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Grease Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

"Grease" was the word — and one of the most beloved movies of the 1970s. Starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as Rydell High School sweethearts Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko, the film grossed $160 million when it was first released in 1978, according to Vanity Fair. Its soundtrack, featuring the songs "You're the One That I Want," "Summer Nights," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," as well as the self-titled theme song sung by Frankie Valli, was also a major chart topper in the late 1970s disco era. Vanity Fair also noted back in 2016 that in the decade years since the release of "Grease," the film has grossed close to $400 million worldwide. Not bad for a film that cost a mere $6 million to make.

Sadly, along with all of the fanfare, there has been tragedy. Multiple cast members from the classic movie have passed away over the past four decades, including one legendary star who died the year after the film was released.

Edd Byrnes (Vic Fontaine) died in January 2020

Edd Byrnes, who played TV dance show host Vic Fontaine in "Grease," was known for more than his flirty prom scene in the hit film. 

While his character in "Grease" had eyes for Dinah Manoff's Marty Maraschino, two decades earlier, young fans had their eyes on him. The actor first shot to fame in the 1950s detective series "77 Sunset Strip," where he played the comb-obsessed nightclub valet, Kookie, decades before Fonzie of "Happy Days" incessantly combed his own signature ducktail. At one point, Byrnes was such a heartthrob that he was receiving upwards of 15,000 fan letters per week, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Sadly, like so many stars, Byrnes struggled with addictive tendencies. Drugs and alcohol were his vices, and in 1988, Byrne publicly spoke about both his own addiction and his father's death from cirrhosis of the liver (according to The Washington Post). The younger Byrnes, thankfully, became sober before hitting age 50 and would go on to live for decades after finding sobriety.

Byrnes died on January 8, 2020 at his home in Santa Monica, California, with his family reporting it was natural causes (via ABC). He was 87 years old.

Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) died in 2011

Jeff Conaway was best known for his role as Kenickie in "Grease," as well as his role in the TV series "Taxi," alongside actors like Andy Kaufman and Danny DeVito. Conaway played struggling actor turned cab driver, Bobby Wheeler, on and off for four seasons, starting in 1978. He acted steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

A few decades following Conaway's TV and movie heyday, fans were sad to see Conaway turn up on "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," where he revealed he was addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Sadly, according to the BBC, Conaway's addiction to prescription drugs may have started with "Grease," as a back injury he suffered while filming the movie spawned a lifelong addiction. That said, Dr. Drew told People Magazine in 2011, with permission from the family, that the actor had experienced a deeply traumatic childhood, as well.

On May 11, 2011, Conaway was found unconscious and he was placed on life support at Encino Hospital Medical Center, per The Los Angeles Times. He died on May 27, 2011, after being taken off of life support. The Hollywood Reporter cited a coroner's report that revealed Conaway's death was caused by a "major internal infection." The actor was 60 years old when he died.

Annette Charles (Cha Cha DiGregorio) died in 2011

Annette Charles played the cha-cha dancing Charlene "Cha Cha" DiGregorio in "Grease," and she was featured prominently in a prom scene dance-off scene with John Travolta, much to the dismay of Olivia Newton-John's character, Sandy. While she became famous for her role in "Grease,"  Charles only logged a few acting credits after the hit film, per IMDb, including an appearance on "The Incredible Hulk" TV series, and she appears to have pretty much left acting behind for good in 1987. 

Fans were surprised when Charles did a complete career change and became a college professor at California State University, Northridge. The Cal State Northridge newsletter described her as a "supportive and enthusiastic advocate who helped students find their voice as an instructor of speech communication and public speaking in the Chicana and Chicano Studies department, where she had taught since 2002."

In 2011, the former actress was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Charles was just 63 when she died on August 3, 2011 (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Dennis Stewart (Leo Craterface Balmudo) died in 1994

Annette Charles' character's bad boy boyfriend, Leo "Craterface" Balmudo, was played by Dennis Stewart in "Grease." The young actor scored the lucky role as the tough-talking, drag-racing, Scorpions gang leader in the hit movie during the same year he played a dancer in the megahit BeeGees film "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Following his film success in "Grease," Stewart logged a series of guest spots on popular TV shows of the era, including "Wonder Woman" and "CHIPs." He also reprised his role as "Craterface" Balmudo in the 1982 film "Grease 2," and his last acting credit on IMDb is listed in 1991 with a role on the TV series "Parker Lewis Can't Lose." Nonetheless, "Grease" remained his defining movie.

Stewart tragically died from complications relating to AIDS on April 20, 1994 (via Facebook). He was just 46 years old at the time of his death.

Eve Arden (Principal McGee) died in November 1990

Character actress Eve Arden (born Eunice Quedens) famously starred in the 1940s and 1950s radio and TV comedy, "Our Miss Brooks," as English teacher Connie Brooks — but in "Grease," she took on a different rank in the high school ecosystem when she played Rydell High's Principal McGee. Her character was known for her no-nonsense personality and penchant for delivering the daily morning announcements. Arden also reprised the role in "Grease 2." Before "Grease," the legendary character actress was also known for her self-titled TV series, "The Eve Arden Show" and her role as Eve on The Mothers-In-Law," and she even played herself in the classic "I Love Lucy" episode, "L.A. at Last."

Arden died on November 12, 1990 at her Beverly Hills home at age 83, per The New York Times. Her cause of death was reported as heart disease. An obituary posted by The Orlando Sentinel revealed that Arden had also been diagnosed with cancer prior to her death.

Dody Goodman (Blanche Hodel) died in 2008

Another famous character actress, Dody Goodman, played Eve Arden's character's sidekick, wacky high school secretary Blanche Hodel in "Grease" and its sequel. Goodman's character was known for her musical contribution to the morning announcements via her trusty xylophone.

Before "Grease," Goodman played Mary Hartman's mother on the late night soap of the same name, and after the film, she logged a recurring role on the NBC sitcom 'Diff'rent Strokes." She went on to a voice role on the TV series "Alvin and the Chipmunks," among other shows. However, Goodman was so in tune with "Grease" that in 1994, she even appeared in a Broadway revival of the story in which she played English teacher Miss Lynch, per Theater Mania.

Goodman died on June 22, 2008 at the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, following a long illness, according to The Hollywood Reporter. She was 93 years old at the time of her death.

Alice Ghostley (Mrs. Murdock) died in 2007

Rydell High's auto shop teacher Mrs. Murdock was a familiar face to "Grease" viewers at the time of the film's debut. Fans already knew actress Alice Ghostley from her role as clumsy housekeeper Esmeralda on the ABC sitcom "Bewitched." However, she was also a Tony-winning stage performer (per Broadway World), who would later go on to a recurring role on 'Designing Women," which scored her an Emmy nod, per Emmys.com.

In a 2005 radio interview with WDCM (via YouTube), Ghostley admitted she was surprised that older fans liked "Grease," but added, "I do get a lot of letters. I get letters from Malaysia talking about 'Grease.'" She also considered the film as a "bad gig" at the time because she was forced to work out in the sun so much while waiting for her turn to shoot scenes. "I was glad when it was over, to tell you the truth," the actress said. "Never in my life did I think it would turn out to be what it was."

Ghostley died at her Studio City, California home on September 21, 2007 at age 81 following a long colon cancer illness, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Joan Blondell (Vi) died in 1979

Joan Blondell had a huge acting resume under her belt when she appeared in "Grease" as the waitress, Vi. The legendary star, who began her movie career in the 1930s, appeared in a plethora of Warner Bros. films, per Slant Magazine, effortlessly crossing genres. In "Grease," she lent a sympathetic ear to a beauty school dropout (played by Didi Conn), who was her co-worker at the Frosty Palace malt shop, and in an interview with The Spokesman Review, Ellen Travolta — who played a fellow Frosty Palace waitress in the film — said it was "a lot of fun" working with Hollywood legends such as Blondell and Sid Caesar in "Grease."

Sadly, Blondell's last years — during which she filmed "Grease" — were spent struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, via Slant Magazine. She passed away from leukemia on December 25, 1979, a little more than a year after "Grease" was released and two years after getting an Academy Award nomination for her film, "Opening Night."  The Hollywood legend was 70 years old when she died, according to The New York Times.

Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun) died in 2014

By the time Sid Caesar joined the "Grease" cast as Coach Calhoun, he had a long list of TV and film credits and two Emmy Awards to his name. In the 1950s, the multi-talented entertainment legend was one of television's very first stars as part of the pioneering live television series, "Your Show of Shows," which was quite an achievement for a kid who'd once earned a living as a saxophone player during the Depression (via Biography). 

Needless to say, Caesar was widely known as a comedian and musician long before playing the Rydell High coach who (hilariously) tries to help John Travolta's Danny Zuko become a jock. However, though Caesar appeared in the biggest box office hit of 1978, he struggled with alcohol and pill addiction during that same era, per The New York Times

In the 1980s, the actor embarked on a healthy lifestyle journey that would ultimately help him live a very long life. Closing out a career that spanned six decades, Caesar died on February 12, 2014 at his Beverly Hills home, at the age of 91 (according to Variety), following a thankfully short period of ailing health.

Olivia Newton-John (Sandy) died in 2022

Olivia Newton-John's breakout role was in "Grease," but she was already well on her way to establishing her name in the music business. While she was arguably most known for playing Sandy in the cult classic, Newton-John had an incredible music career that earned her four GRAMMY awards out of 12 nominations. "Physical," "Xanadu," and "Please Mister Please" are some of her most recognized hits, but her performances in "Grease" are some of her best.

Newton-John shined in the 1978 film, especially during her performances of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "You're the One That I Want," and "Summer Nights." The singer-actress passed on August 8, 2022, after a 30-year-long battle with breast cancer (via People). "Grease" co-star John Travolta was devastated to hear the news and penned a sweet dedication on social media. "My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. 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 first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!" he wrote on Instagram.