When Grease reached theaters in 1978, it was an instant hit. The movie was an adaptation of a popular 1971 musical, but nobody expected the film to be a big hit. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John captured the public’s hearts as leads Danny and Sandy. The supporting cast at Rydell High hit all the right buttons for moviegoers. Catchy songs and amazing costumes sealed the deal. Critics and fans alike loved the storyline.
Not long after its release, Grease became the highest-grossing musical film ever produced. By the end of 1978, its soundtrack was the second-best-selling album of the year. Even with the film’s success, it only garnered one Oscar nomination—the song “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” written specifically for the film.
Years later, the film still resonates. In 2002, the American Film Institute named Grease one of the 100 best love stories ever put on film. In 2020, the movie was picked for preservation by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. However, the movie’s cast hasn’t had such a smooth run after its release. So many tragedies have occurred around those who starred in the iconic film that it feels like the production was cursed. Here are ten tragic tales that happened to the stars of Grease in the years after its success changed their lives forever.
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10 John Travolta’s Terrible Losses
John Travolta enjoyed a great run in the 1970s. Saturday Night Fever and Grease made him a big star. Through the ’80s, Pulp Fiction and other films solidified his status as an A-lister. But off screen, Travolta struggled with two terrible family tragedies. In 1993, John and his wife, actress Kelly Preston, had their first child. A son that they named Jett—a sweet reference to John’s love of airplanes. Jett struggled with Kawasaki disease as a child. The disorder inflames the arteries and leaves sufferers at risk of asthma and seizures. For a long time, Jett overcame it. But in 2009, it all ended in the worst way. While the family was vacationing in the Bahamas, Jett had an unexpected seizure and hit his head on a bathtub. The fall led to his death at only 16 years old.
As bad as that tragedy was for Travolta, he suffered another horrible life-changing event a decade later. In 2018, Preston was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple chose to keep her diagnosis a secret from the public as she worked with doctors to battle the disease. Sadly, less than two years later, it claimed her life prematurely too. In the summer of 2020, Travolta revealed on social media that Preston had succumbed to the disease. Sadly, the man made world-famous with iconic movie roles suffered two of the worst personal tragedies anyone can experience. Years before her death, Preston told a friend that she was going to marry Travolta one after seeing him on a movie poster for—ironically—Grease
9 Olivia Newton-John’s Valiant Fight
Olivia Newton-John enjoyed her status as a Hollywood “it” girl in the years after her starring role in Grease. Off screen, though, life threw her plenty of curveballs. For one, her father Brinley suddenly died of cancer in 1992. Weeks after he passed, Olivia herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. The timing was fortunate; she had been undergoing regular screenings, and doctors caught the cancer early. Days after her diagnosis, Olivia had surgery to remove the cancerous breast tissue. For years, it seemed like the surgery had been a success, and Olivia was destined to live long past cancer.
In 2013, though, the cancer returned with a vengeance. By 2017, it had metastasized. Olivia chose to keep her health burden private for years. Along the way, she underwent conventional cancer treatments to try to beat the disease again. She also used cannabis oil to manage her pain during particularly awful bouts. For five long years, she fought valiantly. Sadly, in August of 2022, she lost the battle and succumbed to the disease. Fans recalled her buoyant, bubbly personality on screen in Grease as Sandy, which made it all the more tragic to consider how hard she had to fight for her life for so many years.
8 Dinah Manoff’s Family Tragedy
Dinah Manoff earned herself loyal fans with a memorable portrayal of Marty Maraschino in Grease. She appeared in dozens of other television and movie roles throughout her long career, too, and even won a Tony Award for her theater work. But her life changed in 2017 when her son, Dashiell Mortell, died in a car accident. Dashiell had been set on following in Dinah’s footsteps into acting. He starred in theatrical productions through his high school years, including several under his mother’s direction. He even played a greaser at one point, earning rave reviews for his work in a school production of The Outsiders.
After high school, Dashiell enrolled at Washington State University. Once he got to campus, he began participating in theater productions there too. In 2017, he went home on a holiday break. Days later, he and four other students drove back to campus to prepare for the return of classes. The roads were icy from a recent snowstorm, and a prior wreck had snarled the highway. Mortell’s car collided with another vehicle that stopped suddenly amid the pile-up. A truck then collided with their car, pinning the young man. He perished in the accident. The tragedy changed the course of Manoff’s life. Heartbroken, she spent hours grieving with other families who had suffered a loss. She also poured her time into giving back by teaching acting and improv to women in prison.
7 Jeff Conaway’s Drug Downfall
Jeff Conaway was best known for playing Kenickie in the 1978 musical. He enjoyed other Hollywood successes, too, including a memorable role in Taxi. The fast life caught up with him, though. By the 2000s, he was struggling with addiction to cocaine, alcohol, and prescription pills. As his friends later explained, a back injury sustained on the set of Grease was what led to Conaway’s pain pill compulsion. Over the years, his pain worsened, and his addictions fell in line. Conaway’s habits became so bad that loved ones got him a spot on Celebrity Rehab with addiction expert Dr. Drew. Sadly, the TV appearance did little to stop the decline.
To Conaway’s credit, he battled his demons for years. The actor had multiple stints in rehab and underwent five back surgeries. He tried “so hard to get clean and sober,” his manager optimistically noted in 2011. But his back issues were so severe that he never could shake the opiate addiction that came with pain relief. In May 2011, Conaway was placed in a medically-induced coma amid a severe bout of pneumonia. Sepsis set in, likely compounded by his longtime opiate use. After 17 days in the intensive care unit, his family made the difficult decision to remove him from life support.
6 Didi Conn’s Parenting Challenge
Didi Conn played perhaps the most memorable supporting role in Grease. Her portrayal of Frenchy was perfect for the vintage feel of the film, and fans recalled her bubbly on-air persona for years after. In the 1990s, she adopted a baby boy named Danny. But soon after her life-changing foray into motherhood, challenges began. As a two-year-old, Danny started experiencing severe sensitivity to sound. Pediatricians chalked it up to a case of the “terrible twos,” but Conn didn’t buy it. Over the next few years, the sound sensitivity got worse. Eventually, a specialist determined Danny was on the autism spectrum.
That diagnosis came in 1994, years before autism was well understood by the general public. Because of that, Conn struggled to find medical experts who could help her son. Over the years, Didi and Danny both struggled through adversity while dealing with his sensory issues. Thankfully, as he grew, pediatricians and specialists found therapies that worked to manage his autism. Conn was so moved by the ordeal that she filmed a pilot for a television series about a child with autism. The show wasn’t picked up by networks, but she later released it as a short film.
5 Dennis Cleveland Stewart’s Sad Death
Dennis Cleveland Stewart was an “out” actor in New York City through the 1970s. That was a difficult time to be gay, though, and Stewart lived quietly. His acting career took off around that time too. His pock-marked cheeks earned him the nickname “Crater Face.” The memorable look brought him character actor fame. First, Stewart got moviegoers’ attention as a featured dancer in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in early 1978. Later that year, his star shone the brightest when he was cast as Leo Balmudo in Grease. Four years later, he took on the role once more in the musical film’s sequel. But as fast as his star rose, it waned. Stewart never found the same level of artistic success and played out a string of similar characters.
Off screen, the gay man tried to be cautious and discreet with his relationships. After a long time in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1993. The move west wouldn’t lead to a career resurrection; it was already too late for that. The naturally shy Stewart was seriously sick with HIV. He didn’t reveal his status to many people in his life, but close friends knew. Sadly, early in 1994, he succumbed to AIDS just a few months shy of his 47th birthday. His ashes were scattered at sea.
4 Annette Charles’s Cancer Battle
Annette Charles played the bad girl Cha-Cha DiGregorio in the iconic film. She enjoyed many successes in the theater world too. But as talented as she was on screen, film parts only came sporadically after Grease. Instead, Charles found her place in life teaching college students. The actress, also known as Annette Cardona, became a popular professor at California State University, Northridge. For years, she taught Chicano studies to eager college students in the Los Angeles area. Many of them weren’t aware of her acting background. Still, they adored her passion for academic work and responded to her desire to improve their lives. She was so successful as a professor that she transitioned beyond undergrads and worked with many Ph.D. candidates.
Sadly, in 2011, that all ended abruptly. Early that year, the beloved professor entered the hospital with what she thought was a bad case of pneumonia. Doctors ran tests and determined she had lung cancer. The disease progressed very rapidly from there. A month after she entered the hospital, Annette passed. She was 63 years old. In the aftermath, colleagues from the college mourned her sudden death. “I cannot imagine life without Annette,” said fellow CSUN professor Renee Moreno. “My life is forever changed in knowing her, and the world is a little less without her.”
3 Sid Caesar’s Long Period of Suffering
If there’s one Grease actor who was a star long before the film, it was Sid Caesar. The renowned comic actor had been a TV mainstay on Your Show Of Shows and other productions for years. But by the time Grease hit theaters, his star had begun to wane. It wasn’t so much his on-air opportunities that faltered but Caesar’s lifestyle away from cameras. In 1980, he gave a chilling interview describing himself as emotionally broken. Surrounded by hangers-on and people trying to leech away his entertainment earnings, Caesar was depressed, miserable, and in poor health. In fact, in the same year Grease was released, the comic infamously collapsed in the middle of a stand-up performance. For the star, that period right around the surge of Grease proved to be the lowest of his many lows.
After the on-stage scare, Caesar became determined once and for all to shed his addictions to alcohol and prescription pills. He cut out the drugs and jettisoned unscrupulous doctors and members of his entourage. By 1982, he was clean and released his autobiography Where Have I Been. He carried on for three decades after that, finally becoming healthy and happy. When he died in 2014 following a short illness, he was deservedly hailed as a comic legend.
2 Eddie Deezen’s Disturbing Decline
Eddie Deezen may not have had a big part in Grease, but he was memorable all the same. The character actor played the ever-nerdy Eugene Felsnic in the film. Complete with a quirky get-up, big glasses, and a bowtie, he perfectly sold the part of the high school’s nerd. Away from the cameras, though, Deezen has long struggled with mental health issues and legal troubles. In 2021, the actor caught the attention of cops in Maryland after he was arrested at a restaurant. Cops were called to deal with his disturbance, and when they arrived, he reportedly threw plates at the officers before being detained.
Sadly, Deezen was back in the news in April 2022. Cops in Cumberland, Maryland, claimed he pushed his way into a nursing facility in the city. Once there, he tried to force his way into one of the residents’ private rooms. When staffers stopped him, Deezen refused to leave. When police were called out, they recognized the actor from previous run-ins. He had apparently entered the facility multiple times in the months before. This time, he was arrested for trespassing and burglary. Deezen’s problems deepened in August when a judge ruled he was mentally incompetent to face trial on those charges.
1 Alice Ghostley’s Lonely Death
Alice Ghostley wasn’t meant to be a star. The small-town girl dropped out of the University of Oklahoma as a young woman. She claims she didn’t look the part of an actor, either. “My nose was too long, I had crooked teeth, I wasn’t blond,” she once told a newspaper reporter about how limiting her looks had been in entertainment. “But I also knew I’d find a way.” And find a way she did. Ghostley became an exceptional character actor. She won a Tony Award for her theater work and enjoyed TV turns on Bewitched and Designing Women. When she appeared in Grease, popping up in that iconic film as Mrs. Murdock, the auto shop teacher, it was icing on the proverbial cake.
For 52 years, she was married to fellow character actor Felice Orlandi. The pair had a wonderful life together, by all accounts. It ended sadly in 2003 when Orlandi died, though. Ghostley was alone for the first time in five decades. Sadly, she was also going through an awful experience with her health. In her waning days, the actor suffered a series of increasingly-severe strokes. She was also diagnosed with colon cancer. All alone and unwell from the ailments, Ghostley passed on in 2007.