New PEOPLE Special Edition: Olivia Newton-John on Why She Initially Turned Down 'Grease'

Newton-John hadn't wanted to play high schooler Sandy, telling producers: “I’m not American, I can’t do an American accent. I’m 29, how can be 18?" Read what changed her mind in an excerpt from PEOPLE's new tribute issue.

olivia newton john People covers

Olivia Newton-John, who died August 8 at age 73, was one of PEOPLE's favorite people, appearing on the magazine's cover more than a dozen times. Now a special edition, Olivia Newton-John: Her Songs, Her Roles, Her Beautiful Life, is out and devoted exclusively to the singer, actress, and women's health advocate. This excerpt from the new issue looks at how landing the movie Grease changed her life—and why she almost turned down a starring role in what became the most successful movie musical to date.

Olivia Newton-John met the charismatic showbiz impresario Allan Carr in 1976 at a dinner party hosted by their mutual friend, singer Helen Reddy. Carr was full of Hollywood gossip and comic stories and, above all, overflowing with enthusiasm about his latest project: a movie musical set in the 1950s. Already a hit on Broadway, Grease was going to be a smash, he assured her.

"I can't wait to see it," Newton-John replied.

"We haven't cast the female lead," he went on. "You would make a wonderful Sandy."

Newton-John was flabbergasted. Sandy, she would soon learn from the stage show she hadn't seen yet, was a 17-year-old American high school student. Newton-John was in her late 20s, had an Australian accent, and the only film she had acted in — the ill-conceived sci-fi musical Toomorrow — had been a complete catastrophe. "My music is going well," she recalled telling Carr in her 2019 autobiography Don't Stop Believin'. "I'm not interested in making another movie."

But Carr would not take no for an answer, and neither would John Travolta, cast as Danny, the male lead. Though they had never met, Travolta, then 22, drove his yellow Mercedes convertible to Newton-John's Malibu home to convince her himself. Though Ann-Margret, Marie Osmond and Susan Dey were rumored to be in the running to play Sandy, "I said, 'There is only one person that should play this role, and it's Olivia Newton-John,' " Travolta told PEOPLE in 2018. "She happens to be the biggest singer in the world right now, [and] she's every guy's dream."

John Travolta and his co star Olivia Newton
Newton-John and Travolta, 1978. Dennis Stone/Mirrorpix/Getty

Travolta's visit was the beginning of a close friendship that would last the rest of Newton-John's life. He told her not to worry about her age (some members of the cast playing students would be even older) or her acting ability.

But before Newton-John would say yes, she insisted on a screen test with Travolta. The following week, at Paramount studios in Los Angeles, the hair, makeup and costume crews transformed Olivia into Sandy. "I couldn't believe what a high ponytail, a ribbon and a little bit of petal-pink blush do," she later wrote.

When Travolta came out with his greased-back hair and black leather jacket, the tableau was complete. They climbed into a 1948 cherry-red convertible, and Danny offered Sandy his class ring. In the test scene, she accepted it gratefully, but when Danny moved in for some heavy petting, she leaped out of the car, threw the ring back at him and shouted, "You can take this piece of tin!"

"Sandy," Danny pleaded, "you can't just walk out of a drive-in!"

Olivia Newton-John in "Grease," 1978. PARAMOUNT PICTURES/Ronald Grant Archive/Mary Evans

The set exploded with laughter — the stars' chemistry was perfect.

The shooting of Grease turned out to be "an amazing atmosphere," Newton-John told PEOPLE on the film's 40th anniversary. Cast members were encouraged to socialize like real friends. For Newton-John, it was like "reliving my teenage years at a school I'd never been to."

The role of Sandy had been changed from an all-American girl to an Australian exchange student to accommodate Newton-John's accent. In addition, the musical needed some new songs for her to sing. To write some of them, Newton-John called on John Farrar, her old friend and producer, best known for having written Newton-John's No. 1 hit "Have You Never Been Mellow." Farrar contributed two songs that would prove to be Grease's most popular: Sandy's lament "Hopelessly Devoted to You," which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, and "You're the One That I Want," which would sell more than 15 million copies worldwide.

"You're the One That I Want" highlighted Sandy's transformation from a Goody Two-shoes to an ultra-cool, sexy young woman in charge. Her vintage 1950s sharkskin pants were so tight she had to be sewn into them. Cast and crew—and Newton-John herself—were astounded by her metamorphosis. Travolta would later say that the look of "lustful shock" that appears on Danny's face when he sees her in the film was precisely how he felt inside.

Grease - 1978
Newton-John and Travolta in "Grease.". Paramount/Rso/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

By June 16, 1978, when Grease premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater, "You're the One That I Want" had already topped the charts. Newton-John and Travolta (by then a star from 1977's Saturday Night Fever) arrived in a vintage convertible to be mobbed by thousands. There was pandemonium on Hollywood Boulevard and similar scenes at the New York and London openings.

Grease was the sort of film — unapologetically nostalgic and campy — that critics tend to deprecate, and many of them savaged it. On the Today show, Gene Shalit dismissed it as "visual junk food." (The New York Times, on the other hand, found it "terrific fun.")

But it was audiences that would have the final say, and their verdict was loud and clear: Grossing more than $396 million worldwide to date, Grease would go down in history as the most successful live-action musical film of the century, owing in no small part to the female lead who hadn't wanted to ever make another movie.

PEOPLE's new special edition, Olivia Newton-John: Her Songs, Her Roles, Her Beautiful Life, is available now wherever magazines are sold.

Related Articles