Singer Olivia Newton-John, who soared to the top of the world’s pop music charts in the 70s and 80s with tunes such as “I Honestly Love You” and “Physical” and starred in the hit movie musical Grease, died on Monday at the age 73 at her home in Southern California.
The death of the British-born, Australian-raised performer was announced on her Instagram account, saying she passed away peacefully at her ranch home surrounded by family and friends.
Newton-John, a four-time Grammy winner, had disclosed in 2017 that a recurrence of breast cancer had metastasized and spread to her lower back, forcing her to cancel performances. Twenty-five years earlier Newton-John had undergone a partial mastectomy, leading her to become an advocate for breast cancer research and other health issues, and to establish a cancer treatment-research facility in Australia.
Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England, to Brinley Newton-John and Irene Born, the daughter of Max Born, a Jewish Nobel laureate and one of the founders of quantum mechanics. Born, who was a friend of Albert Einstein, moved to England after being suspended from his position at a German university by the Nazi regime, likely saving his life. There, his wife worked to help Jewish refugee women find employment.
“My mother was very proud of her Jewish heritage and talked about it a lot,” Newton-John told an Israeli news network three years ago. “It’s interesting: Some of my closest girlfriends are Jewish.”
An early start to her career
The entertainer began performing as a child and became a global superstar after moving to the United States. She was blond, blue-eyed and brimming with wholesomeness when she had her first hit in 1971 with “If Not for You” – a Bob Dylan song that had also been recorded by George Harrison.
It would be followed by “Let Me Be There,” which won her a Grammy for best female country vocal performance, “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)” and two number one songs, “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “I Honestly Love You.” The latter song won Grammys for best female pop performance and record of the year.
Newton-John also clinched the Country Music Association’s female singer of the year title in 1974, edging out such homegrown American stars as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. The unlikely success of an Australian performing country-flavored pop songs bothered many Nashville purists at the time.
Critics did not always care for Newton-John’s work, often finding her style frothy and overly commercial. The New York Times once described her voice as nearly colorless.
But the criticism did not hurt Newton-John’s sales and she cemented her acclaim by co-starring with John Travolta in Grease, the 1978 film that would become one of the most popular musicals in Hollywood history.
In the film, set in the 50s, Newton-John’s prim character, Sandy, has a summer fling with Danny, the greaser portrayed by Travolta, but the relationship falls apart over cultural differences. In the end, they reconcile as their roles reverse, with Danny cleaning up his act and Sandy making a striking appearance in a tight, black leather outfit.
TRAVOLTA, 68, addressed a tribute to his co-star on Instagram, saying her impact was incredible.
“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” the actor wrote. “I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! You’re Danny; you’re John!”
The film’s producer, Allan Carr, had sought Newton-John for the female lead after being impressed by her at a dinner party, and Travolta also urged her to take the part.
The singer was initially reluctant because of her negative experience in the awkwardly titled 1970 British film flop Tomorrow and worried about hurting her recording career. She also was concerned about doing an American accent, so the part was rewritten to make Sandy an Australian.
The film, based on the 1972 Broadway hit musical of the same name, was a major critical and commercial success, and its soundtrack generated a string of hits, including the title song, Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Summer Nights,” and her bouncy duet with Travolta, “You’re the One That I Want.”
“I’m grateful for ‘Grease,’” she told the Detroit News in 2016. “The movie and the songs are still so loved.”
The single “Magic” and the sexy tune “Physical” would top the charts in 1980 and 1981, respectively, as Newton-John changed her style and her sound, moving toward a pop-rock blend. In 1982, she started the Australian-style sportswear line Koala Blue.
But the 1980 roller disco fantasy musical film Xanadu flopped. Two of a Kind, which paired her again with Travolta a few years later, would do slightly better, but her career as a big-screen leading lady was dead in the water.
Newton-John wound up lowering her profile from its fan-fueled peak, which had seen her smiling from glossy magazine covers regularly. She married Xanadu actor-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 environmental advocacy.
Then the ’90s arrived, bringing with them a 1991 bankruptcy filing for Koala Blue and a 1992 breast cancer diagnosis for Newton-John. She fought back with chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and she tried not to let her daughter know what was going on but a friend let it slip.
Chloe “came running home and said, ‘Is it true?’ I told her it was, and I promised her from then on, I’d always tell her everything,” Newton-John told the Times in late 1994, when her cancer was in remission and she was back at work with a TV movie.
“Once you’ve faced your greatest fears, life somehow doesn’t seem as threatening,” she said.
Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1995, and in 2008 she married businessman John Easterling.
Newton-John, whose sister died of brain cancer, became an advocate after her first bout with breast cancer, and she founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in her hometown of Melbourne. She also marketed what was known as the Olivia Breast Self-Exam Kit.
‘Los Angeles Times’ and ‘The Jerusalem Post’ staff contributed to this report.