Olivia Newton-John dead: Singer and ‘Grease’ actor was 73

Olivia Newton-John, the popular singer and actress best known for her 1970s and ’80s hits and the film “Grease,” died Monday at her ranch in Southern California at the age of 73.

A cause of death was not given, but she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and underwent treatment for years. In 2017, the cancer returned.

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumph and hope for over 30 years, sharing her journey with breast cancer,” her husband John Easterling wrote on the singer’s official Facebook page on Monday to announce her death. “Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicines continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund dedicated to research into plant medicines and cancer.”

Easterling said she was surrounded by family and friends when she died.

Newton-John was born in Great Britain in 1948, the youngest of three children. She moved to Australia when she was 5 and started singing when she was 12. In 1964 she won a singing competition where she won a ticket to London. There she recorded her first single and became a fixture on the music scene. She made her first record, “If Not for You,” which had a song hit the Top 25 in the US after it was released in 1971.

Then Newton-John found himself in Los Angeles.

She burst onto the US country music scene in the early 1970s, winning the 1973 Academy of Country Music Award for New Singer. Once her career took off, she was unstoppable – for almost a decade.

The Grammys came fast. She won Country Female Vocal Performance in 1974 for “Let Me Be There” and Pop Vocal Performance and Recording of the Year in 1975 for “I Honestly Love You”. Haven’t you ever been gentle?” this year.

She was named 1974 Country Music Association Singer of the Year, beating out Dolly Parton and Loretta. She has appeared in TV specials and opened for Charlie Rich, the Smothers Brothers and Don Rickles in Las Vegas and then headlined herself. Two of their albums that hit #1 on the Billboard 200.

And Newton-John was beautiful. Remarkably. Despite her success and rabid fanbase, many critics shot at her vocals, saying she had no range and was just “another pretty voice.”

“Olivia Newton-John is often accused of having a very insubstantial voice and having only one asset—beauty,” Dennis Hunt wrote in a 1976 Los Angeles Times review of her show at the Greek Theater. Then he went against the norm. “It’s easy to form that opinion after hearing their records, but it’s not possible to hold on to it after seeing them in concert.”

Other stories mentioned a need for more safety when playing in Las Vegas, when “the men in the audience get more enthusiastic” than at a midnight show.

There was also the “nice” thing. The “innocent” thing.

“The only bad thing people can say about NJ is that she’s too nice,” wrote The Times in 1977, while Newton-John was working on her first big-budget feature film. “Her Sandra-Dee-ish part in ‘Grease’ … will not change her goody image.”

But the movie musical did include a notable image overhaul. Opened in 1978, it stars John Travolta’s bad boy Danny along with Newton-John’s good girl Sandy, who was reincarnated as a bad girl at the end of the film, wearing full makeup, permed hair and black skin-tight silk pants. The singer herself emerged encouraged.

It was Peak Olivia.

The co-stars would remain friends. “If you share this meteoric success — and nothing has matched it — you share a bond,” co-star Travolta told People at the film’s 40th anniversary celebration in June 2018.

The Grease soundtrack sold more than 14 million copies in the US alone (years later, Newton-John would settle a lawsuit with Universal Music Group over unpaid royalties), and the couple’s sing-along duet You’re the One That’s what I want”. Hit #1 too. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was nominated for an Oscar in 1979 and finished in the top five with the Travolta duet “Summer Nights”.

Newton-John released the album Totally Hot in 1979 and brought with him pink stretch pants and black leather outfits. “I’m into a lot of crazy things lately,” she told the Times that year.

“I’ve lived with this innocent, clean image for so long that at first I was really scared to do anything else. … I never had the courage to break out before I did ‘Grease’. … Also, I’ve never been hit on as many times in my life as I did the first time I put these pants on.”

Newton-John had lived with manager Lee Kramer at a time when “with” wasn’t the norm, and she still struggled with being pretty.

“Why do you get better reviews from the critics when you look a little funky?” she asked the Times reporter. “It’s because if you’re beautiful, they think you’re stupid and not talented.”

The single “Magic” and the sexy song “Physical” topped the charts in 1980 and 1981 respectively as Newton-John changed her style and sound towards a pop-rock hybrid. In 1982, she founded the Australian-style sportswear line Koala Blue.

But the 1980 roller disco fantasy musical film Xanadu actually flopped. Two of a Kind, which reunited her with Travolta a few years later, would do slightly better, but her career as a leading actress on the big screen was in the water.

Newton-John finally lowered her profile from his fan-powered climax, which regularly saw her smile from glossy magazine covers. She married “Xanadu” actor and dancer Matt Lattanzi in 1984 and two years later they had a daughter, Chloe. Living in Malibu’s Paradise Cove, she focused on her family and her commitment to the environment.

Then came the ’90s, which brought about a bankruptcy filing for Koala Blue in 1991 and a breast cancer diagnosis for Newton-John in 1992. She fought back with chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction, trying not to let her daughter know what was going on. But a friend betrayed it.

Chloe “came running home and said, ‘Is it true?’ I told her it was, and I promised her I’d tell her everything from then on,” Newton-John told the Times in late 1994, when her cancer was resolving and she was back working on a TV movie.

“Once you face your biggest fears, life somehow doesn’t seem so threatening,” she said.

Though Newton-John had released a few personal albums over the years — including Gaia: One Woman’s Journey, which chronicled her battle with cancer — her official return to the music industry would not come until 1998’s Back With a Heart.

At this point, she seemed to have a renewed determination, wrote Times music critic Robert Hilburn.

“I’m a very private person,” she told him. “I never thought I could talk about my boobs like that, but I do it because I think it helps other women. … It’s the word “cancer” that freaks everyone out. But it’s important to realize that it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

“I remember in my first year of treatment this lady read about me in the newspaper and came up to me and said, ‘I’m 20 years on the line now.’ That was a defining moment for me. I thought of five years as my goal, and here was someone who made it [lived] 20 years after the operation.”

She continued to release music and increased her cancer-fighting efforts until eventually opening the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Center in Melbourne, Australia in the late 2000s.

Newton-John’s 11-year marriage to Lattanzi ended in divorce in 1995. She dated gaffer and cinematographer Patrick McDermott for nearly a decade until his disappearance at sea in 2005. Then, in 2008, the singer married businessman John Easterling and moved with him to Florida, selling their Malibu home the next year.

Christmas albums came in 2012 and 2016, the first recorded with Travolta. Newton-John also continued to perform with shows, including a “Summer Nights” residency at the Flamingo in Las Vegas that began in 2014 and lasted three years.

In 2017, the cancer returned, metastasizing into her spine and causing her to cancel concerts in the US and Canada. Over the years she had incorporated herbs and other natural supplements into her health regimen. She also used medical marijuana as a pain reliever.

“I’ve long denied to myself that I have ambition,” Newton-John told critic Hilburn after a show in 1982. “I’m more comfortable with that now because I know my drive isn’t unreasonable. …

“I always wanted to get better at everything I did, but I don’t think it was ever a desperate urge. Even when I first worked in dingy little clubs, I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here and make it to the top.’”

Newton-John is survived by husband, daughter Chloe Lattanzi, sister Sarah Newton-John; Brother Toby Newton-John and several nieces and nephews.

Her family asked for donations to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund in her memory in lieu of flowers.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-08-08/olivia-newton-john-dead-obit Olivia Newton-John dead: Singer and ‘Grease’ actor was 73

Sarah Ridley

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