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‘Grease’ celebrates 45th anniversary: Behind-the-scenes secrets of iconic musical

Tell me more, tell me more: It has been 45 years since “Grease” was released in theaters, making John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John household names.

The movie, which was released on June 13, 1978, followed Sandy Olsson (Newton-John) and Danny Zuko (Travolta) as they struggled to make their relationship work due to the fact that they come from two completely different worlds. Danny is a greaser and Sandy is a good-girl cheerleader.

Their love story quickly captured the hearts of America, becoming such a hit it inspired the sequel, “Grease 2,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the female lead, Stephanie, in her breakthrough role.

As the movie celebrates a milestone anniversary, here’s a look at some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the making of the musical.

“She met John and she liked him. She also liked the role of Sandy, but she was really cautious,” Thurm said. “By this time she’s a huge worldwide star and busy on tour. But we all thought she was perfect, that she was Sandy. So, she said, ‘All right, well, in that case, I’d like a screen test.’ That is the first and only time I’ve ever heard of an actor or actress asking for a screen test.”

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta on the beach while filmnig "Grease"

Doing a screen test with John Travolta alleviated the actress’ fears that she would be humiliated if she took the role, leading her to accept it. (Paramount/Getty Images)

After a successful screen test, it was clear to Newton-John and to executives that she was the right choice. Thurm said he was happy she accepted the role, saying, “We had no backup for the role. She was it.”

She also thought she was too old to play a high school senior, however, seeing herself in the screen test helped convince her she was more than capable of pulling it off.

She wrote in her memoir that her first thought after hearing the costume designer’s idea was, “What if I need to pee? What am I going to do?”

Making the musical’s music featured improvisations and near-cuts

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta filming the drive-in scene in Grease

Director Randal Kleiser said he improvised the drive-in scene, choosing which movie would play on the screen while filming. (CBS via Getty Images)

During an interview with Bustle, the film’s director, Randal Kleiser, revealed that the drive-in scene with Sandy and Danny was somewhat improvised. While the dialogue between the actors was scripted, what the characters were watching was a last-minute decision.

To make the scene feel authentic, Kleiser asked for a bunch of ’50s movie trailers and spent the whole day with his crew looking for the right one to use for the scene, finding the perfect one to pair with Danny’s ballad over losing Sandy.

“I have to be completely honest with you,” Travolta told Vanity Fair. “I wanted the number. And because I had clout, I could get the number.”

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John singing while filming "Grease"

The final duet between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, “You’re The One That I Want,” was added in at the last minute. (CBS via Getty Images)

Four original songs were written for the movie, including the film’s theme song, “Grease,” which plays during the opening credits of the movie. They also added “Sandy,” which Danny sings at the drive-in, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and the duet “You’re the One That I Want,” both of which were written for Newton-John.

“He came into my trailer at, like, 6 in the morning because he had been up all night,” Newton-John said about songwriter John Farrar, who wrote “You’re the One That I Want.” “He played it for me and said, ‘What do you think?’ I went, ‘Oh, God, it’s amazing.’ It just had this fantastic energy.”

Elvis Presley was considered as the ‘Teen Angel’

Henry WInkler as Fonzy and John Travolta as Danny Zuko split

Henry Winkler was considered to play Danny Zuko. (Getty Images)

“Grease” centers around high-schoolers, however, the show’s stars had been out of high school for quite some time.

“I would get up close to them and see if they had any crow’s feet around their eyes, and that would show they were beyond the surreal age that we had determined would work,” Kleiser told Vanity Fair in 2016. “High school kids could not have crow’s feet.”

Newton-John was 28 when she was approached to play the 18-year-old Sandy Olsson. Travolta was 23 years old when he began playing 18-year-old Danny Zuko and Jeff Conaway was 26 when he was supposed to play the teenage Kenickie. Other actors in the iconic T-Bird gang included Michael Tucci (Sonny), 31, Barry Pearl (Doody), 27, and Kelly Ward (Putzie), 20, all of whom played teenagers as well.

Ultimately, he turned down the opportunity, and the role was given to singer Frankie Avalon. Presley was still mentioned in the film, however, in the song “Sandra Dee,” which Rizzo sings in the sleepover scene to make fun of Sandy. The sleepover scene was filmed the night Presley died in 1977.

“It was all over the news, so everyone knew,” Kleiser told the New York Post in 2010. “We did this number, and everybody kind of looked at each other, like, ‘Yeah, this is creepy.'”

Elvis Presley in a publicity photo in 1960

Legendary singer Elvis Presley was offered the role of Frenchy’s guardian angel – the “Teen Angel” – who encourages her to graduate from high school and drop out of beauty school. (Getty Images)

Stockard Channing singing "Sandra Dee" on "Grease"

Stockard Channing as Betty Rizzo singing “Sandra Dee.” (CBS via Getty Images)

Prior to casting Travolta, the studio wanted Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie on “Happy Days,” to play Danny Zuko. Winkler, on the other hand, turned down the offer because he had just played a very similar character for many years and was afraid of being typecast in Hollywood.

John Travolta as Danny Zuko on Grease

John Travolta previously starred as Doody in the Broadway play the movie is based on in the early 1970s. (CBS via Getty Images)

“So, the next day, they wrote me in a part,” Ellen told the Spokesman-Review in 2018. “That’s how loose it was and never knowing the success it would become. I get residuals every 13 weeks for 40 years. And I only worked two days, maybe one day, with Joan Blondell and that group, and I had a lot of fun.”

There was a pitch for ‘Grease’ to be an animated movie

The cast of Grease in the carnival scene

“Grease” could have been a very different movie as the director of X-rated cartoon “Fritz the Cat” expressed interest in the film’s rights. (Paramount/Getty Images)

In 2018, the film’s co-creator, Jim Jacobs, told Yahoo News that when the movie’s rights first became available, many people were interested, one of which was Ralph Bakshi, who is known for the X-rated cartoon “Fritz the Cat.”

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The success of the movie came as a shock to everyone, including the network, Paramount Pictures. Everyone thought another movie filming on the lot, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” was going to be a bigger success and put their time, attention and money into that film.

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta filming the dance scene on "Grease"

The success of the movie came as a shock to everyone, including the network Paramount Pictures. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

“There were two films being made [on the lot] at the time, ‘Grease’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ and they thought [‘Sgt. Pepper’s’] was going to be the big hit,” Kleiser told Bustle in 2015. “At our cast and crew party, we had hamburgers and hot dogs, and they had shrimp. We were like the secondary movie when it was being made here. There wasn’t a lot of interference because the studio thought this was just a routine musical. They didn’t give us any notes or anything; they just let us go.”

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