifties throwback movie. It was an event the likes of which Hollywood hadn’t seen in quite a long time.
The crowd’s roar was deafening. It was as if we’d arrived at an Oscars ceremony or a major rock concert.
“It was nothing short of phenomenal,” John said. “It was exactly what the Beatles went through when they arrived in the US.”
The excitement inside the theatre was every bit as raucous as outdoors. Saturday Night Fever had been out for six months and John wasn’t just a huge movie star. He was an icon.
In London I expected a far calmer experience, but was 1,000 per cent wrong. Once again, the fans were beyond excited, gathered in large masses, and many actually broke down barriers set up by those nice London bobbies.
They climbed on our car while trying to slide through the windows to “meet” us.
Within a month, Grease became the highest-grossing movie musical to date, and it remained that way until 2017.
The soundtrack spent three months at No1, while the song You’re The One That I Want sold over 10million copies.
It lifted my career into the stratosphere, while John became an iconic movie superstar.
- Extracted by DOUG WIGHT from Don’t Stop Believin’, by Olivia Newton-John, (Simon & Schuster).