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'Grease' turns 40! 7 things even the hopelessly devoted might not know

by Randee Dawn / / Source: TODAY

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In 1978, "Grease" was the word — and even today, we still can't get enough of the story of two star-crossed 1950s high school sweethearts, Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John).

Grease
The cast of "Grease," who are always the ones that we want!Paramount Pictures

Director Randal Kleiser, who's now working on a virtual reality series called "Defrost," told TODAY that nobody really thought people would be as hopelessly devoted to the film (which was based on a popular Broadway musical) as they became. He shared seven tidbits with us about the surprise-hit film.

1. Kleiser first worked with John Travolta on the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble."

Travolta was on the cusp of superstardom when he met Kleiser; but "Saturday Night Fever" hadn't yet been released and he was still best known as Vinnie Barbarino on "Welcome Back, Kotter." So when Travolta and Kleiser decided to get to know each other over a meal, they didn't exactly dine at the Four Seasons.

"We went to McDonald's and I asked him to use the Vinnie Barbarino voice to order from the drive-through, and he did," remembers Kleiser. "When we drove up to get the food the (McDonald's worker) nearly fainted."

Olivia Newton-John in Grease
Olivia Newton-John as "sweet" Sandy, and later as "sexy" Sandy in "Grease." The director wasn't sure she could make both work.Paramount Pictures

2. Kleiser wasn't sure Olivia Newton-John could pull off the sexier side of Sandy.

The pair had originally met at singer Helen Reddy's home, and while Kleiser liked her she was very much like the sweet, innocent Sandy. "She's exactly the way you see her on film," he said. "It was hard to imagine her as this sex kitten. But oh, boy, did she acquit herself. When she came out of the trailer to show me the outfit and the hair I was blown away. I had no idea who she was."

Grease
Danny (John Travolta) kept striking out with Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) in "Grease."Paramount Pictures

3. Newton-John was nervous about playing opposite Travolta, in part because of their age difference.

When they were hired for the roles, Newton-John was in her late 20s, while Travolta was a few years younger (and they had to play high school students). "John was treating her like an older brother, even though he was younger," said Kleiser. "He knew she was a little nervous and wanted to protect her, like a brother."

4. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees wrote the song "Grease," which gave singer Frankie Valli a No. 1 hit — but his tune almost wasn't the song that kicked off the movie.

Originally, a song by a musician named Bradford Craig had been created for the film, and it sounded more period-accurate; Gibb's "Grease" has a distinct disco flavor. But one of the film's producers, Robert Stigwood, was also Gibb's manager and he asked him to write a song to run over the end credits.

"At the time I asked Barry to change some lyrics, because this was a light comedy and he'd written lyrics like 'This is the life of illusion, wrapped up in trouble, laced with confusion, what are we doing here?'" recalled Kleiser. "He said, 'Why don't you shoot a serious scene?'" In the end, the new song kicked off the film, but on the "Grease" Blu-ray disc (available starting April 24), fans will finally be able to hear the original tune, too.

5. "Grease" was a PG movie in 1978, but it's pretty racy by today's standards, and Kleiser says there are all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle vulgarities all through it.

"Did you listen to the lyrics for 'Greased Lightning'?" he asks. Also worth watching: the trailers playing behind Travolta while he sings "Sandy." According to Kleiser, the ratings board didn't really give it a close look, because no one thought it would be a hit and it was full of singing and dancing. But he notes, "A lot of dirty things happen in that movie. People don't realize all the innuendos all the way through it."

6. Kleiser is still not addressing the rumor that the character of Sandy is dead or dying throughout the whole film (he hints he'll comment in an upcoming memoir). But part of that theory is based on the film's final scene, when Sandy and Danny ascend into the sky while riding Greased Lightning. So is there something to that?

"No deeper meaning," says Kleiser. "It's just a fun ending."

7. "Grease" did eventually get a sequel in 1982's "Grease 2," but Kleiser thinks the mania for reboots should pass his film by.

"I don't think I'd want to see that," he says. "It was so unusual and works all these years later, across all cultures, all ages — I don't think you could do that again. It was like lightning in a bottle."

Follow Randee Dawn on Twitter.

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