By Laurence Lerman / New York City
In the first half of the Seventies, you couldn’t miss Olivia Newton-John. Her voice was all over the radio, her face was plastered all over record albums and posters in music stores, and the entire adorable package was all over television’s most popular variety shows (Donny and Marie, anyone?), as well as a pair of Newton-John’s own TV specials. But it turned out that the hoopla was only her opening act, and that she would soar even higher after her star turn in 1978 in the smash musical film Grease.
Olivia Newton-John died of cancer on Monday, August 8, at her ranch in Southern California. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and in 2017 she announced that it had returned and had metastasized to her lower back. She was 73.
In mid-Seventies, before the Grease juggernaut occurred, the hits were already coming for Newton-John. The British-born, Australian-raised singer’s high, breathy voice brought life (and considerable sales!) to such country-flavored pop hits as “Let Me Be There” in 1973; “I Honestly Love You” in 1974; “Have You Never Been Mellow,” “Please Mr. Please” and “Something Better to Do” in 1975; and “Let It Shine,” “Come On Over” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” in 1976. All of them became Top Ten singles in the U.S. (except for “Let Me Be There,” her first song to make the charts, which climbed to #6).
For those accomplishments, Olivia won a slew of Grammy Awards and American Music Awards and Billboard Awards and Country Music Association Awards.
And then, in 1978, she became really popular!
That year, Olivia co-starred with John Travolta in Grease, adapted from the 1971 Broadway musical by the same name. Following the antics and adventures of a group of working-class teenagers at fictional Rydell High School in 1959, Grease was initially conceived and performed as a raunchy and loud rock’n’roll-scored show. Subsequent productions sanitized the material, beginning with the Randal Kleiser-directed film, which focused on a considerably more family-friendly greaser Danny Zuko (Travolta) and his romance with the adorable, virginal Sandy Olsson (Newton-John), written for the movie as an Australian transfer student to explain non-actor Olivia’s accent.
The movie was a mammoth hit both critically and commercially, becoming the highest-grossing musical ever at the time, with a soundtrack album that ended 1978 as the second best-selling album of the year in the U.S. (behind the soundtrack of the 1977 Travolta-starring Saturday Night Fever). Olivia had a couple of Top Ten hits on the album, as well, which was hardly a big surprise.
What was more startling was how Grease instantly catapulted Olivia to A-list movie stardom. She had been making music for nearly a decade, since her young teenage years in Australia, before she began to climb in the business in the early Seventies, first abroad and then in the U.S. But the movies happened overnight and though she had a charming and warm screen presence in her tailor-made Grease role, Olivia’s two major films that followed didn’t really deliver, though she brought her enthusiasm to both of them.
Among these were the zany 1980 musical Xanadu, where Olivia portrays a Muse who convinces co-star Gene Kelly that he should open a roller disco (it’s a cult favorite now!); and the disastrous 1983 Two of a Kind, a rom-com fantasy that reteamed her with Travolta. The latter is best remembered for Gene Hackman portraying the voice of God. (It’s not a cult favorite!)
Music remained the magic for Olivia through the Eighties, beginning with the sizzling, synthesizer-fueled “Physical,” a chart-topper that was immediately considered the sexiest and edgiest record ever made by the seemingly wholesome singer.
Subsequent decades saw Olivia release more than a dozen albums, supported by singles, music videos and extensive touring. She popped up regularly in the tabloids—she was married twice and also had a handful of long-term relationships, so nothing surprise there—but generally rose above the blather that the tabs published. She was warmly embraced by her large, decades-long fan base, while the rest of the public didn’t appear to ever have a problem with her and generally seemed supportive.
This was very much the case when Olivia announced in 1992 that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered over the next several years, having a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. Soon thereafter, she became an active advocate for breast cancer research and other health issues, and a product spokesperson for the Liv-Kit, a breast self-examination product.
The entertainer also created the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, which is dedicated to researching plant-based treatments for cancer. Later, in 2008, she raised funds to help build the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.
Olivia even took the positivity to her music, writing her own songs for the first time in her career, many of them promoting health, strength and humanitarian causes. They didn’t make the charts or enjoy strong sales, but Olivia remained outspoken about the message she was sending through her music, foundation and other charitable work.
“Once you face your fear, nothing is ever as hard as you think,” she said.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.