'Grease' turns 40: Carrie Fisher as Sandy, Rydell High's location, missing scenes, and more burning questions answered

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in  Grease (Paramount)

There are two types of people in this world: Grease superfans, and those who know a Grease superfan.

No one can attest to that better than Grease director Randal Kleiser. “It’s opened doors all over the world for me, when people find that out about me,” said Kleiser, who made his feature-film debut with the 1978 high school musical before going on to direct other favorites like The Blue Lagoon, Flight of the Navigator, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. “They usually have a story or know somebody who’s a superfan. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have someone in their life who was a fan. It’s quite extraordinary.”

 As Grease turns 40 this June, and with the release of the new Grease 40th Anniversary Blu-ray, we caught up with Kleiser for answers to some burning questions about the beloved film starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and gang.

Who is Grease‘s most famous superfan?

Kleiser’s favorite fan encounter came when he met Cameron Diaz, the star of Charlie’s Angels and There’s Something About Mary, who recently announced her retirement from acting. “She met me and someone said that I directed Grease, and she got down on her hands and knees and bowed to me,” the filmmaker said. “That was the biggest one.”

Why did Grease‘s success surprise the filmmakers and studio?

Kleiser says that no one working on the film could have predicted it would become popular — slightly odd, considering the Broadway version of the play had been burning up stages since premiering in 1972 (a year after opening in Chicago in ’71). Those maintaining modest expectations included the executives at Paramount, the movie’s distributor. “The studio felt like it was going to be a teen musical that would last for the summer, and maybe have a life on video someday. It was not [predicted] to be a hit,” Kleiser said. “It had a big life before this, but the studio didn’t have a lot of faith in it at the time.”

Kleiser added that Robert Stigwood, one of Grease‘s lead producers, along with Allan Carr, was betting on another musical they were producing at the same time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) starring Peter Frampton and the Gibb brothers covering classic Beatles songs, to burn up the box office. “So we had two wrap parties: “Their wrap party they had mounds of caviar and shrimp and champagne. And at ours, we had hotdogs and hamburgers,” he said.

Grease went on to become the highest-grossing musical of all time. In other words, they were bigger than the Bee Gees.

What was it like working with John Travolta?

Kleiser owes his involvement in Grease in large part to Travolta, whom Kleiser had directed in the seminal 1976 television movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Travolta, cast as Danny Zuko, the tough guy with a heart of gold, recommended Kleiser for the feature. (Kleiser was also seriously considered at one point to direct Travolta in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, which first made the Welcome Back, Kotter TV actor a film star, and which was helmed by John Badham.)

“John is a very intense artist who really is a perfectionist. And he’s also an insomniac, which is a bad combination, because he would call me late at night and ask which take I printed that day,” Kleiser recalled. “I would be asleep and say, ‘What?’ But it shows in his work that he’s a perfectionist.”

Did the director worry about Olivia Newton-John’s virtually non-existent acting experience?

The English-born Australian became an international pop star in the early 1970s, but she had very little acting experience when she was tapped to play the new girl in school, Sandy. Kleiser said that was never a concern: “Not really, because when you sing a song well, it’s really acting. If you sing a song well, you break it down into beats, each line has an action, and there’s an intention. It’s just like acting. … But I was worried about her being nervous. John and I got together and worked on really making her feel comfortable and calm and able to do her best work.”

It helped that the screenwriters rewrote the role of Sandy specifically to play off Newton-John’s nationality. She was no longer Sandy Dumbrowski (the characters in the original stage version were mostly Polish kids from Chicago), but Sandy Olsson from Down Under. “She couldn’t have done it if she had to play Sandy Dumbrowski, how the character was written,” Kleiser said. “That would not have been possible for Olivia at the time. That would not have worked.”

Was Carrie Fisher almost cast as Sandy?

About a year before the Star Wars actress tragically passed away in 2016, reports circulated that she “almost” played Sandy in Grease. Those reports were highly exaggerated. Kleiser says he did take a quick look at Fisher, but there was never an audition or even a discussion.

Carrie Fisher in Star Wars (Lucasfilm)

 

Kleiser is old friends with Star Wars creator George Lucas; the two attended USC’s film school together in the 1960s, and Kleiser even acted in Lucas’s 1966 sophomore black-and-white film Freiheit, which you can watch on YouTube. Lucas was editing Star Wars as Kleiser was casting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so he paid Kleiser a visit. “For about 30 seconds, I went to the mix of Star Wars, and George let me come in as he was mixing,” Kleiser recalled, with a touch of understatement. “I saw this girl with buns on her head, left and right, and that was it. I said, ‘Well, I can’t tell much from that.’ We never met with her [about the role]. But I was going to be desperate if Olivia didn’t want to do it, to find somebody, and I was going to explore Carrie if Olivia turned it down. But she luckily didn’t.”

Kleiser said he has never thought about how the woman behind Princess Leia (and whom we eventually got to see sing in the Star Wars Holiday Special) would have done in the role. “But I had a good long friendship with Carrie.” She even gave him notes on the script he wrote for his 1996 drama It’s My Party. “She was a wonderful, funny, funny woman, and I just miss her very much. I loved her so much. She was one of the funniest people I knew.”

Did the actors seem too old to play high schoolers?

It’s not uncommon for actors to play younger in Hollywood, but Grease is one of the most egregious examples. Most of the actors were in their twenties: Travolta was 28, Newton-John was 28, Barry Pearl (Doody) was 27, Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) was 26, and Didi Conn (Frenchie) was 25. But Jamie Donnelly (Jan) was 30, Michael Tucci (Sonny) was 31, and Stockard Channing (Rizzo) was 33.

“Well, one of the things I did watch for was crow’s feet in the casting session, because that was the one thing I didn’t want high school students to have,” Kleiser said of the branching wrinkles that form around eyes. “If they looked generally kind of youngish that was fine, because this was going to be a bigger-than-life Hollywood musical, and reality was not going to be a big factor.”

The Grease cast performs “We Go Together.” Clockwise from the left: Michael Tucci as Sonny (on ground), Dinah Manoff as Marty, Jamie Donnelly as Jan, Kelly Ward as Putzie, Olivia Newton-John as Sandy, John Travolta as Danny, Jeff Conaway as Kenickie, Stockard Channing as Rizzo, Barry Pearl as Doody, and Didi Conn as Frenchie. (Photo: Paramount Pictures/courtesy of the Everett Collection)

It’s true — not that anyone minded, beyond the legendary late film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote, “One problem I always have, watching the movie, is that all the students look too old.” Fans, meanwhile, have just rolled with it.

Where is Rydell High, anyway?

It’s one of the most frequently debated questions among Grease fans. We know that the original stage production took place in Chicago, and the movie was filmed in and around Los Angeles (with Venice High School and John Marshall High School physically standing in for Rydell), yet many of the actors speak with distinctly East Coast accents — namely New York and New Jersey.

Kleiser offers a simple answer: “I think it’s in Movieland.” So there you have it. Rydell High is in Movieland, USA.

Randal Kleiser, director of  Grease, at an event in 2013 (Getty Images)

How did Frankie Avalon take to his Grease cameo?

Grease introduced the 1950s and ’60s teen idol and crooner to a new generation of fans, but Avalon had some initial reservations about shooting his famous cameo, in which he appears in a vision as Frenchy’s Guardian Angel to sing “Beauty School Dropout” (the graphics used when he makes his appearance, Kleiser noted, marked one of the first times digital effects were used on film).

“He was a little nervous about doing the scene, because it was a very tall staircase, and there was a concrete floor below on the soundstage. He didn’t want to do it,” said Kleiser, who coincidentally was a dancing extra in one of Avalon’s Beach Party movies eight years earlier. “So we very quickly brought in inflatable mattresses all around and convinced him that it was going to be safe. And then he was able to do that terrific song. He really nailed it, and he looked better than he ever did, with the makeup and hair and wardrobe and that stage. It was just so fun.”

Frankie Avalon croons “Beauty School Dropout” in Grease. (Photo: Paramount Pictures/courtesy of the Everett Collection)

The song gave Avalon a late career resurgence. “He later told me that in his concerts, that was the one song that people always request,” Kleiser said.

As for the rumor that Elvis Presley was initially offered the part, Kleiser could neither confirm or deny it. “That was probably was before I was involved, because Elvis died during our production. But I don’t remember talking about Elvis.”

What are some of the Easter eggs that Kleiser worked in?

In adapting the play for the screen, Kleiser was able to slide in some homages to classic films. The opening scene with Danny and Sandy on the beach has echoes of From Here to Eternity. And both Danny’s blue windbreaker and the way Cha-Cha starts the drag race toward the film’s end are nods to Rebel Without a Cause.

What were some scenes that didn’t make the final cut?

There were a couple of other numbers the director had planned that didn’t make the cut. He had originally envisioned a take on the song “It’s Raining on Prom Night” that would reference Singin’ in the Rain: “I absolutely love that song and wanted to do it like ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ with Olivia walking through a rain-filled street and having the rain come down on her and mess her all up. I thought it’d be funny to have her singing through the lyrics about the mascara running down the face. I thought, ‘Oh, that’d be fun to show.’ But Allan Carr said, ‘No way you’re going to have Olivia look like that in the movie.’ So he nixed it and we couldn’t do that.”

Kleiser also wanted the climactic race to be a direct tribute to Ben-Hur: “The race at the end was not supposed to be in the L.A. River. I wanted to do it at a high school track and I wanted to have big floats. The reason that the opposing team to Rydell High was the Gladiators is because I wanted to have big floats like Ben-Hur. … We were going to have giant papier-mâché statues parked in the middle of the football field and then have the race track go around that and have a whole take-off on Ben-Hur. But the studio said it was going to be too expensive to build those things. I was kind of depressed about that, that my whole idea went down the tubes. But then when I saw the dailies and saw how the L.A. River looked on the big Panavision screen, I was really happy, because it looked much better. It gave scope to the movie, it gave size, and it looked spectacular on the big screen. So I was happy I was outvoted there.”

Was the film’s famous mooning ever considered too risqué?

Between the famous bus shot in Slap Shot (1977), and the “blue mooning” in Grease, the late 1970s ushered in an era of famous mooning shots in movies. Slap Shot was R-rated, though, and Grease was originally PG. “It was all done in such fun, it was guys just doing a joke on people,” Kleiser said. “I think if it been at all sexual or nasty, it wouldn’t have worked. But it was a prank, and it was done so quickly, like two seconds’ worth, so we got away with it.”

And Kleiser’s young cast got away with their own prank at the film’s Hollywood debut. “When we had the premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the three T-Birds told me, ‘When you pull up in your car, we’re gonna moon you.’ I said, ‘Oh sure.’ And they did! Right in the middle of this giant crowd, they pulled down their pants right on my window as I got out of my car.”

If that stunt was to happen today, of course, it would be on social media in about 15 seconds.

Grease: 40th Anniversary Edition is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and 4K Ultra HD on Tuesday.

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