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'Grease’ casting director shares the story of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta’s 1st screen test

Newton-John wasn't sure at first if she should play good girl Sandy Olsson, the high-school sweetheart of Travolta's bad boy character, Danny Zuko.
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Olivia Newton-John's tragic death at age 73 on Monday has fans reminiscing about how she made movie magic with co-star John Travolta in the beloved 1978 movie musical "Grease."

But Newton-John wasn't sure at first if she was the right actor to play good girl Sandy Olsson, the high-school sweetheart of Travolta's bad boy Danny Zuko, the movie's casting director, Joel Thurm, told People on Monday.

Grease
Olivia Newton-John wasn't sure she was the right actor to star alongside John Travolta in the hit 1978 movie "Grease."Paramount Pictures

It was Travolta, already a household name thanks to his role on "Welcome Back, Kotter," who suggested Newton-John be his co-star in the movie, which was based on the hit Broadway musical.

But getting her to accept the part took some doing, said Thurm.

“John was already pre-set, and John asked me, ‘What do you think of Olivia?’ I said, ‘She’s wonderful.’ He said, ‘What do you think of her for Sandy? That’s a great idea.’ And once John said that, and that’s who John wanted, I stopped anything else," he recalled.

Thurm added that he had no back-up plan if Newton-John turned down the movie.

“If she said no, I’d be playing the part in a poodle skirt,” he joked. “So everybody wanted Olivia here, but Olivia didn’t jump at the offer. That’s the important thing to know.”

Grease
The duo's first screen test, which had them performing the movie's famous drive-in scene, was a flop.Paramount Pictures

The "Have You Never Been Mellow" singer was already a famous pop star in Australia and the U.K., but she was only just beginning to break into movies. Thurm explained that Newton-John was cautious about making sure she and Travolta had on-screen chemistry.

“She said, ‘OK, I want to see a screen test with John and myself and then I’ll let you know if I want to do it,’" he recalled.

He added, "I think I’ve never heard of a case where an actor being offered a role said, ‘I want to see me before I say yes.’ But that’s how smart she was.”

Newton-John and Travolta showed off their dance moves when they reunited for the 40th anniversary of "Grease" in 2018.
Newton-John and Travolta showed off their dance moves when they reunited for the 40th anniversary of "Grease" in 2018. Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images

Unfortunately, the duo's first screen test together was a flop — with no one in the crew responding to the jokes in their dialogue.

“We did three takes and no one laughed at the drive-in scene and we’re all, ‘What is this? What is going on?’" said Thurm.

Minutes later, after re-tooling the scene's dialogue — using lines from the original musical script instead of the movie's screenplay — Travolta and Newton-John got the laughs they needed.

When she saw the scene for herself, Newton-John was "relieved," though she was concerned about being older than Travolta.

However, the pair's sizzling chemistry "was there from the get-go,” said Thurn, and before long Newton-John accepted the part to make movie history with Travolta — and to also score a Golden Globe nomination for herself.

Even now, Thurm still marvels at the pairing of Travolta and Newton-John.

“She felt very, very comfortable with him and that was it ... You look at the screen and you see it. He had great respect for her as an artist. And she had the same for him," Thurm said of the two actors' admiration for each other.

He added, "There was never anything untoward or romantic or stuff like that, but there was a great deal of mutual respect and friendship that lasted forever. They definitely had a spark.”

Travolta reunited with Newton-John for the 1983 rom-com "Two of a Kind." The duo also got together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Grease" in 2018, and again the following year when they donned costumes to revive their roles as Danny and Sandy for a Meet n’ “Grease” singalong in West Palm Beach, Florida.

On Monday, Travolta paid an emotional tribute to Newton-John, that he signed from "Your Danny."

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again," Travolta wrote on social media.

He concluded, "Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”