As summer movie season gets underway and people start heading back to theaters, we’re thinking about our favorite film franchises, past, present and future. So, all this week, TODAY is celebrating sequels — the sequel to a beloved franchise you might have forgotten about, the sequel that’s become a cult classic, the upcoming sequels we can’t wait to watch and the sequels we wish had been made.
Grab your Pink Ladies jacket and bowling ball, and find a “Cool Rider” — because “Grease 2” turns 40 next year.
Despite modest box-office earnings and some harsh critics, the sequel to 1978’s wildly successful movie musical “Grease” has gained a devoted fan base over the years since its 1982 debut.
Star Maxwell Caulfield told TODAY he recently saw the movie described during a TCM airing as the quintessential cult movie, “in terms of its not finding favor with a large audience initially, but over time, developing really quite a passionate following.”
The actor said he’s taken satisfaction in the film’s “popularity at slumber parties.” “You know, big sisters passing on an appreciation of the film to their kid sister, that’s always been very heartwarming for me.”
In “Grease 2,” Caulfield plays Rydell High newcomer Michael Carrington, the cousin of the original film’s Sandy. In a gender reversal from the first film, British exchange student Michael reinvents himself to win over cool girl Stephanie Zinone, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in her first starring role.
“We served up our share of American cool, starting with Ms. Pfeiffer, obviously,” Caulfield said. “The film, in its way, was ahead of its time to the extent that this was a very strong girl who knew her own mind and wasn’t going to let herself be defined by the guy she was with. And so that made the film very in step with the emerging feminist movement in the early ‘80s.”
Caulfield said working with Pfeiffer was “a delight.”
“I mean she’s gone on to prove she’s a very good actress,” he said. “And so when you’re working with a good actor, you almost react to them. The scene in the diner, for example, you know, I’m just reacting to her and just reacting to the strength of her personality.”
Lorna Luft, who played Pfeiffer’s fellow Pink Lady Paulette Rebchuck, told TODAY of her co-star, “I love her. I just think she is just one of the greatest, greatest people. She’s a fantastic actor, and she was so generous and kind. And all of the girls, the Pink Ladies, we really bonded together.”
When he auditioned for the movie, Caulfield says he was a huge fan of the original film, and had tried out for “Grease” on Broadway.
“We were trying to follow in the footsteps of the most successful movie musical of all time — a proven, solid gold Broadway smash score,” he said. “And then you throw (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) in the mix. And then just for good measure, add the Bee Gees, who had the quintessential sound of that time, I mean their recording of the title track is just so winning.”
His career having gained momentum from an off-Broadway production of “’Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” Caulfield was flown to Hollywood for a screen test for “Grease 2.”
“At the screen test, they gave me a leather jacket to wear and sing ‘Alone at a Drive-in Movie,’” he recalled. “And in the pocket of the leather jacket, I found a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a little match note that had been written to to the wearer of the jacket, and it turned out it was from Olivia (Newton-John) to John (Travolta), and whether they were just goofing around in character or it was for real, I suddenly realized I was wearing Travolta’s jacket from the movie, so that certainly was inspirational.”
Caulfield acknowledged that he was doing the film “a little bit reluctantly.”
“I know that’s hard to believe, but I took myself very seriously as an actor back then. And I thought it was going to be a bit of a sort of bubble gum movie — in so far as I had aspirations to be a serious actor, and not that this isn’t a test of your chops, doing a film musical of this nature, but I didn’t want it to be necessarily my debut. Because I believed that very often, the role that you play when you first come on the scene is the one that Hollywood will ask you to play over and over again, if it’s successful. So in my case, it wasn’t successful. So I then ended up being sort of the baby-faced killer in a string of B-movies.”
However, he says he “loved going to work every day.” Some of Caulfield’s favorite scenes include the bowling alley, the luau, the “Reproduction” number and the one in which Michael goes to an old scrap yard to build himself a motorcycle.
Luft is partial to the opening number, “Back to School Again,” which she called “really one of the great musical numbers of a true musical.”
“There was no one on that film that didn’t feel the same way that we all did,” she said. “That we were just having a great time. We knew we were not going out and making Shakespeare. We were making ‘Grease 2.’”
Luft emphasized that the entire cast “gave 110% of their talent, and they worked their butts off.”
“I’ll never forget shooting those luau scenes on the field,” she said. “It was very, very cold, and it was supposed to be the summer and we were all in those skimpy outfits, and they put these great big heavy down jackets on us. And we would have to take them off, and then they’d shove ice cubes in our mouth, so you wouldn’t see our breath. I just remember thinking, ‘This is the part that’s not a lot of laughs. It’s not a lot of fun.’ And then they’d put the jacket on me and I’d think, ‘I’m having a grand time.’”
Caulfield credits the film’s late music director, Louis St. Louis, for being “very encouraging.”
“I was no singer, and I think some critics went out of their way to underscore that fact in the negative reviews of the film, but he never blinked an eye,” he said. “They didn’t give me very demanding songs to sing, anyway. The people really handling the singing were people like Adrian Zmed as Nogerelli, and Adrian was sensational.”
Both Caulfield and Luft also had high praise for Patricia Birch, who directed and choreographed the movie.
“Her frame always had tons of life in it, and obviously there was great color in the film, wonderfully fun costumes and a pretty snappy soundtrack,” he said.
We knew we were not going out and making Shakespeare. We were making ‘Grease 2.’
“I love and respect her so much,” said Luft. “When they said that she was going to direct ‘Grease 2,’ that was really, honestly, the main reason I wanted to do this movie.”
Luft and Caulfield also expressed admiration for the cast’s legendary talents, such as Eve Arden (Principal McGee) and Sid Caesar (Coach Vince Calhoun).
Luft, the daughter of Hollywood icon Judy Garland, recalled meeting makeup artist Charles Schram during an early screen test.
“He just started laughing,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. You know what my first job was?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I did “The Wizard of Oz” with your mom.’ I said, ‘Did you really?’ He said, ‘I absolutely did. And now I’ve come full circle.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I mean, that was great, but that was ‘Grease 2.’”
Luft said Paulette went through many changes from her original description.
“At first she was written, truly, like a Marilyn Monroe-type person, and I said to Pat (Birch), ‘You know, these are kids in high school. So I don’t think that Paulette would ever really talk like that at home, or be like that, she’s still a kid in high school. So I think that she becomes this wannabe Marilyn Monroe character only at school,’ and Pat was like, ‘You’re right.’ And so I gave her, I think, more colors when I finally did get the role.”
Luft even recalled a mishap from having her hair dyed Monroe’s shade of platinum.
“They put a bleach on my head, that I would have rather had hot coals under my soles of my feet,” she said. “It burned and I kept saying this is really painful and they said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ They washed my hair. And it was that platinum white. And the next day it all broke off to about an inch, all over my head. And they went, ‘Oh, let’s just put a wig on her.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Could you not have done that at the beginning?’”
While Paramount didn’t allow Luft to keep her beloved Pink Ladies jacket when the movie wrapped, she was reunited with the garment in 2019, when a fan who’d purchased it at an auction surprised her with it during a touring production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.”
Of the two “Grease” films, Caulfield said fans often embrace the one they saw first.
“If you fell in love with ‘Grease 2’ and you subsequently watch ‘Grease,’ you go, ‘Oh, that’s great, that’s cool, but they’re all about five years older than they should be,’” he said. “I think we genuinely look like high school kids.”
Caulfield said the odds were stacked against the sequel for a few reasons.
“Paramount invested a lot of money in the film, but then they didn’t follow it up by promoting it well and they made a disastrous decision as to when to release it,” he said. “I mean, we literally opened on the same day as ‘E.T.’ and (a week after) some ‘Star Trek’ sequel.”
Caulfield also pointed out that its release coincided with the start of summer, clashing with its back-to school theme.
“So you know, timing is everything,” he said. “And the knives were out, and the studio yanked the film pretty quickly.”
Caulfield saw the movie on the big screen in 2017 when the San Francisco festival SF Sketchfest hosted a screening with him as the special guest.
“I got to come out feeling like a rock star afterwards,” he said. “You know, the reception from the audience was so sweet and so charming and it made me appreciate the film in a way that I hadn’t been able to for a long time, because you know, again, the sense that the film had only been a marginal success, as opposed to a smash, which is what everyone was hoping for.”
Luft said the movie holds up because “it is a great deal of fun.”
“I think that people can identify with their days in high school, whether it even be today or back when ‘Grease 2’ was taking place,” she said. “You’re always going to have a very pretty girl in high school. You’re always going to have a very pretty guy in high school. You’re always going to have a crush. You’re always going to have a drama. You’re going to have your first everything. And I think that both of the films touch on that. And plus, the fact that there was an innocence about that whole time.”
Luft said fans bring up the movie to her “like, every day” — but it’s especially brought comfort during the pandemic.
“I got so many people saying, ‘I put on “Grease 2” because I just needed to dance around and have fun and sing songs,’ and I was totally taken aback by that,” she said. “And I was so grateful that they found the humor, the fun and the innocence, and it’s just a movie that I think will go on, because it’s all about just having a good time and you like these characters.”
Caulfield also said the movie’s following four decades later doesn’t surprise him.
“The film really holds up, like any decent movie. The film has a big heart. And films that really warm your heart, you hold on to them forever, you cherish them. They almost become a part of what makes you who you are.”