The summer of 1978 was a great time to be an Olivia fan. You're the One That I Want topped the charts around the globe - number 1 in the US and British charts (in Britain for a massive nine weeks and was the best selling single of the year). Summer Nights was almost as successful followed by Olivia's solo single Hopelessly Devoted To You. John Travolta also had solo hits with Sandy and Greased Lightnin' and Frankie Valli had a big hit with the theme tune of the film. It seemed like the whole world was going Grease mad with Olivia and John being mobbed by some 3,000 fans whilst attending the London premiere of Grease - one of the most frightening times in Olivia's career. The album featuring photos from the movie was also a best seller and the movie became one of the most successful musicals ever made.
Grease premiered in New York on the 13th June 1978. A common search query seems to be how old was Olivia when she made Grease. Filming started in June 1977, Olivia was born on the 26th September 1948 so she was 28 when movie shooting started and 29 when the movie premiered. John Travolta was 23 when shooting started
So how did Olivia get involved in it all? Olivia was spotted by the producer, Allan Carr, at a party at Helen Reddy's house. He describes how he first noticed her: "At first she was her usual self, almost a waxen figure, but then all of a sudden she started telling a joke and she became instantly animated, screwing up that perfect face in some cute but hilarious contortions."
He was so impressed with her that he went up to her and asked her to do a screen-test for his new musical Grease. Olivia agreed cautiously, wisely waiting to see how she looked on the big screen before committing herself to anything. As an audition Olivia did the drive-in scene (slightly different from the one shown in the film) with John Travolta. They had to do quite a lot of ad-libbing. After the test was over Allan Carr and Olivia had 48 hours to each think about it. Carr knew immediately that Olivia was right, despite having seen other actresses such as Marie Osmond. Olivia apparently took a bit longer but thankfully agreed to do the film. The script was even changed to take account of Olivia's Australian accent as the original role was written for an American teenager.
The media at that time thought that Olivia didn't have to act for the film (except for the very last scene) due to her innocent, girl-next-door image. She was after all, they argued, just being herself. However, as her then manager Lee Kramer pointed out "She's a complete lady with all the normal feelings of a woman - not a child. In Grease, she plays an 18 year old. That's quite an accomplishment for someone her age (29), to go back in time and be demure and innocent and all those other schoolgirl things!"
Olivia also dances in the movie. She'd never before had any training for dancing and originally she was going to leave the dance hall before the action began. However, the choreographer thought that Olivia did so well in the warmups that she was given 2 weeks dance training and help from John Travolta. The training however was not without mishap, Olivia apparently landing flat on her back when she first tried to do a flip!
John And Olivia struck up a friendship during the filming of Grease, a friendship which lasts to this day. According to Olivia, John helped her a lot during the filming. An example of this was the day when they were shooting a key scene for Olivia. They were shooting Olivia close-up over John's shoulder (the scene where Sandy and Danny meet for the first time since the Summer holidays). However, because Olivia was very tired she didn't perform well and John made a deliberate mistake to stop the take being used in the final film. This gave Olivia another opportunity to perform better when she was more awake.
Olivia and John became such good friends that John would go riding with Olivia at the weekends on her Malibu ranch. Predictably, romance rumours started to fly. However, Olivia was still involved with Lee Kramer (although they did split up for a while during the filming of Grease) and John was mourning the recent death from cancer of his girlfriend Diana Hyland. Olivia and John were just supporting each other in their times of need.
Although Olivia refuses to talk about how much she earned doing Grease, one music magazine reports her to have only received $10,000 for making the film (equivalent to only one weeks wage doing cabaret in Las Vegas). However, the songs and the spin-offs from Grease made Olivia a very successful star.
Olivia's favourite bit of the movie is the end. After two and a half months of playing prim and proper Sandy, Olivia came out dressed in black leather and high-heeled red shoes. The crew hardly recognised the woman they had been working with for the last few months and she was subject to much admiration. This experience encouraged Olivia to become more raunchy with her music and image and after the movie was finished she recorded the successful album Totally Hot.
Grease 2 was made in 1982 without Olivia or John but with then newcomers Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield. It was a flop.
The success of the movie Grease and its songs continue to this day. At the end of 1990 the Grease Megamix single was released in Europe. It consisted of a remix of the songs You're The One That I Want, Summer Nights and Greased Lightnin' This reached Number 3 in the British charts. Unfortunately no official remix has ever been released as a single in the US. The movie itself is shown at least once a year by the BBC and the US channels with good audience figures.
In 1993 Grease the musical was performed in the West End of London originally with the American singer Debbie Gibson and Australian (Neighbours) star Craig McLachlan. Debbie Gibson was a good choice because her favourite movie is Grease. She also reportedly admires Olivia having once written a song originally intended for Olivia (Who Loves You Baby?) but she ended up recording it herself. Debbie and Craig were also in the charts singing their version of You're The One That I Want which reached number 13 in 1993 (of course not up to the standard of the original version!).
Olivia has also attended the German stage production of Grease in 1996. In 1995 she even recorded a new version of You're The One That I Want with the French singer Francis Lalanne - unfortunately Lalanne is no Travolta!
In 1992 Olivia and John met in Hollywood for a Grease reunion sparking off further rumours that Grease 3 would be made. One strange idea for a plot was John and Olivia as grown ups with their own kids, living in a hippy commune in the '60s. When asked in 1995 about this Olivia laughed and said she'd never heard about it. She also said that the only way she and John would consider making Grease 3 would be if a really good story came along as they'd "hate to look ridiculous".
crowded at the 1978 London premiere of Grease
1998 came the successful re-release of Grease for its 20th anniversary, the video was remastered and re-released with extra interview footage. Olivia, Didi Conn, the late Allan Carr and other cast members all attended the "re-premieres" in LA and London. Although nothing reached the popularity of the 1978 premieres in London or Chicago, where crowds mobbed Olivia and John, the re-premieres were a great success. The 1998 re-release did well peaking second at the US and UK box office (second only to the huge smash Titantic).
The DVD was released in September 2002 celebrated with a musical reunion between Olivia and John Travolta at the DVD release party. Talk is now of Grease 3 being made for TV with a script written by Didi Conn (Frenchy in the movie). Grease is still the word!
Montage by Philippe Roumila