Grease Star Olivia Newton-John Dies at 73
Olivia Newton-John, the Grammy-winning superstar who reigned on pop, country, adult contemporary and dance charts with such hits as “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want” and won countless hearts as everyone’s favorite Sandy in the blockbuster film version of “Grease,” has died. She was 73 years old.
Newton-John, an Australian long-term resident, who sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, passed away Monday, John Easterling her husband wrote on Instagram.
“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” he wrote. “We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
From 1973-83, Newton-John was among the world’s most popular entertainers. She had 14 top 10 singles just in the U.S., won four Grammys, starred with John Travolta in “Grease” and with Gene Kelly in “Xanadu.” The fast-stepping Travolta-Newton-John duet, “You’re the One That I Want,” was one of the era’s biggest songs and has sold more than 15 million copies.
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“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” Travolta wrote in an online post. “Your impact was incredible. You are a wonderful person. We’ll see each other down the road. And we’ll be back together. From the first time I met you, and for all eternity! Your Danny, your John!”
“Physical,” the bouncy, R-rated smash released in 1981, was No. 1 for 10 weeks and was named Billboard’s song of the year despite being banned by some radio stations. A promotional video that promotes aerobics was filmed during the early days of MTV and won a Grammy.
She reinvented her self during that time, both musically as well as image-wise. The blonde, ever-smiling Newton-John initially favored mild pop-country songs such as “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” and soft-breathing ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” which in 1975 won Grammys for best female pop vocal and record of the year. But she picked up the tempo in “Grease,” especially after Sandy ditched her white sweaters and blouses for waist-high, black leather pants. “Physical” even made Newton-John blush as she told her would-be lover “There’s nothing left to talk about/Unless it’s horizontally” and finally called out “Let’s get animal! Animal!”
“I recorded it and then suddenly thought, ‘Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!’” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, recalling how the song had been suggested by manager Roger Davies. “I called Roger and said, ‘We’ve got to pull this song!’ He said, ‘It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.’ I was horrified!”
Social media was filled with mourners who shared their grief on social media. “Farewell with love to the legend who will forever be my first crush,” wrote actor Daniel Dae Kim. Added Tracie Thoms: “Olivia Newton-John is an icon. We will miss her dearly.” Gabrielle Union said she and her sister watched “Xanadu” “more times than I could count.”
She had a few hits after “Physical,” but her career declined and Newton-John became more likely to make news because of her private life. As she was about to embark on a concert tour in 1992, she lost her father and was later diagnosed with breast carcinoma. After her divorce from actor Matt Lattanzi in 1995, she was left with a daughter, actress-singer Chloe Lattanzi. Her relationship for many years with Patrick McDermott became shady. McDermott was reported missing on a California fishing trip. Years later, his fate was unknown. Multiple reports suggested that McDermott had been living with a girlfriend in Mexico.
“He was lost at sea, and nobody really knows what happened,” Newton-John told Australia’s “60 Minutes” in 2016. “It’s human to wonder. Those are things you need to let go of and accept. Because whenever you go through difficult times, there’s always those concerns.”
Newton-John’s recent albums included “Stronger Than Before”; a holiday collaboration with Travolta, “This Christmas,” and the autobiographical “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey,” inspired by her battle with cancer and by the loss of her father.
Newton-John was married to John Easterling in 2008, the founder of Amazon Herb Company. She was involved in numerous charitable causes, serving as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme and as national spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition. In Melbourne, Australia she also established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre.
Newton-John was born to German literature professor Brin Newton John and Irene Bron. Her father, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Bron was Newton-John’s father. When Olivia was five years old, the Newton-Johns moved her family to Australia. She returned home in her teens to live with her mother and father Max Bron (a Nobel Prize-winning physicist). She had early dreams of becoming a veterinarian but was winning singing contests in high school and before age 20 had toured army bases and clubs and recorded her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine.” In 1971, she covered Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” and began a close partnership with a friend from Australia, John Farrar, who produced the song and later wrote “You’re the One That I Want,” “Magic” and several other hits for her.
She had loved country music, especially the records of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, since childhood, but her early success didn’t impress critics or some fellow musicians. A Village Voice review likened her to a geisha who “makes her voice smaller than it really is just to please men.” When Newton-John beat out Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn for the Country Music Association’s top artist of 1973, Tammy Wynette helped found the Association of Country Entertainers, a club designed to exclude Newton-John and other crossover performers.
But Newton-John had a show business admirer who with her became one of movies’ most unforgettable teams. Travolta had starred in the stage version of “Grease” and for the planned film thought Newton-John would be the “ultimate” Sandy, the nice girl who gets tough in the final act and gets her man.
“I worried that at 29 I was too old to play a high school girl,” Newton-John, who insisted on taking a screen test before accepting the part, told The Telegraph in 2017. “Everything about making the film was fun, but if I had to pick a favorite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2. I got to play a different character and wear different clothes, and when I put on that tight black outfit to sing ‘You’re the One That I Want,’ I got a very different reaction from the guys on the set.”
Her husband, daughter Chloe Lattanzi, sister Sarah Newton John; brother Toby Newton John; as well as several nieces/nieces are her survivors.
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