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Olivia Newton-John, pop singer who found stardom with 'Grease,' dies at 73

The "Physical" singer spoke publicly about her experience with cancer in her later years.
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Olivia Newton-John, a British Australian pop star who dominated the pop culture of an era, has died after repeated treatments for cancer, her family announced Monday. She was 73.

"Dame Olivia Newton-John ... passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends," John Easterling, her husband, said in a statement on her official Facebook page. "We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time."

"Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer."

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in the film 'Grease,' in 1978.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in the film 'Grease,' in 1978.RB / Redferns

In the late '70s and early '80s, Newton-John was one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. She stole hearts in the 1978 blockbuster "Grease" and dominated the charts with songs like the 1981 hit "Physical," which was the No. 1 single of that decade, according to Billboard.

She is credited with selling more than 100 million records over the course of a five-decade career.

In more recent years, however, Newton-John became best known as an advocate for breast cancer survivors, being one herself since first her first diagnosis in 1992.

"I think, you know, what you think creates your reality. So it's a decision. You have to make that decision," she told the "TODAY" show in March 2019. "You can be a victim, or you can be a winner and enjoy your life.”

By all accounts, Newton-John lived a winning life.

Newton-John was born in Cambridge, England, in 1948 to a father, Brin, who was both a World War II hero with British military intelligence and a professor of German literature, and a mother, Irene, whose own father, physicist Max Born, would win a Nobel Prize six years later. But from an early age, it seemed she was not destined to follow into the family business of academia.

After her father took a job at a college in Australia, the family moved to Melbourne when Newton-John was 5. Just a few years later, she won a talent contest on one of the country's most popular television shows, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” By the time she was 15, she had formed an all-girl group and later partnered with her friend Pat Carroll for the pop duo Pat & Olivia.

Olivia Newton-John, September 1976.
Olivia Newton-John, September 1976.ABC via Getty Images

But it would be as a solo artist, starting in 1966, that Newton-John would hit her true potential. She broke through on this side of the Pacific with her third solo album, "Let Me Be There," in 1973, with the title track earning the singer her first Grammy Award, for best female country performance. Newton-John would score her first No. 1 and her next two Grammys a year later with the country ballad "I Honestly Love You."

So when "Grease" director Randal Kleiser was looking to cast the role of Sandy, a straight-laced Australian student who falls in love with a greaser and ultimately becomes one herself, he at least knew his first choice could sing, whether or not Newton-John could act opposite the red-hot John Travolta, who was fresh off "Saturday Night Fever."

"Olivia Newton-John was our first choice for the part of Sandy, but she had a few concerns," Kleiser recalled by email. "She had had a bad experience on an English film and didn't want to repeat it."

"(At 29 years old) she wasn't sure she would look the part of a 17-year-old and wanted to make sure she and John looked like they could be contemporaries," Kleiser said. "He was a bit younger (at 23). She asked to have a screen test so she could see how she would come across and feel how the chemistry would be between she and John and myself."

Fortunately, the test worked well enough to convince her that she could handle the part.

"She embodied the character in the beginning of the film, and we all hoped she could pull off the sexy vixen at the end," Kleiser said. "We couldn't have been more thrilled by the final result."

That final result proved to be a blockbuster.

Her follow-up, the sci-fi, disco musical "Xanadu," didn't fare nearly as well.

At least something good came of that role: She married co-star Matt Lattanzi in 1984. Two years later, the couple welcomed a daughter, Chloe Rose. But they separated after 11 years of marriage, in 1995.

Newton-John seemed to give up on Hollywood after the 1983 fantasy romance "Two of a Kind" reunited her on screen with Travolta, but it had none of the magic their last collaboration did.

Image: Olivia Newton-John during the annual Wellness Walk and Research Run in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 16, 2018.
Olivia Newton-John during the annual Wellness Walk and Research Run in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 16, 2018.Scott Barbour / Getty Images file

The film disappointment didn't matter much: In the early '80s, Newton-John was busy having plenty of success in the music business. She notched her biggest hit with the song "Physical" in November 1981. Actually, it was the entire industry's biggest hit of that decade, according to a Billboard ranking, and held its top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 consecutive weeks.

Movies and music took an eventual backseat to motherhood and medical issues.

Newton-John began to become an advocate for cancer research in 1991, after the tragic death of her best friend's daughter from a rare childhood form of the disease. But it became an even more personal cause a year later, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time.

After going into remission, cancer returned two more times, in 2013 and 2017.

Amid a mostly storybook life came a plot twist only slightly more believable than "Xanadu": Tragedy seemed to strike when her boyfriend of nine years, Patrick McDermott, then 48, went missing and was presumed dead after failing to return from a fishing trip off the coast of California in 2005. But his final fate is shrouded in mystery after a private investigator hired by NBC's "Dateline" claimed to have found evidence that McDermott faked his own death to evade debts and start a new life in Mexico.

"I mean it's human to wonder. But you know ... those are the things in life you have to accept and let go," Newton-John told Australia's version of "60 Minutes" in 2016.

By that time, Newton-John had indeed let go and moved on, marrying American businessman John Easterling in an Incan ceremony on a mountaintop outside of Peru in 2008. The singer has credited her husband, who founded Amazon Herb Company, purveyors of botanical supplements, with helping turn her on to medical marijuana as a treatment for cancer.

Living with the disease, she repeatedly said, had given her perspective.

"We’re all going to die. That’s probably the hardest thing to accept as a human being," Newton-John told "TODAY" in March 2019. "I’m 70 and I’ve had the most amazing life, and I have extra time. So whatever that is, I’m grateful for it."

John Travolta paid tribute to his "Grease" costar on Instagram.

"My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better," wrote Travolta, who played Danny Zuko opposite Newton-John's Sandy Olsson. "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!"

Tributes from fellow performers and fans alike poured in Monday afternoon.

"Grease" costar Stockard Channing called the loss enormous.

“I don’t know if I’ve known a lovelier human being," Channing said. "Olivia was the essence of summer – her sunniness, her warmth and her grace are what always come to mind when I think of her. I will miss her enormously."

Actor Suzanne Somers, herself a '70s and '80s pop culture fixture, praised Newton-John for helping her through her own cancer diagnosis.

​“There is a sisterhood that grows larger every. It's a sisterhood you never want to join but when allowed entry you find great comfort with other 'sisters'," Somers said in a statement to NBC News.

"Olivia provided great comfort for me when diagnosed 25 years ago. Her fight was my fight, as she won, I won. She taught all of us so much through her bravery and 'never give up' philosophy. We got strength through Olivia and her example of life. As a '70s icon she lived a full life. I loved her and will miss my 'sister' forever.”

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Actor Gabrielle Union said she had been a fan for years, and that Newton-John exceeded all her expectations when they finally met, "exactly how you want your heroes to be," Union wrote.

"Star Trek" actor George Takei mourned the loss, writing: "I trust she is now in the great Xanadu beyond. Know that we are forever hopelessly devoted to you, Olivia. Rest in song and mirth.”

Newton-John is survived by her husband John Easterling; daughter Chloe Lattanzi; sister Sarah Newton-John; brother Toby Newton-John; nieces and nephews Tottie, Fiona and Brett Goldsmith; Emerson, Charlie, Zac, Jeremy, Randall, and Pierz Newton-John; Jude Newton-Stock, Layla Lee; Kira and Tasha Edelstein; and Brin and Valerie Hall.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund.