Olivia Newton-John had been open about her breast cancer journey since she was first diagnosed in 1992 at the age of 43.
Olivia Newton-John, beloved actress and singer best known for her role as Sandy Olsson in Grease and a long string of hits led by 1981’s “Physical,” died Monday (Aug. 8). She was 73.
Her official Facebook page confirmed the news and noted, “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask everyone to respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
The release continued, “Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for more than 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continue with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to planting medicine and cancer research. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her memory to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund (ONJFoundationFund.org).”
Newton-John was one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s and 1980s. She was also a remarkably agile performer: she moved from early country hits like “Let Me Be There” to mainstream pop hits like “Have You Never Been Mellow” and to sexier, sassy tunes like “Make a Move on Me.”
But Newton-John also faced her share of problems and tragedies. Her breast cancer diagnosis forced her to postpone and cancel several tours.
And in 2005, Newton-John’s then-boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, disappeared at sea during a fishing trip off the coast of California. He was never found, an unsolved mystery that haunted the singer for years.
“It’s very hard to live with,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 2006. “It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been through a lot.” Although her career profile dimmed in her later years, Newton-John never stopped recording and performing. Among her highlights were guest appearances on “Glee,” a long-running residency on “Summer Nights” at the Flamingo Las Vegas, and a disco hit, “You Have to Believe,” recorded with her daughter Chloe.
“I love singing, that’s all I know how to do,” she told CNN in 2017. “That’s all I’ve done since I was 15, so it’s my life. I feel very grateful that I can still do it and people still come to see me.”
His rise to fame
Thanks to a string of country and soft rock hits, Newton-John was already a popular singer by the late 1970s. But her co-starring role opposite John Travolta in 1978’s “Grease,” arguably the most popular musical film of all time, elevated her to a new level of stardom.
Although she had little acting experience (and turned 29 during filming), Newton-John gave an indelible performance as Sandy, a sweet-natured Australian transfer student who has an affair with Travolta’s alpha greaser Danny at a Southern California high school in the 1950s.
Their onscreen chemistry as mismatched lovebirds who undergo final-act makeovers to win each other’s hearts (she ditches her frilly dresses for heels, leather, spandex, and a cigarette) anchored the film and inspired legions of fans.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined that a movie would last almost 40 years and still be popular and people would still talk to me about it all the time and love it,” Newton-John told CNN in 2017. It’s just one of those movies. I’m very lucky to have been a part of it. It’s given so many people pleasure.”
Newton-John sang on three of the film’s biggest hits: the duets “You’re The One That I Want” and “Summer Nights” with Travolta, and her dazzling solo ballad, “Hopeless Devoted To You.”
Born in Cambridge, England in 1948, Newton-John moved with her family to Melbourne, Australia when she was five years old. After winning a talent contest on a television show, “Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,” as a teenager she formed a girl group and began appearing on weekly pop music shows in Australia.
Newton-John recorded her first single in England in 1966 and scored some international hits, but remained largely unknown to American audiences until 1973, when “Let Me Be There” became a top 10 hit in both adult contemporary and country. charts.
A string of easy-listening No. 1 hits followed, including “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please.”
Then came “Grease,” which was the top-grossing movie of 1978 and became an enduring cultural phenomenon.
The movie gave Newton-John a chance to change her squeaky-clean image. The cover of her next album, “Totally Hot,” featured the singer clad in black leather, while her songs had a more edgy, contemporary pop sound.
Her success as a singer
In 1981, she took her new, sexier persona a step further with “Physical,” a dance number with such suggestive lyrics as “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontal.” Banned by several radio stations, it became her biggest hit, spending 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Olivia Newton-John performed on the BBC TV music show ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1974.
She also appeared in several big-budget films, including the musical fantasy ‘Xanadu’, with Hollywood legend Gene Kelly in her final screen role. The film flopped, but its soundtrack sold well and spawned ‘Magic’, a number one hit.
In 1983 he teamed up again with Travolta for “Two of a Kind,” a fantasy romantic comedy, but failed to recapture the spark of “Grease.”
During a long career, Newton-John won four Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million albums.