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Few musicals have stood the test of time like Grease. The 1970s film about high school kids in the 1950s has made numerous songs standards today, and turned TV’s John Travolta into a bona fide movie star. But as with most movies, the transition to screen was a long one, and the movie could have looked quite a bit different than it eventually did. Travolta would have never had the chance to shine if Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler had wanted the role.
In a major piece inVanity Fair about the films transition from stage to screen, it’s revealed that a number of different actors were considered for key roles. It turns out that Paramount, the studio producing the film, wanted Henry Winkler to star as Danny rather than John Travolta. Winkler was something of an obvious choice, as he was already the star of Happy Days playing a very similar 1950s greaser character. Of course, the reason he would have worked turned out to be the reason that he turned the role down. Winkler didn’t want to be typecast. Probably a good move, as there’s only a limited number of 1950s teenagers to play.
Henry Winkler wasn’t the only significant change that could have happened. Although he may have been the most obvious. Elvis Presley was rumored at one point to be in the running for the role of Teen Angel. Ultimately, the role went to another 1950’s film star, Frankie Avalon. Elvis would eventually pass away during filming, which wouldn’t have necessarily caused filming problems as the Teen Angel role is not very large, but it would have made for a fairly odd, and possibly chilling, last role for the aged rocker.
Grease has become such an iconic film, (the greatest musical of the 20th century, according to Vanity Fair) that it’s difficult to even conceive of anybody else playing the key roles. Seeing the Fonz in place of John Travolta is an easy enough substitution to make visually, but Danny is a significantly different character, so seeing Winkler playing a guy who looked the same, but was actually very different would have been weird for audiences at the time. Also, could he sing?
Somehow, the film seemed to make all the right choices as the movie is viewed today as a classic. One way or another, there will be new actors playing those roles, as Fox is planning a new production of the musical this year. What’s your opinion of the original Grease, masterpiece or overrated fluff? Does "Tell Me More, Tell Me More" make you want to get up and dance, or put your fist through a wall?