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Olivia Newton-John, superstar singer and actress, dies at 73

The Grammy-winner topped music charts with hits like “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want.” She also starred as Sandy in the blockbuster “Grease.”
John Travolta, left, and Olivia Newton-John arrive at The Penfolds Icon Gala Dinner in Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2006. Travolta, who starred with Newton-John in "Grease," presented Newton-John with the "Lifetime Achievement award. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73.
John Travolta, left, and Olivia Newton-John arrive at The Penfolds Icon Gala Dinner in Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2006. Travolta, who starred with Newton-John in "Grease," presented Newton-John with the "Lifetime Achievement award. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73. [ BRANIMIR KVARTUC | AP ]
Published Aug. 8|Updated Aug. 9

NEW YORK — Olivia Newton-John, the Grammy-winning superstar who reigned on pop, country, adult contemporary and dance charts with such hits as “Physical” and “You’re the One That I Want” and won countless hearts as everyone’s favorite Sandy in the blockbuster film version of “Grease,” has died. She was 73.

Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million records, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook.

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer,” he wrote. “We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”

From 1973-83, Newton-John was among the world’s most popular entertainers. She had 14 top 10 singles just in the U.S., won four Grammys, starred with John Travolta in “Grease” and with Gene Kelly in “Xanadu.” The fast-stepping Travolta-Newton-John duet, “You’re the One That I Want,” was one of the era’s biggest songs and has sold more than 15 million copies.

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, shown here in the 1978 film, Grease.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, shown here in the 1978 film, Grease. [ AP ]

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” Travolta wrote in an online post. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

“Physical,” the bouncy, R-rated smash released in 1981, was No. 1 for 10 weeks and was named Billboard’s song of the year despite being banned by some radio stations. An aerobics-friendly promotional clip, filmed in the early years of MTV, won a Grammy for best video.

Both musically and image-wise, she reinvented herself during those years. The blonde, ever-smiling Newton-John initially favored mild pop-country songs such as “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” and soft-breathing ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” which in 1975 won Grammys for best female pop vocal and record of the year. But she picked up the tempo in “Grease,” especially after Sandy ditched her white sweaters and blouses for waist-high, black leather pants. “Physical” even made Newton-John blush as she told her would-be lover “There’s nothing left to talk about/Unless it’s horizontally” and finally called out “Let’s get animal! Animal!”

FILE - Singer Olivia-Newton John arrives with British recording artist Cliff Richard for the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards in New York on Nov. 15, 2005. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson, File)
FILE - Singer Olivia-Newton John arrives with British recording artist Cliff Richard for the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards in New York on Nov. 15, 2005. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson, File) [ STUART RAMSON | AP ]

“I recorded it and then suddenly thought, ‘Goodness, maybe I’ve gone too far!’” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017, recalling how the song had been suggested by manager Roger Davies. “I called Roger and said, ‘We’ve got to pull this song!’ He said, ‘It’s too late. It’s already gone to radio and it’s running up the charts.’ I was horrified!”

Fans flooded social media to mourn her death. “Farewell with love to the legend who will forever be my first crush,” wrote actor Daniel Dae Kim. Added Tracie Thoms: “Olivia Newton-John is an icon. We will miss her dearly.” Gabrielle Union said she and her sister watched “Xanadu” “more times than I could count.”

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Olivia Newton-John, left, reacts with Oprah Winfrey as John holds the original costume she wore in the movie "Grease" during the filming of "Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure" at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Dec. 14, 2010.
Olivia Newton-John, left, reacts with Oprah Winfrey as John holds the original costume she wore in the movie "Grease" during the filming of "Oprah's Ultimate Australian Adventure" at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Dec. 14, 2010. [ JEREMY PIPER | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

She had a few hits after “Physical,” but her career declined and Newton-John became more likely to make news because of her private life. In 1992, as she was preparing a concert tour, her father died and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her marriage to actor Matt Lattanzi, with whom she had a daughter, actor-singer Chloe Lattanzi, broke up in 1995 and a years-long relationship with cameraman Patrick McDermott ended mysteriously. McDermott went missing during a 2005 fishing trip in California and his fate remained unknown years later. Numerous reports alleged that he was living in Mexico, with a new girlfriend.

“He was lost at sea, and nobody really knows what happened,” Newton-John told Australia’s “60 Minutes” in 2016. “It’s human to wonder. But you know, those are the things in life you have to accept and let go. Because whenever you go through difficult times, there’s always those concerns.”

Newton-John’s recent albums included “Stronger Than Before”; a holiday collaboration with Travolta, “This Christmas,” and the autobiographical “Gaia: One Woman’s Journey,” inspired by her battle with cancer and by the loss of her father.

Related: Before Clearwater show, Olivia Newton-John talks legacy, cancer and that 'Grease' ending

Dionne Warwick, who featured Newton-John on her 2006 album “My Friends and Me,” wrote online that “another angelic voice has been added to the Heavenly Choir.” And Lea Salonga wrote: “Rest In Peace, Olivia Newton-John. Hers was one of the voices of my childhood.”

Olivia Newton-John and her husband John Easterling pose for a portrait April 2, 2009, in New York.
Olivia Newton-John and her husband John Easterling pose for a portrait April 2, 2009, in New York. [ JEFF CHRISTENSEN | AP ]

Newton-John married John Easterling, founder of the Amazon Herb Company, in 2008. She was involved in numerous charitable causes, serving as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme and as national spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition. She also founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

Related: Olivia Newton-John, bringing ‘Grease’ to Tampa, talks Travolta and more

Newton-John had a home in Jupiter. And she served on the board of advisers at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, which often brought her to local galas and fundraisers. Namesake H. Lee Moffitt was a close friend and adviser who helped her set up her cancer and wellness center.

“Lee Moffitt is my mentor,” the singer said in a 2015 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. The superstar was humbled by a breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, and became a tireless advocate for research.

From left: Florida's then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, H. Lee Moffitt and Olivia Newton-John visited during the 17th annual Magnolia Ball on April 24, 2010, at the A La Carte Pavilion in Tampa.
From left: Florida's then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, H. Lee Moffitt and Olivia Newton-John visited during the 17th annual Magnolia Ball on April 24, 2010, at the A La Carte Pavilion in Tampa. [ AMY SCHERZER | Tampa Bay Times ]

”It’s a different part of my legacy,” she told the Times. She also insisted that her cancer institute have a wellness center, with yoga, meditation, nutrition — the kind of support for the mind and spirit that was considered pretty “out there” when she was being treated.

She appeared twice in recent years in the Tampa Bay area, including a 2015 Clearwater concert and a 2019 Q&A with John Travolta at a screening of “Grease” in Tampa.

Newton-John was the daughter of German literature professor Brin Newton-John and Irene Born, whose father was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. The Newton-Johns moved to Australia when Olivia was 5, but she returned to England in her teens and lived with her mother after her parents broke up. She had early dreams of becoming a veterinarian but was winning singing contests in high school and before age 20 had toured army bases and clubs and recorded her first single, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine.” In 1971, she covered Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” and began a close partnership with a friend from Australia, John Farrar, who produced the song and later wrote “You’re the One That I Want,” “Magic” and several other hits for her.

In this Nov. 15, 2005, photo, singer Olivia-Newton John arrives with British recording artist Cliff Richard for the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards in New York. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73.
In this Nov. 15, 2005, photo, singer Olivia-Newton John arrives with British recording artist Cliff Richard for the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards in New York. Newton-John, a longtime resident of Australia whose sales topped 100 million albums, died Monday at her southern California ranch, John Easterling, her husband, wrote on Instagram and Facebook. She was 73. [ STUART RAMSON | AP ]

She had loved country music, especially the records of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, since childhood, but her early success didn’t impress critics or some fellow musicians. A Village Voice review likened her to a geisha who “makes her voice smaller than it really is just to please men.” When Newton-John beat out Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn for the Country Music Association’s top artist of 1973, Tammy Wynette helped found the Association of Country Entertainers, a club designed to exclude Newton-John and other crossover performers.

In this  July 10, 2007, photo, Olivia Newton-John, left, joins the cast of the musical "Xanadu" on stage for the opening night curtain call in New York. Also pictured is Tony Roberts, right, Cheyenne Jackson, second from right, and Kerry Butler.
In this July 10, 2007, photo, Olivia Newton-John, left, joins the cast of the musical "Xanadu" on stage for the opening night curtain call in New York. Also pictured is Tony Roberts, right, Cheyenne Jackson, second from right, and Kerry Butler. [ SETH WENIG | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

But Newton-John had a show business admirer who with her became one of movies’ most unforgettable teams. Travolta had starred in the stage version of “Grease” and for the planned film thought Newton-John would be the “ultimate” Sandy, the nice girl who gets tough in the final act and gets her man.

“I worried that at 29 I was too old to play a high school girl,” Newton-John, who insisted on taking a screen test before accepting the part, told The Telegraph in 2017. “Everything about making the film was fun, but if I had to pick a favorite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2. I got to play a different character and wear different clothes, and when I put on that tight black outfit to sing ‘You’re the One That I Want,’ I got a very different reaction from the guys on the set.”

Actresses and co-stars Stockard Channing, left, and Olivia Newton-John ready themselves for their roles in the movie version of "Grease," in Los Angeles, Aug. 30, 1977.
Actresses and co-stars Stockard Channing, left, and Olivia Newton-John ready themselves for their roles in the movie version of "Grease," in Los Angeles, Aug. 30, 1977. [ NICK UT | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

She is survived by her husband; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; and several nieces and nephews.

In this Sept. 9, 2010, photo, singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, left, and her daughter Chloe Lattanzi arrive at the Toronto International Film Festival opening night premiere of the feature film "Score: A Hockey Musical" in Toronto.
In this Sept. 9, 2010, photo, singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, left, and her daughter Chloe Lattanzi arrive at the Toronto International Film Festival opening night premiere of the feature film "Score: A Hockey Musical" in Toronto. [ DAN STEINBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer. Tampa Bay Times staff writers Jay Cridlin and Sharon Wynne contributed to this report.

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