40 years later, ‘Grease’ is still the word

Many the actors in it — Rob Morrow (“Numb3ers,” “Billions”), Marilu Henner (“Taxi,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) — went on to find their own fame, say it was an inspiration

Luaine Lee
Tribune News Service

The classic movie musical “Grease” will be 40 years old on Saturday and all tuned in for a whole new generation to discover. The colorful teens at Rydell High are still crooning about prom night, dropping out of beauty school and heating up the dance floor with “You’re the One That I Want.”

“Grease,” starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, became the highest-grossing musical of the 20th century.

Expectations were miniscule when the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John starrer was released in 1978. Based on a Broadway musical, the film about greaser Danny and goody-two-shoes Sandy went on to become the highest grossing musical of the 20th century, though it cost Paramount a measly $6 million to make.

It turns out “Grease” was more than a hit movie. To many actors who went on to find their own fame, it was an inspiration.

Rob Morrow (“Numb3ers,” “Billions”) says it changed his life.

“I went to the movie ‘Grease’ and had never thought about acting. It never occurred to me,” he says. “I knew I’d never be the kind of person that would have a traditional job in that I went to the same place and did basically the same thing for a long time. I was conscious of that, but I watched John Travolta, and there was something about the joy, the fun he seemed to be having — and I knew he was making a living — and I thought, ‘That’s for me.’”

Stockard Channing, left, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Jeff Conaway co-starred in the surprise hit musical, “Grease.”

Marilu Henner (“Taxi,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) got her start with the show. “When I was in high school a friend of mine wrote a show and said, ‘We’re going to perform this in a converted trolley barn, and I want you to be a part of it. It’s called “Grease.” ’ So I did the first original production of ‘Grease’ ever. When the first national company came up, I got the part!”

For Omar Epps (“House,” “Resurrection”), the connection came early. “I did a school play in the sixth grade, and we did ‘Grease,” and I had a really small role. But that high, that connection with the crowd, that was it! I think that was when I was bit by the bug.”

Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical,” “Powerless”) went on to play Rizzo in Fox’s live version of the show. “I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw ‘Grease,’ ” she says. “I feel like ‘Grease’ has just always been a part of my life. It’s always been on in my house. I can’t remember my life before ‘Grease’ almost.”

Although Brooke Shields (“Suddenly Susan,” “Flower Shop Mysteries”) had been acting for 19 years, she says it wasn’t until she did “Grease” on the stage that she took it seriously.

“I decided I wanted to be an actress,” she says. “I think the difference between wanting to perform and receive approval vs. really going home at night and instead of feeling good because someone likes you and you did a good job — because I really did thrive on being a professional, because you get a lot of approval as a child. … It wasn’t until 1993 when I did ‘Grease,’ that’s when I really said, ‘I want to give this my best shot.’ ”

Olivia Newton-John, left, and John Travolta costar in the hit musical, “Grease,” which is celebrating its 40th birthday on Saturday. REELZ is presenting a special, “ ‘Grease’: Behind Closed Doors” at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Tom Cavanagh (“The Flash,” “Royal Pains”) launched his career in “Grease.”

“In college I was playing basketball and they do one show there a year and did ‘Grease,’ ” he says. “So I auditioned for role of Danny Zuko, and the basketball guys were adamant that I was too short to be an actor. To which I responded the world does not revolve around an average size of 6-foot-4 like these gentlemen. I’m actually 6 feet. In the average world, that’s not small at all. I went and auditioned and I got the job … That show was seen by an agent, actually a director who was with an agency who put me in touch with the agency in Toronto. And they signed me. And I got lucky.”

Sutton Foster (“Bunheads,” “Younger”) also owes her start to “Grease.”

“I lived at home with my parents. I waited tables — was sort of lost. Then I flew up to New York to visit my brother who was working on a Broadway show. And there were several open-calls up there and my mom encouraged me to audition,” she says.

“And my brother and his girlfriend at the time helped me prepare. And I got cast in a national tour of ‘Grease.’ And four days later was flown to San Francisco and at 19, I was traveling around the country in a national tour! I feel that life had helped me out there. I was in the ensemble. I’m a gypsy, an ensemble girl, who crawled her way to the top. I did ‘Grease’ for a year and a half, and my Broadway debut was with ‘Grease.’ ”

Michael Rosenbaum (“Smallville,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) was too timid to try acting at first.

“I was taking drama classes, but I was still nervous and shy and my teacher said — I was a senior — she said, ‘Listen, you can’t take Drama 4 unless you audition for a play.’ I said, ‘Awwww.’ To me it (had been) an easy A. You just got up there and read some plays. Drama’s an easy-A. I said, ‘OK, and auditioned for ‘Grease.’ Doesn’t every actor audition for ‘Grease’? I got the part of Vince Fontaine,” he says.

“‘Hey, hey this is the main brain, Vince Fontaine, spin the sacks of wax here at the house of wax, WAXX.’ I still remember because I was so nervous. The next morning I was walking down the hallway and a couple of the popular kids — I remember this popular kid, Chris Prow, said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty funny.’ So for me, not being me, on stage I could be any weird, eccentric — anything I wanted to do on stage, I could do. I didn’t feel like I was being judged. It was MY time.”

Julianne Hough (“Dancing with the Stars,” “Safe Haven,”) went on to play Sandy in Fox’s live version of “Grease.”

“I put the production on in my basement when I was, like, 5 years old,” she says. “I was Sandy, and then, during the dance scene, I turned into Cha-Cha, and then I went back to Sandy.”

Reelz will celebrate the anniversary with the behind-the-scenes story on the motion picture when it premieres “Grease’: Behind Closed Doors” at 9 p.m. Saturday.

‘Grease’: Behind Closed Doors’

9 p.m. Saturday