The film version of Grease—loved by some and ignored by others—has achieved classic status.
Timing is everything. In the late spring and early summer of 1978, not a whole lot was competing for the attention of young people in this part of the country. Certainly, it was nothing like the summer of 1977. Lest we forget, one year earlier Son of Sam was running amok, the metropolitan area was plunged into darkness during the blackout, Reggie Jackson was the talk of the town and everyone was seeing Star Wars for, like, the fifth time. Into the media and entertainment lull of June 1978 burst the muchanticipated film version of the Broadway hit Grease. Everyone went to see it, and everyone walked out with an opinion. To those who’d seen it on the Great White Way during the 1970s—and so many of us did—something seemed a little lost in the Hollywood glitz and glamour. The fact that Danny, Sandy, the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies had been transported to the sunny suburbs of Southern California took off a bit of the edge that made the live show so much fun. On the other hand, to those who had only seen Grease performed by their high school drama club or had purchased the zillion-selling album or 8-track, the film was utterly fantastic. Looking back, what almost everyone can agree on is that, in defining the 1950s for a 1970s audience, Grease the movie defined in many ways who we were at the end of the 1970s. It was a confusing, dispiriting time of gas shortages, post-Vietnam-post-Watergate cynicism, serial divorce and unbridled narcissism. Everyone needed something uncomplicated to transport them to a time and place that clearly never existed, but was just real enough to provide a cherished escape. This was both the greatest strength of Grease, as well as its most glaring weakness. Perhaps the lyrics of Frankie Valli’s title tune said it best by saying nothing in particular: Grease is the word. It’s got groove it’s got meaning. Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling. To be sure, there was nothing particularly profound about Grease. And yet, all these years later, the movie has become a classic…and as such is deserving of a closer look.
THE CAST With Hollywood musicals on the downtrend, producers Robert Stigwood and Alan Carr set out to assemble a cast that would appeal to virtually every member of the human race. John Travolta (Danny) was the reigning Hollywood heartthrob, not to mention the unofficial king of disco. Olivia Newton-John (Sandy) was the goldenthroated Australian beauty who pumped out pop hit after pop hit during the 1970s. She had a readymade international audience and also pulled an older demographic into the multiplexes. Stockard Channing (Rizzo) reminded audiences of Grease’s Broadway roots. Never mind that she and Newton-John needed spatulas full of makeup to look Travolta’s age. Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) provided another tie to Broadway, where he won raves playing Danny. Conaway offered the added advantage of being one of the stars of the critically hailed television series Taxi, which went on the air in 1978. The supporting players were also hand-picked to please. Didi Conn (Frenchy) was coming off a starring role in You Light Up My Life, where she charmed audiences as an overachieving underdog. Eve Arden (Principal McGee), Frankie Avalon (Teen Angel), Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun), and Alice Ghostley (Mrs. Murdock) were among the many veteran actors whose names and faces were as familiar as breathing. Even Sha Na Na, the revival band largely responsible for bringing back the ’50s during the ’70s, got into the act.
THE CRITICS To devotees of the Broadway musical, Grease the movie was a pale, predictable comparison. Critical reviews were somewhat mixed, but mostly positive. It received just one Oscar nod, that for Original Song — “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Those who liked Grease agreed that it succeeded as a sweet, fun fantasy of American teen life in the 1950s. It grossed just under $9 million the weekend it opened in June 1978, and over the years returned many times its $6 million production cost at the box office. To date the movie has grossed over $150 million in the U.S.
THE SONG Grease the movie reprised most of the key songs in the Broadway original, while adding three significant others, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “You’re the One That I Want” and the disco-inspired title track by Frankie Valli. Olivia Newton-John’s recording of “Hopelessly Devoted” soared to #3 on the Billboard charts in 1978. “You’re the One That I Want”—a duet with Travolta—topped the U.S. and British pop charts. “Grease” was written by Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame, and was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts. “Hopelessly Devoted” was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”. It was also up for a Grammy but lost the Best Female Pop Vocal nod to Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me”. Newton-John had won the same award four years earlier for “I Honestly Love You”. She sang “Hopelessly Devoted” at both the Oscars and Grammys in 1979, and her performance at the Grammys brought down the house. “Hopelessly Devoted” and “You’re the One That I Want” were written by John Farrar. Farrar first worked with Newton-John when she appeared on Australian TV in the late 1960s on the American Bandstand-inspired The Go!! Show, where he was a member of the house band, The Strangers. They reunited a couple of years later at London’s Abbey Road Studios, where he worked as a studio musician on Newton-John’s string of hits in the 1970s. He wrote for and/or produced several albums for her, including Let Me Be There, If You Love Me Let Me Know and Have You Never Been Mellow. Farrar was one of several songwriters asked to submit new material for the film version of Grease, which needed more musical numbers to work on the big screen. In the 1980s, Farrar produced Newton-John’s double-platinum Physical album. In 1994, the British pop siren Sonia took over the role of Sandy in a West End production of Grease. Her version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” turned on a whole new generation to the song, thanks in part to an edgy music video shot against an urban backdrop.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
John Travolta • Danny Zuko After Grease the law of gravity seized hold of Travolta. He began picking flops over blockbusters, famously turning down An Officer and a Gentleman and American Gigolo. He packed on a couple of pounds but kept his soft-spoken charm and good looks, which helped a resurgence that began with his Oscar-nominated role in Pulp Fiction. Since then he’s turned in memorable performances as good guys (Phenomenon), bad guys (The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3), and even a stage mom (Hairspray).
Olivia Newton-John • Sandy Olsson The sexy turn in Grease did little to impact Newton-John’s music or film careers. However, her timing couldn’t have been better a few years later when she released “Let’s Get Physical” at the beginning of the fitness boom and music video craze. In 1992, a comeback tour was derailed when Newton-John was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered and became an advocate for breast cancer research, adding this to a long list of humanitarian causes she has supported.
Stockard Channing • Betty Rizzo Channing’s fortunes skyrocketed after Grease —not bad considering she was in her mid-30s when she played Rizzo. Her acting résumé encompasses stage, screen and television, with countless nominations and awards, and a notable turn as First Lady Abbey Bartlet on The West Wing. J
eff Conaway • Kenickie On Taxi, Conaway played a handsome actor who could never quite catch the big break. The role was painfully close to the truth. By the end of the show’s first season he was overshadowed by the other members of the ensemble cast, including Danny DeVito, Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman and Marilu Henner. Conaway spent the next two decades taking sporadic guest starring roles, before landing a regular part on Babylon 5. He gained some notoriety in 2008 when he was featured in the reality series Celebrity Rehab. In 2011, Conaway died at age 60 of pneumonia.
Didi Conn • Frenchy Conn reprised her role in the unfortunate 1982 Grease II sequel, and then went on to starring roles in the TV series Benson and Shining Time Station. The mother of an autistic son, Conn became a celebrity spokesperson for Autism Speaks.
Frankie Avalon • Teen Angel Avalon appeared in a handful of films and television shows after Grease, playing himself (or some version of himself). His iconic status—and timeless good looks—helped him launch a cosmetics and skincare line. In 1987, Avalon appeared with his old buddy Annette Funicello in the movie Back to the Beach. In 2007 he crooned “Beauty School Dropout” for the finalists on the reality show Grease: You’re the One That I Want. And in 2009, at the age of 70, Avalon performed on American Idol.
Sid Caesar • Coach Calhoun Caesar stayed active in movies and television through the 1990s and beyond. In 1983, he hosted Saturday Night Live. He received a standing ovation and was made an honorary cast member in recognition of his contributions to live TV. Three years later, Caesar performed with the Metropolitan Opera. He turns 90 this September.
Eve Arden • Principal McGee Arden was a television, film, theater and radio giant long before she set foot on the Grease soundstage. Her final silver screen appearance came in Grease II. Arden passed away in 1990.
Annette Charles • Cha-Cha DiGregorio After Grease, Charles earned a handful of bit parts in television and movie productions. Although she stayed close to Hollywood, she didn’t quit her day job: speech professor at Cal State Northridge. Charles passed away from cancer in 2011 at 63.
Eddie Deezen • Eugene Felsnic Deezen’s performance as geeky Eugene established a blueprint for every film nerd that followed. Ironically, he was not cast in Revenge of the Nerds a few years later— although he is still asked about that movie on a daily basis. Deezen remains one of the busiest voiceover actors in the business. S
ha Na Na • Johnny Casino & the Gamblers Yes, they are still touring. And original members Donny York, Jocko Marcellino and Screamin’ Scott Simon are still with the band. Sha Na Na was at the height of its fame when Grease was filmed, with its own TV variety show that ran into the early 1980s. The popular front man Jon “Bowzer” Bowman went solo in the 1980s and still performs today around the country. For many years there was an urban legend that Bowzer attended Juilliard. It was actually true.
EDGE Editor’s Note: Mark Stewart attended the critics screening of Grease in 1978. He liked the new songs but didn’t think much of the movie—despite a family connection to the Travoltas.