When “Grease” appeared on the big screen 40 years ago it was a huge hit, but Coeur d’Alene’s Ellen Travolta will be the first one to tell you that her role as a waitress in the movie was insignificant.
“There’s nothing interesting about the role,” she said. “I was in two scenes.”
Those scenes were an accident. Travolta, already an actress with years of work under her belt, stopped by the “Grease” set one day to visit her brother John, who had the starring role in the film. He asked if she wanted to be in the movie and there were some quick negotiations between the director and Travolta’s agent.
At the time the cast was shooting a diner scene.
“I said ‘I want to wear one of those blue outfits with the bunny ears,’” she said.
Travolta said she didn’t get paid much for her work at the time, but the timeless endurance of the movie has led to an unexpected benefit.
“Here’s the thing,” she said. “For 40 years, every 13 weeks I get a check.”
Sometimes actors can tell when a movie will hit it big, but no one was sure about “Grease,” Travolta said.
“Nobody has any idea of the bigness,” she said. “It did not fare well in Hawaii. It didn’t test well, so they were nervous about it. It opened and it was a smash.”
The movie was nominated for an Oscar for best music and also nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Original Song. It won the People’s Choice Award for favorite overall motion picture and favorite musical motion picture in 1979.
“Grease” is, without a doubt, the biggest musical to be made into a movie...Grease is what it is,” Travolta said. “It’s a period piece.”
Though remakes are popular right now, Travolta said she doesn’t think remaking “Grease” would be successful.
“I don’t know how you would ever make it,” she said. “It’s been done. There’s such a nostalgia that goes along with Grease.”
Travolta said she doesn’t believe her small role in “Grease” had much of an impact on her career. “I was already working on stuff in Los Angeles,” she said.
She is perhaps best known for her roles in “Happy Days”, “Joanie Loves Chachi” and “Charles in Charge.” She enjoyed doing television series work, she said.
“I loved doing soap operas,” she said. “I was on General Hospital for two years.”
But she also loved her theater work, including Gypsy and Hello Dolly. In recent years she has performed on stage with the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre.
She said she was never really recognized by people in public for her small role in “Grease” until it came out on DVD and people could watch it over and over and over again. “That’s when people approached me about it,” she said. “They wrote me letters.”
Like many people, Travolta still enjoys the songs from the movie. “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning” and “You’re the One that I Want” have become iconic in their own right.
“I love every song in Grease,” she said.
Travolta had seen “Grease” as a Broadway play before the movie was filmed. “I think the movie far surpasses the show,” she said. “Usually it’s the other way around.”
For the film’s 20th anniversary “Grease” came back to Broadway with a mix of stage actors and the movie cast. Travolta said she’s confident it will see a Broadway stage again.
This year the Cannes Film Festival in France honored the film’s 40th anniversary with a special showing of the movie on the beach. There were 800 beach chairs set up for official guests, but more than 10,000 ordinary people showed up, many of them in costumes inspired by the movie, Travolta said. Being there had a profound effect on her.
“I cried,” she said. “I thought, my God this film has endured. It was so impressive. It was unbelievable.”