'Grease' casting director says Olivia Newton-John almost turned down iconic role: 'didn’t jump at the offer'

Olivia Newton-John (L) and John Travolta attend the "Grease" 40th anniversary screening at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on August 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California
Photo credit Getty Images

As tributes pour in after the sad passing of Olivia Newton-John earlier this week, famous friends and fans have praised the singer/actress on her iconic work, especially in the classic movie musical “Grease.”

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A major insider on the film revealed this week though that the Australian star wasn’t even sure she wanted the role.

Joel Thurm, the casting director for “Grease,” told People that Newton-John wasn’t sure she was the right actress to play good girl gone bad, Sandy Olsson.

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It was actor John Travolta – who was already set to play Sandy’s bad boy high school crush, Danny Zuko – who suggested Newton-John for the role.

Thurm responded, “She’s wonderful. [Travolta] 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.”

At that point, there was no other actress in line. “If she said no,” Thurm joked, “I’d be playing the part in a poodle skirt. So everybody wanted Olivia here, but Olivia didn’t jump at the offer. That’s the important thing to know.”

It might be assumed that, since her star was rising based on light country and pop hits like “Have You Never Been Mellow,” Newton-John might’ve been skittish about portraying the more aggressive Sandy from the second half of the film's storyline.

It seems her main concern though was about her and Travolta’s on-screen chemistry.

But Thurm insisted the duo’s sizzling chemistry "was there from the get-go.”

Thurm explained, “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.’ 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.”

At first, Newton-John’s fears seemed justified. As People reported, the duo's first screen test together bombed, with no one in the crew responding to the jokes in their dialogue.

​Merging the film's script with some elements of the stage play added some big laughs, and in turn cemented an iconic onscreen couple.

“She felt very, very comfortable with him, and that was it…” said Thurm. “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 made sure to add that the sizzle remained onscreen. "There was never anything untoward or romantic or stuff like that,” he said, “but there was a great deal of mutual respect and friendship that lasted forever. They definitely had a spark.”

The couple’s chemistry sustained, as they remained close friends through the years.

Travolta’s comments on her passing were, of course, some of the most touching of all the tributes, as he wrote on Instagram: “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. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

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