Olivia Newton-John remembered by Didi Conn

26 September 1948 – 8 August 2022
The actor who played Frenchy remembers her Grease co-star with whom she shared a deep friendship for more than 40 years

The first time I met Olivia Newton-John was on the set of Grease in 1977. She arrived in this white T-Bird convertible with the top down. It was gorgeous, and she was gorgeous. With stars, you tend to keep a distance until you feel that the time is right, so we didn’t talk too much at first, except that she told me how cute she thought John Travolta was.

When we did our first day of shooting together, she was very nervous, so being the veteran film actress I was (I only did two movies before that one) I began to improvise with her as [my character] Frenchy. I’m going: “Oh, Sandy. I’m so happy you’re my neighbour and we can come to school together!”, and she’s looking at me like, is this in the script? But then she caught on and we had so much fun. I said: “What was it like going to school in Australia?” She said: “Oh my God. I had to wear gloves, and the boys went in one place and girls went in another.” And before we knew it, Randal [Kleiser], our director, was saying “Action”. She hugged and kissed me afterwards and said “thank you, thank you!” for helping to break the ice.

That was the beginning of a deeper friendship. I happened to live just down the road from her in Malibu, so we spent a lot of time together. We went horseback riding up at her place. Travolta came up there and we talked about acting teachers – he didn’t believe in acting teachers. She gave me little biscuits with tea. I’d never had them before. From then on, I’d always get those Leibniz biscuits with milk chocolate on top.

When we first met, she was a rock star with No 1s and TV specials. She was very career-driven. But when she first got diagnosed with cancer [in 1992], she had [her daughter] Chloe, and Chloe was very young. In that moment, she made a decision that she was going to get better, which she did. Her priorities changed. She became a good friend, she really was there for Chloe and it was so important for her to share with the world what she went through and how she beat it – not only surviving cancer, but thriving.

She raised millions for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne. One of the things she did was a 21-day hike on the Great Wall of China. Each walker was sponsored and I don’t know how many millions that brought in. I went for eight days and I remember Olivia found a little lost kitten, which she called Magic. It was so small and she kept it right next to her chest, in her sports bra, the whole time. She had a terrible cold, but she wasn’t thinking of herself, she was always thinking of what she could do for others.

Olivia Newton-John and Didi Conn in Grease.
Olivia Newton-John and Didi Conn in Grease. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/Allstar

Her character in Grease starts off as this goody-goody-two-shoes, and that was Olivia’s reputation too. Well, there was a hot momma smouldering underneath that beautiful exterior. We were doing the scene at the drive-in and, at one point, this very gorgeous, sexy woman with big hair and high red shoes comes walking between the cars. Nobody recognised her at first. Then we realised it was Olivia. Everybody went crazy and said they just couldn’t believe it. And the guys, their tongues were hanging out, they were drooling.

In later years, I went to see her perform all over. It was great because I got to be a rock star for five minutes. During her Grease segment, she would say: “Some of us have made friends that have lasted 40 years, and I have a friend like that. Didi, are you there?” I’d be sitting in the middle and I’d say: “Yeah I am!” And the people would go berserko. Everybody’d be screaming and screaming. I’d come on stage and say to the audience: “Isn’t she the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen in your life?” And we would do Summer Nights together. Of course, I would never remember the lyrics, but it didn’t matter. It was so much fun.

She would always send me beautiful orchids on my birthday. This year I got very sick and was in the hospital for two months. When I got home I called her and she said: “I heard from so-and-so you were sick. Why didn’t you tell me?” The next day, I got beautiful orchids from her. Well, the day before she died, one of those orchid buds fell down, and I just had a feeling that that meant something. Then sure enough I got the call that she had gone.

In Grease, Frenchy wants Sandy to be a Pink Lady, and Rizzo says: “She looks too pure to be pink.” And that purity, that sweetness, that beauty, I saw that the very first moment I met her. That was the story of our friendship: pure heart, pure love.

The GuardianTramp

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