By Carl Arrington
December 19, 1983 12:00 PM

John Travolta was on the phone with a playful ultimatum. “Olivia, if you don’t like this,” he warned of the latest of some 30 screenplays they’d considered, “I don’t think we’ll ever find another movie to do together.” The story was appropriately called Second Chance, and Olivia Newton-John took it.

The duo’s Christmas wish is that holiday audiences will be as easily charmed by the romantic comedy. It’s the first screen appearance together for the New Jersey lad and Aussie lass since they slid down the Grease shoot into a box-office pot of gold five years ago. That musical paean to the ’50s grossed an astonishing $200 million, becoming the biggest box-office musical of all time. Now they’ve put away the butch wax and poodle skirts to play characters closer to their real ages. He’s 29; she’s 35.

Travolta and Newton-John play a petty thief and luckless actress who meet, fall in love and, oh, yes, save the world. Because the original title had been used in five unsuccessful films, superstitious moguls changed it to Two of a Kind. Yet the stakes remain one of a kind: high. Twentieth Century-Fox anted up $14 million to make the film and another $6 million to advertise it.

The co-stars will share substantially in any profits, but at risk are their reputations. Travolta is on a roll after Staying Alive grossed $65 million, but he still needs to prove he can score in something besides Saturday Night Fever knockoffs. Newton-John is anxious to show that the ill-fated fantasy Xanadu in 1980 was not her fault and that she can handle something besides musical extravaganzas.

“Chemistry” is what everybody touts, and the term is invoked so often that Two of a Kind sounds like a biography of Madame Curie. And what exactly is this catalytic reaction between Olivia and John? “It just burns,” gushes writer-director John Herzfeld of their emotional interplay. “It’s hard, urn, to describe,” allows Travolta, and Newton-John’s best guess is, “We like each other a lot and that comes across on the screen.”

Such breathless reactions usually spell trouble. In case the experiment goes awry, bets have been hedged by beefing up the sound-track album with four new Olivia tunes, including a duet ballad with Travolta. The theme song, Twist of Fate, has cracked the Top 10, and a fresh batch of highly stylized Olivia videos—practically movie trailers—are plugging away on MTV. “Can’t hurt,” muses Olivia’s manager, Roger Davies, of the promotion potential.

What may help most is Newton-John’s change of image. In contrast to her dippity-doo roles in Grease and Xanadu, her Two of a Kind character, Debbie Wylder, is churlish, impulsive and street smart. She even utters her first on-screen expletive. “Not that I’ve turned into a bitch; Two of a Kind is hardly full of raunchy sex and violence,” Olivia says. That may be part of the problem. “If white bread could sing,” a wag once suggested, “it would sound like Olivia Newton-John.” Still, with her sexy video clips, Olivia’s been doing her best to transform her dough into hot cross buns.

Acting is another story. Two of a Kind boasts a blue-ribbon supporting cast that includes Charles Durning, Beatrice Straight and Oliver Reed. Matching skills with that veteran crowd posed a serious challenge to Newton-John. To overcome any lingering Australian reserve, she took a crash course in acting from Warren Robertson, who has coached such actresses as Liv Ullmann and Jessica Lange. “The first time you scream or break down and cry in a room full of strangers is pretty frightening,” Olivia says of her class, “but once you have that confidence you can really begin acting.” Travolta now praises his leading lady’s ability to be “terrified, sensitive and gutsy, all in one scene.”

Olivia felt almost all of those things simultaneously on the first day of filming on location in Manhattan last May. She reached out to pet a dog named Pascha and was promptly chomped on the hand. Though the only injury sustained was her pride, Olivia confesses, “Being an animal lover I felt a fool.” Man’s best friend for the rest of the film turned out in her case to be John. “We looked out for each other,” she says. They lifted weights together, rehearsed and even helped director Herzfeld select their close-ups. Their passionate on-screen love scene, Olivia’s first, proved more problematic. A shy Olivia wondered to herself, “God, what did I just do?” How did Travolta handle it? “Very easily, believe me,” he says smiling. “We have a real attraction, so it just made it completely natural.”

Both partners’ sexual entanglements are confined to the screen. When the two met six years ago on Grease they dated a few times, but their relationship has since settled into a glowing friendship. “Nice people are hard to meet in the film business,” explains Olivia. “We really love each other,” teases Travolta, who knows that heartthrob intrigue is good publicity for a movie. In 1981 his alleged passion for Brooke Shields mysteriously evaporated shortly after their respective films opened.

Newton-John is enthusiastic but discreet about her own live-in arrangement with actor Matt (Rich and Famous, My Tutor) Lattanzi, 24. “Romantic love is the most important thing in my life,” she says, adding that the decade-younger Lattanzi gives her “a lot of freedom and support.” Translated, that means he trusts her with Travolta. Actually the two men have become friends and spent the July 4th holiday together with Olivia at John’s Santa Barbara ranch. Since their 1979 meeting on the set of Xanadu, Matt and Olivia hike, swim, play tennis and ski together, but so far their agenda does not include a dash to the altar. Though Olivia sports a gold band on her right hand that Matt gave her, she is reluctant to marry, partly out of fear of failure. Traumatized by her parents’ divorce when she was 10, she once said, “If you’ve never seen a relationship that lasts forever, then you tend not to believe it’s possible.” Yet she remains interested in motherhood and is acutely aware of her ticking biological clock. “The time is never right to have a child,” she says. “You just have to do it.”

In the meantime her surrogate children are nine dogs, four cats and five horses. “My animals are very special to me,” she says. “They comfort me when I am really miserable or depressed.” She regularly makes a getaway from her hectic schedule by riding her pony, Judge, into the wild Malibu mountains surrounding her four acres.

Last summer the elegant retreat became something of a fortress when Newton-John learned that she was being stalked by a former mental patient, who was wanted in connection with five murders in Louisiana. Michael O. Perry, 28, tried to break into Olivia’s property three times, but was thwarted by the 24-hour guard. He was finally captured in Washington, D.C. in August and is currently under psychiatric observation in Louisiana. From letters to Olivia it was clear he had become fixated on her after seeing Xanadu. “I heard voices,” he wrote, “and the voices said to me that you [Olivia] are a muse and trapped under Lake Arthur.”

Olivia accepts the need for vigilant security but says, “You can get paranoid if you don’t live your life.” Still, the underside of fame frightens her. Two recent Hollywood films especially disturbed her: Star 80 and Frances. Both are graphic tales of spirited, innocent blondes cruelly victimized by the star-maker machinery. “Here were these young women just used by other people,” she says plaintively. “What scared me was that they were true stories. It hits a little too close to home.”

Olivia protects herself by sticking with a group of old friends, mostly her Australian connections. They include long-time record producer John Farrar, his wife, Pat, and the Thorn lovebirds, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. Several of the Aussie crowd pitched in to help Olivia and co-owner Pat Farrar open the first Down Under boutique in L.A., called Koala Blue. In August Olivia flew home to do some buying for the store, visit her family and check on her 80-acre sugar-cane and avocado farm in New South Wales, where, she says, “I’ll probably retire.”

Though Aussie in her loyalties, Olivia was born in Cambridge, England in 1948, the youngest of three children. (Her brother, Hugh, is a Melbourne doctor and her sister, Rona, an interior decorator in Los Angeles.) When she was 5 her family moved to Melbourne, where her father became a college dean at the University of Melbourne. Olivia’s career trek—from her first hit with Bob Dylan’s If Not for You to three Grammys and her record-breaking No. 1 smash with Physical in 1982—is legendary. Yet for many years she suffered acute stage fright. She used to write the lyrics to familiar songs on the palm of her hand and often broke into tears before a show. She has pretty much conquered butterflies but still doesn’t like to tour. In the fall of 1982 she performed 64 concerts in 40 cities, claiming they were her last road shows. “Every night was like déja vu,” she recalls. “You say to yourself, ‘Haven’t I just done this?’ ”

Moving on to new things has been Olivia’s strategy for longevity. “I never wanted a career that went BAM! and was over in a year,” she says. Plans for her double-barreled music-film career in 1984 include recording a new studio LP and filming a story, No Names, No Pack Drills, set in Australia in the ’40s, that “could be a musical.”

Travolta would also like to work again with Olivia in front of the cameras. First he must complete the picture Perfect, an adaptation of Aaron Latham’s Rolling Stone article on the health-club singles scene. On the lookout for another musical for a return engagement, John says, “We’ll try to do it sooner this time. It’s always good to follow a hit with a hit.”

Whether or not Two of a Kind will sizzle or fizzle after opening in 1,200 theaters on Dec. 16, Olivia is confident that her friendship with Travolta can withstand the strain. She’s not so sure about her nerves. “You just never know,” she says. “When I saw Grease, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a nice little movie.’ ” Olivia would settle again for such a nice little movie.