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In the late ’70s, the New Jersey-born actor was on a roll, with breakout performances in the hit sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, Brian De Palma's horror classic, Carrie, and, of course, the defining disco-era drama, Saturday Night Fever. But 45 years ago, the film version of the Broadway smash, Grease, elevated Travolta to a whole other realm of stardom... and fulfilled a personal dream he'd had since getting into the business.
Released on June 16, 1978, the Randal Kleiser-directed movie musical became that year's biggest blockbuster, topping such hits as Animal House and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The soundtrack also topped the charts, with "You're the One That I Want" — the climactic duet featuring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John — becoming the best-selling duet of all time. "Nothing will ever beat it, because record sales aren't the same as they were years ago," Travolta told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2019 Role Recall. "I think I have the permanent record of that being the ultimate duet!"
Watch our full Role Recall with John Travolta on YouTube
In an alternate timeline, that particular record could be held by Newton-John and Barry Bostwick instead of Newton-John and Travolta. The Rocky Horror Picture Show star originated the part of T-Birds leader, Danny Zuko, in the inaugural 1972 Broadway production of Grease alongside Carole Demas as Sandy. Fresh from dropping out of high school (sorry Frankie Avalon), Travolta nabbed a supporting role in the show's touring production as Doody — one of Rydell High's resident leather-jacket wearing greasers that followed Danny's every command.
From the beginning of his Grease experience, though, Travolta had his eyes on being a leader, not a follower. In our 2019 interview, the actor recalled being a close study of the actor playing Danny on the tour, describing it as the "role I really wanted." And he admitted to having the premonition — or, at least, the hope — that he might the one singing "Greased Lightning" on the big screen in the inevitable Grease movie. "I really had the thought, 'One day when they do the movie, maybe I'll get to play Danny.'"
Flash-forward to 1976 and Grease was ready to go before the cameras... with Henry "The Fonz" Winkler leading the T-Birds. The Happy Days star was Paramount's top choice for Zuko, but he passed on the role out of fear of being typecast. At the time, Travolta had a three-movie deal with Grease producer, Robert Stigwood — who had also cast him in Saturday Night Fever — and when Winkler bailed, he was eagerly waiting in the wings. (Winkler later confessed that he regretted that choice: "I went home and had an orange juice. John Travolta said yes [to the role], and he went home and bought a plane," he told Newsweek in 2021.)
However it came about, winning the role of Danny was "a dream come true" for Travolta, and he had done all the prep work well before turning up on the set of the film. "I knew that character like the back of my hand," he said. "I knew what worked, and I knew what didn't work. I knew what was funny, and I knew what wasn't funny. I knew what was cool looking, in moves. I knew how to comb my hair, how to pose and how to be cool, because all I could do as the other character [Doody] was watch the coolest character — which was Danny — for over a year."
Funnily enough, Travolta revealed that one of the keys to capturing Danny's essence is recognizing that he's not always the coolest guy in school. There are moment throughout Grease where Zuko is downright dorky, and those are the comic beats that Travolta nails effortlessly. "You see that when he lets his mask down, he's just a regular dude — not James Dean or Marlon Brando," the actor said.
2019 was also the year that Travolta and Newton-John suited up in their best Grease fashions for sing-along screenings that were held around the country. And the actor was one of the first to pay tribute to his co-star after Newton-John died of breast cancer last year. "My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better," Travolta wrote on Instagram. "Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever!"
Grease is available to rent or purchase on most VOD platforms