Ever since Grease came out back in 1978, it’s been one of the world’s most popular movie musicals (via Vanity Fair). Just about everyone remembers songs like "Greased Lightnin’," "Summer Nights," and "You’re The One That I Want." The movie tells the story of Sandy, a high school student from Australia, who moves to America and starts at Ryder High. Little does she know, her summer fling, Danny Zuko, also goes to her new school. While Sandy is a wholesome girl-next-door, Danny is one of the cool guys. They try to make their relationship work despite their differences; at the end, Sandy transforms into the leather-wearing, chain-smoking, permed girl of Danny’s dreams.
While the movie’s plot may not hold up against today’s feminist standards, it’s definitely a lot of fun. Most of us probably grew up watching this musical thinking that it showcased the epitome of high school life. What you may not have realized is that the majority of the actors were way, way older than regular high school kids. Re-watching the movie today, you’ll probably notice that these kids look a lot like — well — adults! Here’s the low-down on how old the actors of Grease were while filming.
Olivia Newton-John thought she was too old to play Sandy in Grease
Olivia Newton-John starred in Grease as Sandy, the goodie-two-shoes new girl who was sorely out of place with the Pink Ladies. While Newton-John definitely pulled off the innocent high school act, she was significantly older than her character. In fact, she was 29!
As she confessed to Entertainment Weekly, Newton-John initially thought she was too old to play Sandy. "I was 29 and worried that I didn’t look young enough," she recalled. However, when she met John Travolta, who played Danny, she realized they were the perfect match. "John and I had great chemistry from the first time we met," she continued. "We bonded forever on celluloid."
And Travolta felt the same way — in fact, it was his idea to cast her. As he told People, "They were desperately looking for a Sandy." He went on, "I said, ‘There is only one person that should play this role and it’s Olivia Newton-John… She’s every guy’s dream." At the time, she was a huge pop star, so it’s easy to see why she was a natural choice — and we definitely can’t imagine anyone else playing Sandy!
John Travolta got cast in Grease thanks to his role in the stage musical
John Travolta famously played Danny Zuko in Grease, the super cool, leather jacket-wearing leading man. While the character was a high school student, Travolta was 23 years old when he was cast (via Entertainment Weekly).
These days, Travolta is a household name, having taken on roles in films like Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever (via IMDb). However, at the time, he was just an up-and-coming star. As People reported, Travolta got the role after playing Doody (one of the other T-Birds) in the Broadway production of Grease. He reportedly once told Jim Jacobs, Grease co-author, "All Doodys dream of becoming Dannys someday."
While Travolta was around five years older than his character, his chemistry with Olivia Newton-John made the movie work. As co-star Didi Conn told the Daily Mail, "Oh, yeah [he did like her]. What was so much was that most of us were older than the characters we were playing so we just stayed in character all day long." Sounds like the cast got into character by acting younger than their age even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Stockard Channing may have been a little old, but her experience made Rizzo better in Grease
Stockard Channing played Rizzo in Grease, the head of the Pink Ladies and the "bad girl" of the group. At 32 years old, she was one of the oldest cast members; as she joked to The Sun, "I am the world’s oldest living teenager." To that end, Channing told Broadway World, she had to forget about her age to play Rizzo. "I was so much older than she was in life," she explained. "But I could not think about that so I sort of threw myself back to… when I was her age [or] even younger."
While Channing may have been 14 years too old, her age may have actually helped with her performance. "Seeing that I really was older I think that added to the isolation of Rizzo," she continued.
Channing also made sure that her iconic song "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" stayed in the final cut. "I fought for it," she added. "It got in there by the skin of its teeth." Clearly, Channing’s age gave her the wisdom to know exactly what the movie needed!
Jeff Conaway was a little older than his character in Grease
Jeff Conaway played Kenickie, one of the T-Birds and Rizzo’s on-again-off-again boyfriend in Grease. Conaway, like many of his co-stars, was older than his character at the time; he was 26. According to People, Conaway was cast after being the understudy for Danny in the Broadway version of Grease. Funnily enough, Conaway returned to Grease in the 1994 Broadway revival playing Vince Fontaine.
As his co-star Stockard Channing revealed on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, Conaway was the "horniest" actor on set. "The trailer would be rocking at lunch," she quipped. And as another co-star Barry Pearl told The Sun, "He made out like a bandit."
While Conaway had plenty of fun on the set of Grease, things got a little more difficult after it was released. As he later told People, he wasn’t prepared for the fame. "You’re thrown into the jaws of success and it’s a heavy thing," he revealed. Conaway was diagnosed with drug addiction and later, clinical depression. Although he eventually turned things around, he sadly passed away in 2011 (via The New York Times).
Barry Pearl knew he was a little too old to be a T-Bird in Grease
Barry Pearl played Doody in Grease. Prior to that, as he told Front Row Live, he’d played Sonny in the national tour of the musical. He went on to explain that being in the film was an amazing experience, even if he was a little too old. "I was 23 years old and I was playing, what, 17 years old — that was one of the criticisms that we were all too old for the film," he recalled.
Even though Pearl was older than his character, he loved the excuse to cut loose. "It was great fun because we were part of, kind of, a cool gang… it was a family, it was a club," he continued. And because the whole cast was a little older, he said, "We were getting to kind of relive our childhood in a way."
After the film, Pearl continued acting, appearing in Days of Our Lives, Night Stand, Criminal Minds, House, and even Grease Live! (via IMDb).
Michael Tucci was almost too old to be cast in Grease
Michael Tucci played Sonny in Grease. You may remember him as the T-Bird who was always eating. Tucci was definitely older than his character at the time of filming; in fact, he was 31 years old. Like some of the other cast members, he’ played several roles in the stage version of Grease before getting cast.
Even though Tucci had experience with the producers, he wasn’t immediately cast in Grease. As he explained on the podcast Jammin’ With Words, "I couldn’t get up for the movie in New York, they thought I was too old." Luckily, the producer and the casting director saw the play on opening night and called him in for an audition. "I went into the room and [the casting director] said, ‘Sing,’ and he said, ‘You’re our Sonny.’" Luckily, after seeing Tucci’s audition, his age was no longer an issue.
Tucci was thrilled to be cast in Grease. As he said in an interview on KTLA 5, "It changed our lives." Tucci went on to appear in The Paper Chase, Diagnosis Murder, and The Rich & the Ruthless (via IMDb).
Kelly Ward was one of the younger cast members of Grease
Kelly Ward played Putzie in Grease, the blonde T-Bird. And if you thought he looked a little younger than his pals, you’d have been right; Ward was just 20 years old at the time, making him the youngest of the bunch. As Ward told KTLA 5, doing the film was kind of like going back a few years. "We spent 15 very intense weeks together," he explained. "It was kind of like high school."
Ward moved away from acting in his thirties when he realized he could no longer pass as a teen. As he told Animation Guild, he’d made his career by playing young characters. "I actually had a casting director tell me after an audition, an unsuccessful audition, ‘We can get a real teenager to play this part.’" Luckily, Ward was still young enough to play a teen in Grease!
After quitting acting, Ward became an animator, working as a writer, director, and producer on projects like The Backyardigans, Watchmen, Mickey’s Adventures in Wonderland, and more (via IMDb).
Didi Conn was 27 when she played Frenchy in Grease, so she stayed in character all day
You probably remember Didi Conn as the pink-haired, beauty-loving Frenchy in Grease who almost drops out of school to pursue a career as a beautician. Conn was actually 27 at the time; as she told The Telegraph, "We stayed in character all the time we were filming Grease. It was important for regressing to those teenage years, but also for that spontaneous energy."
For Conn, Frenchy reminded her of herself when she was younger. "What I responded to with French was that she was chomping at the bit to get out of high school," she explained. "I really wanted to start acting when I was young and my parents wouldn’t let me."
Conn confirmed just how much fun the Grease cast had in an interview for the Daily Mail. At the wrap party, she said, they all got high! "I don’t remember much about the wrap party because Stockard Channing gave everybody some brownie she made," she confessed. Conn has stayed in touch with the cast and even sometimes performs "Summer Nights" with Olivia Newton-John in her shows in Las Vegas.
Jamie Donnelly let her inner child come out filming Grease
Jamie Donnelly played the pigtailed Jan in Grease. And even though Donnelly was playing a high schooler, she was 31 years old at the time. As the actress explained to People, she actually had to dye her hair for the movie as she was already going grey!
Chances are Donnelly landed the role because of her work in the staged version of Grease. As she told V13, "I had played Jan on Broadway seven years before I did the movie." Plus, Jan was an easy role for Donnelly to play, even if she was a little younger. "It wasn’t like I would have to get into character — I’d already lived being this character," she continued. "Jan has a lot of who I am in her." By the sound of things, the entire Grease cast is still able to get back into their high school personas when they meet up again. "We’re still ridiculously childish I think," she added. Sounds like her youthful spirit made the age difference work.
Donnelly went on to have a steady career, with roles in Veep, Black Mass, Family Affair, and more (via IMDb).
Dinah Manoff was actually pretty close to her character’s age in Grease
Dinah Manoff played Marty in Grease, and was one of the few actors who was actually pretty close to her character’s age. In fact, Manoff was just 19 years old when she was cast. As she told The Seattle Times, the actress was actually shocked to be in the film. "I don’t know why they cast [me]," she said. Of course, at 19 or 20, Manoff was still a little older than Marty. "If any of us had looked any more innocent, it wouldn’t have worked," she continued.
Just like the rest of the cast of Grease, Manoff had a ball on set. As she told The Sun, she even developed a bit of a schoolgirl crush on John Travolta. "You couldn’t fail to have the biggest crush in the whole world on him," she gushed. "He was radiating so much talent and energy. I just started stuttering." Of course, Marty in the movie has a whole string of boyfriends — it sounds like on this one occasion, this actress had to act a little older to pull off her character!
Susan Buckner had fun as Patty Simcox in Grease
You may remember Patty Simcox as the over-enthusiastic cheerleader who welcomes Sandy to her new school in Grease. In the film, she was played by Susan Buckner, who at the time was around 25 years old. As Buckner told People, the whole cast definitely acted younger than their years. "We were so bad," she recalled. "Almost everybody would come in two, three hours late. They had to bring us all in and give us a lecture." Uh-oh!
By the sound of things, Buckner had plenty of fun on the set of Grease, much like the rest of the cast. In fact, as co-star Didi Conn told The Sun, Buckner and Jeff Conaway (who played Kenickie) may have even had a little fling! After Grease, Buckner ended up directing children’s theater in Miami and raising two children. She even directed a production of Grease!
Lorenzo Lamas was the only teenager in the Grease cast
Lorenzo Lamas had a small but memorable role in Grease. He played Tom, the all-American football player who briefly dated Sandy. According to his co-star Eddie Deezen, who wrote a guest post for Neatorama, Lamas was one of the younger actors. He was, according to Deezen, just 19 years old. In fact, Deezen believed that Lamas was the only real teenager on the Grease set! It’s pretty strange to think that he was playing the boyfriend of Olivia Newton-John — who was actually 10 years his senior at the time.
In 2018, Lamas opened up about his time on Grease in an interview with Studio 10. "I was 19, it was only the third thing I’d ever done, and I was on the Paramount lot meeting my childhood crush Olivia Newton-John and Mr. Saturday Night Fever John Travolta," he recalled. "So I was kind of in a complete zombie state to begin with." Sounds like a total dream for this young actor!
Annette Charles was 29 when she played Cha Cha in Grease
Annette Charles played Cha Cha, or as she called herself, "the best dancer at St Bernadette’s" in Grease. She’s the girl from the other high school who steals Danny’s attention at the school dance. She’s also Leo’s girlfriend, whose iconic scarf starts the big car race.
Charles would have been around 29 at the time of filming Grease. Of course, having a slightly older actress made sense for this role. As NPR pointed out, the character was "a magnetically confident, voluptuous Latina," so it might have been hard for a teenager to pull it off the way that Charles did.
Charles went on to act in a range of other films and TV shows, but she also completed a Master’s degree at the New York University School of Social Work in 2001, and became a part-time professor of speech and communication. Sadly, Charles passed away in 2011 just two months after the death of her Grease co-star Jeff Conaway (via The Washington Post).
Dennis Stewart played high schooler Leo in Grease when he was 30 years old
Dennis Stewart played Leo, or Crater Face, a boy from a rival gang called the Scorpions in Grease. He took Rizzo to the school dance, and he and Danny ended up in the tense car race at Thunder Road at the end of the movie. While the character was meant to be a high schooler, Stewart was roughly 30 at the time the movie was made (via Neatorama).
The character of Leo was one of six who reappeared in the sequel Grease 2, according to IMDb. Aside from Grease, Stewart also guest starred in a wide range of TV series, including Moonlighting, Elvis, and Wonder Woman. Perhaps most notably, you may also remember Stewart as one of the dancers in The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sadly, Stewart passed away from AIDS in 1994 when he was just 46 (via The Sun).
Eddie Deezen was pretty close to his character’s age in Grease
Eddie Deezen played the school nerd, Eugene, in Grease. As the actor explained in a guest post for Neatorama, he was one of the few actors who was actually close to his character’s age. "I was barely 20," he revealed.
While he may have been one of the youngest in the Grease cast, Deezen also had one of the smallest parts. As he explained, he actually had the "fewest lines of any actor in Grease with a speaking role." His only two lines were "It’s Eugene," and "Thank you." We have to give Deezen credit for being such a memorable part of the film with such a tiny role!
As Deezen said on the Ross Owen Show, one of his main memories from the Grease set was "the kindness of John Travolta." Apparently, Travolta would say, "Are you alright, buddy?" after every take of the scene when the boys bully him. Deezen has gone on to become a well-known voice actor, and has appeared in The Polar Express, What’s New Scooby-Doo?, Recess, SpongeBob SquarePants, and other famous cartoons (via IMDb).