‘Taxi’ star Marilu Henner on turning down ‘Grease’ film, befriending John Travolta: ‘A special kind of talent’
When Marilu Henner was cast in the Chicago production of “Grease,” the actress had no idea she would be making history.
The musical first began as a community theater production in a converted trolley barn. Not only did it launch the careers of several stars, but it also led to the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. In 2020, the movie was added to the National Film Registry.
Henner is now reflecting on her rise to stardom with a new show in New York City’s 54 Below on June 1 and June 6 titled “Tell Me More, Tell Me More: The ‘Grease’ 50th Reunion.” The 70-year-old will be hosting alongside James Canning who, like her, appeared in the original Chicago production. Together, they’ll be sharing the stage with several cast members and surprise guests as they tell stories and sing songs.
Marilu Henner will be sharing songs and stories about the early years of "Grease" at New York City’s 54 Below.
(Jim Britt/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Henner spoke to Fox News Digital about bringing “Grease” to life, befriending Travolta, 68, as well as her favorite memory from her beloved sitcom “Taxi.”
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Fox News: What can audiences expect from your shows in New York City?
Marilu Henner: It’s a trip down memory lane. I was in the original company in Chicago and then did the first national company. We’re going to have a lot of the original cast members from the show… And everybody looks so damn good *laughs*. I keep saying the women of “Grease” should do a program because it’s like the fountain of youth. I guess “Grease” is the fountain of youth.
You know, I didn’t want to go to New York [back then] and audition for the Broadway company because I was about to start college and I thought, “This thing’s not gonna be a hit. I’m not gonna give up time in college.” I know, I know. *laughs*. But… I did get to do the national company and work with Jeff Conaway from “Taxi.” James Canning and I are hosting the evening. It’s a celebration.
Marilu Henner attending "Party for 2,000 Performance of Grease" on Dec. 8, 1979, at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City.
(Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Fox News: Before Broadway or even the film, was there ever a moment where you thought, “There’s something really special about this musical?”
Henner: I did the show in Chicago and we were like the toughest gang that you could possibly imagine. We teased our hair, we put razor blades in our hair. It was in a converted trolley barn. We just walked up the aisle and would almost stomp on people’s hands. We were such a nasty little group of people and that’s so different from the way I was in high school. I was such a goody little two shoes in a way.
I never thought the show would be a hit past Chicago because it had all these Chicago references. It was super raunchy, a lot of bad language, much worse than the Broadway company. But I wasn’t surprised when it did become a hit because they made it more palatable for a universal audience. And it just seemed like everybody was one of those kids in high school… It has real universal appeal. Whether you were the new kid in school or you were part of a clique, I think it has something you can relate to.
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Fox News: It seems like “Grease” is a rite of passage for students now.
Henner: Definitely… I’ve been very lucky in my life to do “Grease” [so early on] and it’s being appreciated by a whole new audience years later. It’s such a nostalgic look back… It’s pretty amazing when you do something that crosses not only eras but has such universal themes.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John embrace in a promotional still for the film "Grease," directed by Randal Kleiser, 1978.
(Paramount Pictures/Fotos International/Getty Images)
Fox News: How did you feel about the film?
Henner: I was actually offered the film, but I couldn’t get stop dates for [another] film that I was doing at the time. But it’s great. I mean, it’s so different. The film and the play are two completely different animals. The play is such an ensemble piece and the movie is completely different. It’s definitely a star vehicle for John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. A lot of the songs were cut, so there was a very different feel to the film.
But listen, it’s so great that the film became this huge success. I was hanging out with John at the time and went to the openings in both England and France. You could see how people just responded to the film. It crossed continents… People still recognize those songs, and it’s a lot of fun to talk about them and relive those memories. But memory’s easy for me. I don’t mind reliving memories ever.
Fox News: You worked with John Travolta at one point. What stood out to you?
Henner: I did the first national company of “Grease” with him and then right away, he and I both got cast in my first Broadway show, “Over Here,” with The Andrews Sisters. We also did two movies, “Perfect” and “Chains of Gold.” And we hung out for many years as well.
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John Travolta and Marilu Henner dated and appeared in two movies together.
(James Andanson/Sygma via Getty Images)
The first day I met him, we connected right away. We both have three sisters and two brothers. He’s from a family of six, I’m from a family of six. He’s from three girls and three boys, I’m from four girls and two boys. So we had three sisters and two brothers. His mother taught drama, my mother taught dance. His father sold tires, my father sold cars. So we felt like we had that big family connection.
And he knew that I had done the original Chicago company. He wanted to know everything I could possibly tell him. He’s a real research person. And I love that and appreciate that so much in anybody. And you know, he’s just very talented – crazy talented. You could tell, even at 18 years old, that he was going to be a star. He was just a special kind of talent and a really good person. He had that big family thing… He’s an amazing human being.
Fox News: Was there a song or scene from “Grease” that you hoped would have been shown in the Broadway production or even the film, but it eventually got cut?
Henner: Certainly. “Freddy My Love,” which was my song and the first song ever written for “Grease” that was in the Chicago company. It made it to the Broadway company, and then it was cut from the movie. But the Chicago company had very different songs. The opening song was “Foster Beach.” In 54 Below, we’re going to tell the story about how “Foster Beach,” which was a very local Chicago beach, became “Summer Nights.” It was the same sentiment, but it became “Summer Nights.”
As a student at the University of Chicago in 1971, Marilu Henner was cast as Mary in a community theater production of "Grease."
(Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
In the Chicago company, the song at the end where Olivia’s character is all dolled up, it was called “Kiss It.” Then it became “All Choked Up.” Then it became “You’re the One That I Want.” So I got to see all the different progressions. There was a tattoo song. Miss Lynch had a song called “In My Day.” The writers just kept writing and writing… And then they kept cutting and cutting. So it’s good that they cut as many [songs] as they did.
MARILU HENNER INTERESTED IN ‘TAXI’ REBOOT, WITH ONE REQUIREMENT
Fox News: Fans recognize you from “Taxi.” What’s one memory that sticks out to you now when you think about your time on the show?
Henner: Let me just tell you that we just did our 13th Zoom. We continue to have these Zoom [meetings]. We celebrated Jim Brooks’ birthday for the third time on Zoom. We just love each other so much. When we get on these Zooms, they’re two hours long, and it’s never enough time. They’re all coming to see my show at 54 Below. So I hope people come because they’ll see some of my cast mates.
Marilu Henner’s "Taxi" co-star Jeff Conaway, who died in 2011, played Kenickie in the film "Grease."
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
I was just saying last week that there’s this special memory of when Tony Danza got his blue Corvette. He pulled into the Paramount parking lot in his brand-new car and blasted the radio. The song “Street Life” was playing. And the two of us were dancing around the Paramount lot. It was just this exhilarating feeling like we’re young, we’re in Hollywood, we have this incredible show. And every time we had a guest star, whether it was Tom Selleck or Tom Hanks – and we had so many guest stars on the show – we would open up our hearts and the welcome wagon. We were just so appreciative. And the parties of course – there were so many great parties.
Fox News: You were one of the few women on the show. What was that like for you?
Henner: For the first four years, I was the only woman. And then in the fifth season, Carol Kane came on. I always say that I planned my outfit before I went to sleep every night because I want to look really good *laughs*. And sometimes it was funny because I’d say a line and go, “Is that an Elaine line?” It needed a female point of view, so I think they really let me contribute to my character a lot. I loved it. They gave me a lot of sass and I gave it right back to them, which is why I think I got the job.
And I love those guys so much. Tony Danza calls me the swizzle stick that stirs the drink. I was the one who said, “OK guys, hone up. We’re paying for the party this week.” Or, “OK guys, give me your set list for the DJ.” Or, “OK guys, we’re buying everybody a Christmas present, pick a name from the grab bag and you’re responsible for that name.” I come from a big family… so I sort of acted like that at “Taxi” as well. I was always the one collecting, telling people, reminding people what was going on.
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Starring in "Taxi" were Danny DeVito, Marilu Henner, Andy Kaufman, Jeff Conaway, Randall Carver, Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch.
(Jim Britt/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Fox News: What’s your favorite memory involving Andy Kaufman?
Henner: I loved the episode where Andy fancied himself a song and dance man. He knew that I’d worked with The Andrews Sisters on Broadway. So there was an episode where we go to a costume party. Tony, Andy and Judd [Hirsch] all act like The Andrews Sisters. I got to teach them a routine because I knew some of their choreography… There are just so many great, funny scenes [we did together]. I love that the show is so revered and that everybody is still talking about it and that we’re all still working.
Fox News: You ran into Jeff Conaway over the years. What was that like?
Henner: We always stayed . When you have something like “Taxi” you’re doing things like the TV Land Awards or getting together because you’re going to somebody’s wedding or baby shower. We all stayed in contact. We threw dinners for one another every once in a while. So I always saw Jeff. I have both “Taxi” and “Grease” in common with Jeff. It was easy to stay in touch with him, especially around the holidays. I love his sisters. You know, I can still hear his voice in my head. He was always such a sweetheart. I miss him.
Jeff Conaway and Marilu Henner attend the Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 29, 1998, in Pasadena, California.
(Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Fox News: In terms of sitcoms, what would you like to see more of?
Henner: Besides “Taxi,” my other favorite sitcom is “Friends.” I love “Friends.” There are so many parallels. I would love to see another great ensemble piece, but I would also love to see a really great family sitcom… You know, not your typical family that has unusual characters coming in and out. And there’s a lot of love. There’s also controversy.
I’m working on something right now that I think will check off a lot of boxes for me. We have such unusual families nowadays. I’m so happy that the world is now embracing differences. It’s not like this cookie-cutter sort of thing that most families are supposed to have. I hope there’s more of that.