By Terrance Turner
Aug. 8, 2022
Legendary singer and actress Olivia Newton-John has died. She was 73.
“Dame Olivia Newton-John passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” her husband John Easterling wrote in a statement. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.”
Newton-John went public with her diagnosis of breast cancer in 1992, when she was jut 44. She was successfully treated, but the cancer returned in 2013. This time it had spread to her shoulder — forcing her to postpone a North American tour, according to CNN. In May 2017, when the cancer returned for a third time, doctors discovered that it had metastasized and spread to her bones. Newton-John revealed in Sept. 2018 that she was being treated for cancer at the base of her spine.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund (ONJFoundationFund.org) [which sponsors research for plant-based treatments for cancer in hopes of realizing a world beyond it].”
Born on Sept. 26, 1948, in Cambridge, England, Olivia Newton-John was the youngest of three children. Her father was a German school instructor; her mother Irene Born was the daughter of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who fled Germany for England as Hitler rose to power. When she was five, the family moved to Melbourne, Australia. (Her father became dean of a college there, according to CNN.) It was a musical family: her father played piano; her mother, cello. Olivia sang.
After her parents divorced, she found comfort in music. Newton-John formed an all-girl group when she was 15, according to the Hollywood Reporter. She won a talent contest on a local TV show called “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1965. First prize was a trip to London; she and a friend named Pat Carroll performed at army bases and clubs in Europe. She signed with Decca Records in 1966 and garnered attention in 1971 with a cover of a Bob Dylan song, “If Not For You”. It became her first international hit, going to No. 1 on the United States “Adult Contemporary” chart. The next single, “Banks of the Ohio”, went to No. 1 in Australia despite stalling in the States. But her biggest successes still lay ahead.
In 1973, Olivia Newton John’s MCA single “Let Me Be There” reached the top 10 on both the country and pop charts. Peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Let Me Be There” became her first top 10 hit in the United States. It won her a Grammy for best female country vocal performance.
In 1974, Newton-John hit the mother lode with the ballad “I Honestly Love You”. Written by Jeff Barry and actor Peter Allen, the song went to No. 1 on the pop charts and on Adult Contemporary (plus No. 6 on country). It won two Grammys: for best female pop vocal performance and for record of the year.
Olivia Newton-John was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1974 Country Music Association Awards — which sparked tension within the field. Some country singers resented the fact that a foreign-born singer whose music leaned much more towards pop was being recognized as a country artist. “We don’t want somebody out of another field coming in and taking away what we’ve worked so hard for,” said a country singer named Johnny Paycheck. Newton-John “couldn’t drawl,” carped the Nashville Tennessean, “with a mouth full of biscuits.”
Her win led more traditional stars like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to briefly form the Association of Country Entertainers in protest. But the hits kept coming — Newton-John’s single “Have You Never Been Mellow” hit No. 1 pop in 1975, propelling the album of the same name to number one. And after she recorded her 1976 album Don’t Stop Believin‘ in Nashville, the tension eased.
By that point, Olivia Newton-John was just two years away from the biggest role of her career.
She was offered a part in the movie musical Grease (1978). Based on the Broadway musical, Grease is set in a 1950s high school; Newton-John played Sandy, a good-girl exchange student being romanced by a bad-boy “greaser” named Danny Zuko (played by John Travolta). Both characters transform their image as their relationship develops, and the chemistry between them is palpable onscreen.
Travolta thought she would be great for the part, but Newton-John had her doubts. “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.”
Indeed, that moment became one of the film’s most iconic:
Grease was a smash, eventually making over $300 million at the box office. It became one of the biggest movie musicals ever, besting even The Sound of Music. And the soundtrack was a massive success, spawning two No. 1 hit singles: “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want.” (Newton-John’s solo number, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, earned the film’s lone Oscar nomination, according to the New York Times.) “Grease” was the second-biggest selling of the year, second only to “Saturday Night Fever” (which also starred Travolta). According to USA Today, the soundtrack went on to sell over eight million copies.
Travolta paid tribute to his co-star today on social media.
“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” he wrote on Instagram alongside a picture of Olivia, who played Sandy Olsson in the 1978 film. “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!” He signed off: “Your Danny, your John!”
This story will be updated.