By Tom Gliatto Anne-marie O'neill
April 13, 1998 12:00 PM

Set in a 1950s never-never land called Rydell High and starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, the movie musical Grease has proved as lastingly appealing as Elvis. Now rereleased for its 20th birthday, the 1978 hit, already the top-grossing musical ever, took in $13 million during its first retro weekend. On the following pages, PEOPLE revisits the original T-Birds, Pink Ladies and other Grease grads.


Travolta, then 24, was on the verge of becoming a global sex symbol by the time he suited up in black as Danny Zuko, the rebel in Grease without a mean bone in his body. He was beloved as the snake-hipped heartthrob Vinnie Barbarino on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter, and had just finished shooting the megahit Saturday Night Fever. “John was peaking,” says Dinah Manoff, cast as Marty of the sassy girls’ clique the Pink Ladies. “His sexuality was coming out in his voice, his legs and his acting. We were mesmerized.” A song-and-dance man at heart (he had toured in the stage production of Grease), Travolta was thrilled just to be in a musical. “I enjoyed every minute,” says Travolta, 44, wed since ’91 to actress Kelly Preston and the father of Jett, 6. “It’s classic. It’s timeless.”

Oddly, his career slipped after Grease, and it would be more than a decade before 1994’s Pulp Fiction reestablished him as a major star, albeit a chunkier one, leading to his current presidential gig in Primary Colors. “John was so young the first time,” says his sister Ellen Travolta, 58, who had a bit part in Grease as a waitress. “Now it’s going to keep getting better and better.”


Grease was the single biggest event of my life,” says Newton-John, 49, who played Travolta’s girlfriend, Sandy, a wholesome Sandra Dee clone. “It affected everything.” (And still does: Her daughter, Chloe, 12, likes to go to sleep with the tape playing on the VCR.) Newton-John, whose duet with Travolta, “You’re the One That I Want,” became a No. 1 hit, recalls her weeks with the cast as “a wonderful summer. It was like going to a school that I’d never gone to.”

This decade has been a hard-knocks education for Newton-John, who grew up in Melbourne. Her sportswear line, Koala Blue, failed in 1991; she was diagnosed with breast cancer in ’92; then she and her husband, actor Matt Lattanzi, split in ’95. Things have picked up lately. She rerecorded her 1974 hit “I Honestly Love You” with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and, more important, has a clean bill of health. “You can go down the tube or you can fight,” she says. “I realized I could fight.”


Buckner sighs in mock despair. “They don’t believe me when I tell them I’m really hip, I’m really cool,” she says of her children Adam, 16, and Samantha, 14. ” ‘Look at you, Mom,’ they say. ‘You were Patty Simcox.’ ” Though the role may have branded her for life as a do-gooder, truth is that neither Buckner, 46, nor any member of the cast was as squeaky clean as Rydell’s chirpiest cheerleader. “We were so bad,” Buckner recalls of their on-set antics. “Almost everybody would come in two, three hours late. They had to bring us all in and give us a lecture.”

A dancer, gymnast and former Miss Washington, the Seattle-born Buckner got her first break in Hollywood in 1971 as a dancer on Dean Martin’s TV variety show. She had a supporting role in the Nancy Drew TV series and toured the clubs as a singer-dancer for Telly Savalas before being cast in Grease. After appearing in such TV shows as The Love Boat, Buckner moved to Miami with her husband (they divorced last year), where she directs children’s theater, including Pinecrest Elementary School’s annual production of—what else?—Grease.


She may have scored a Tony (for 1985’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) and an Oscar nomination (for 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation), but Channing, it seems, will be remembered for generations to come for Grease. “I was at an audition recently,” recalls Channing, 54, “and these little girls came rushing in—and they were like 5—and yelled, ‘Where’s Rizzo?’ Not even their mothers were 5 when we did the movie!” At 34, Manhattanite Channing was the oldest of the “teens” when she played the 18-year-old tart-with-a-heart who has a pregnancy scare when Kenickie’s “25-cent insurance policy” fails in the back of his car. So has she ever considered revisiting Rydell High onstage? “Are you mad?” shrieks the quadruple divorcee currently costarring in the movie Twilight. “I’ve been otherwise engaged with my life.”


Conaway was no stranger to Grease when he won the role of Kenickie, the tough-talking T-Bird. But a two-year turn as Danny Zuko on Broadway in the early ’70s did little to prepare the Queens, N.Y., native for Hollywood. “You’re thrown into the jaws of success, and it’s a heavy thing,” says the actor, now 47 and a devout Christian. “I fell right into the trap.” After Grease, Conaway played cabbie Bobby Wheeler in Taxi for three seasons but ditched it all in 1981 to pursue a movie career. By then he was addicted to cocaine, and his personal life hit the skids. In 1985, his tumultuous five-year marriage to Olivia Newton-John’s older sister Rona, whom he’d met at a Grease cast party, ended in divorce. He survived on small TV roles before finally kicking his addiction in 1991 and has since been diagnosed with clinical depression. Four years ago, Conaway, who lives in Hollywood with current wife Kerri, a magazine editor, parlayed a three-line part on the syndicated series Babylon 5 into a steady role as security chief Zack Allan. After all his troubles, he says, “I’m just happy to be here.”


“At the time I was like a madwoman,” says Didi Conn, 46, explaining the oddball electricity she brought to the part of Frenchy, a Pink Lady and a beauty school dropout. “I was charged up, happy to be in Hollywood.” The Brooklyn native now lives outside New York City with her second husband, Broadway and film composer David Shire (Norma Rae), and son Daniel, 5. She may be playing mom these days, but she still has a squeal of a voice. “This guy was so sexy,” squeaks Conn, recalling the dream scene in which Frankie Avalon serenades her. “I’m drooling thinking about it.” Though known now as Stacy from PBS’s Shining Time Station, Conn sees Grease as a personal high watermark and has published a memoir, Frenchy’s Grease Scrapbook, to coincide with the rerelease. “I hired two secretaries, went to Radio Shack and got a tape recorder,” she says. “I got to reconnect with everybody. It was like no time had gone by.”


Avalon was weary of being typecast as a ’50s pop icon when producer Allan Carr offered him the role of Teen Angel. “My gut reaction was, ‘I’m not interested,’ ” he recalls. In the end, superstition swayed him: The scene in which an angel croons “Beauty School Dropout” to a bevy of teenage girls dressed in white mirrored a recurring dream that Avalon’s cousin had told him about years before. But though the movie exposed the former Beach Party star to a new generation of fans, it only reinforced his retro image. These days the crooner, 57, who lives in the L.A. area with wife of 35 years Kay, is a staple on the Vegas circuit and occasionally appears in films, including 1995’s Casino, in which he was typecast again—as himself.


When Tucci told his parents in 1973 that he was giving up his career in law for musical theater, his mother bridled: “Who do you think you are? Sinatra?” No, just Tucci. Which was enough to earn the Brooklyn native a turn as Travolta’s T-Bird pal Sonny. The movie “made me seem important to my family,” says Tucci, 48. It also led to roles in The Paper Chase, Diagnosis Murder and other TV shows. On a recent tour of the Glendale, Calif., home he shares with wife Kathleen, an NBC vice president, and daughters Kate, 8, and Kelly, 3, Tucci proudly opened Kate’s closet to reveal a Pink Ladies jacket. “It’s flattering,” he said. “They get to experience me as a teenager.”


“I don’t know how I had the money—or the energy,” says Carr, 60, recalling the ’70s, when the caftan-wearing producer was as famous for his lavish parties as for his films.

Appropriately, Carr—who as a teenager from Highland Park, Ill., began investing his allowance in Broadway shows—staged a sock hop on the first day of filming Grease so the cast could get acquainted. Though he’d sought Henry “the Fonz” Winkler and Susan “Laurie Partridge” Dey to star, the Travolta and Newton-John team “worked magic,” he says. The magic ran out on the ’82 flop Grease 2 with Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer. In producing, says Carr, who’s now developing the comedy Personal Shopper, “a lot of it is just luck.”


“I always felt Jan was the person most like the audience,” says Jamie Donnelly, 50, who dyed her prematurely gray hair to play the pigtailed Pink Lady. “She wasn’t as cool as the other ones.” The Teaneck, N.J., native now lives in La Canada, Calif., with her husband, screenwriter Stephen Foreman, son Sevi, 10, and daughter Madden Rose, 8. A veteran of two early stage hits, Grease and The Rocky Horror Show, Donnelly later founded a theater in Lexington, N.Y., then returned to L.A. to become an acting coach for kids—who often ask her to reprise the Grease pajama party in which she mimics a cartoon character. “My Bucky Beaver impression,” she says, “that’s what people remember.”


As bad girl Cha Cha, Cardona got down and dirty dancing with Travolta in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Yet fans won’t recall her from the credits. In those days, she was Annette Charles. “My manager wanted to make me into a Raquel Welch,” explains Cardona, 50, whose background is Mexican-Sicilian. “He thought an ethnic name would go against me.” Married to musician Robert Romeo, she’s now a professor of speech communications at Santa Monica College and remembers Grease fondly. “There was never an argument, no ego trips,” she says. “Everybody helped each other.”


Musicals came naturally to San Diego native Ward, 41, who played T-Bird Putzie. His showbiz parents, Don and Bonnie Ward, enlisted him when he was 5. “I’d do a hat-and-cane routine with my dad,” he says. Wed 20 years to Annette, a home-maker, and the father of three sons, Ward lives outside L.A. and writes animation scripts. Like Grease, he says, “they’re for the kid in the adult.”


Arden’s role as Principal McGee seemed a natural fit, considering her career-defining turn as America’s favorite schoolmarm in the 1950s CBS radio-TV comedy hit Our Miss Brooks. Arden’s last movie before her death in 1990 at age 83 was the 1982 sequel Grease 2.


The role of Vi, the warmhearted waitress, was a sweet cadenza to Blondell’s 100-movie career. Best known for playing brassy blondes in films of the ’30s and ’40s and once married to producer Mike Todd, she died of leukemia at 73 on Christmas Day 1979.


At 19—and in her first movie role, as Marty, the sex-kitten of the Pink Ladies—Manoff projected more spunk than she possessed. “I thought I was ugly, I was fat, I wasn’t good,” she recalls. “I spent my time giggling and putting my head down. I was overwhelmed.” Still, it wasn’t long before the daughter of actress Lee Grant and TV writer Arnold Manoff found her own footing in showbiz, with roles in TV’s Soap, the 1980 movie Ordinary People and a seven-year stint on Empty Nest. Hoping soon to direct her own screenplay (husband Arthur Mortell will produce), the mother of 1-year-old Dashiell is a shrinking violet no more. Now when she watches Grease, Manoff says, “I think I’m so adorable.”


Pearl sees a certain symmetry between his success as Doody the T-Bird and his current gig as eccentric Professor Erasmus Q. Tinkerputt in the touring theater version of Barney. “I’ve been involved in the Grease phenomenon and the Barney phenomenon,” says Pearl, 48. Still, it’s not the kind of fame Pearl once expected. Though he has had small parts in ER and Beverly Hills, 90210, “I don’t think any of the T-Birds have gotten the celebrity we would have liked,” he admits. For now though, Barney pays the bills and allows Pearl more time with his wife of eight months, Heather Brown, a dancer in the show. “It couldn’t get much better than this,” he says. “It’s like we’re on an extended honeymoon.”


After presidential son and aspiring movie actor Steven Ford decided he was too nervous to play the role of Olivia Newton-John’s jock boyfriend (even though the part had no dialogue), Lamas, a strapping 6’1″ and 220 lbs., was more than happy to step in. After all, says Lamas, 40, the son of actress Arlene Dahl and the late actor Fernando Lamas, “I was going to have some scenes with Olivia—the goddess!” He didn’t even object when producer Allan Carr decided he looked too much like a T-Bird and told him to lighten his dark hair. “I would have dyed it green, fuchsia, anything,” says Lamas.

Since Grease, Lamas has continued playing brawny hunks on such TV shows as Falcon Crest, Renegade and—scheduled for fall—the syndicated Air America. “My career started from Grease,” says Lamas, father of a 5-month-old daughter, Alexandra Lyn, with his fourth wife, Playboy model Shauna Sand (he has three other children). “If it’s on cable and I catch a bit, I sit down and watch the whole thing.”