'Grease' turns 40: The crazy story of how the T-Birds were lost at sea hours before filming the drive-in scene

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny in the drive-in scene from Grease. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount c/o the Everett Collection)

The drive-in scene in Grease begins with the students of Rydell High School rolling in to watch The Blob, and ends with Danny (John Travolta) singing mournfully about being “stranded at the drive-in.” Little did Travolta know that, just hours earlier, half of his co-stars were stranded — and not metaphorically. The day of the drive-in shoot, the young actors who played the T-Birds decided to take a sailboat up the coast, in celebration of what was, for most of them, their first big Hollywood film. Kelly Ward (Putzie), Barry Pearl (Doody), Michael Tucci (Sonny), and Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) were having a grand old time at sea … until the wind stopped. While reminiscing with Yahoo Entertainment for our oral history of the Grease carnival scene, Ward revealed how he and his fellow T-Birds (who remain friends to this day) nearly missed the drive-in scene altogether. In honor of the film’s 40th anniversary on June 16, here’s the story, in Ward’s own words:

The T-Birds in Grease: from left, Kelly Ward as Putzie, Michael Tucci as Sonny, Barry Pearl as Doody, John Travolta as Danny, and Jeff Conaway as Kenickie. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount c/o the Everett Collection)

“I will tell you one story that probably no one has told anybody. We were shooting the drive-in at the Pickwick Drive-In, which is no longer there, it’s now condos in Burbank, and it was night shoots. And the call was when the sun was going down, 7:30 or 8, so we could shoot all night. And Michael Tucci [who played Sonny] got a brilliant idea, because he had a friend who had a sailboat. He said, ‘Why don’t we take the day, since we’re not working during the day — we’ll go out on the sailboat, we’ll sail up the coast, we’ll have Champagne and caviar and celebrate the fact that we’re doing a movie and it’s summer, and then we’ll sail back to the marina and we’ll go to the set? We don’t have a lot to do on the call today. It shouldn’t be too bad. Why don’t we do it?’ We all thought, ‘Heck yeah.’

“So it was Tucci and Pearl and me and I think Jeff Conaway. We went on his friend’s boat and we sailed up north of Malibu. And it started getting later and later, and the wind stopped. We suddenly lost the wind and we were becalmed. And it was getting to be 4 o’clock, and we were thinking, ‘Hey, we got to get back to the marina because we’ve got to be on the set. We can’t not show up for the night shoot. We’re on camera tonight.’ So we told our skipper, ‘Just fire up the outboard and let’s motor back, we’ve got to get back, we can’t wait for the southern wind to come up.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a problem, guys — I don’t have a motor on the boat. It’s just a sailboat!’

From left: Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, and Kelly Ward on the set of Grease. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount c/o the Everett Collection)

“We were ready to kill this guy. I was starting to panic, and suddenly all the happiness and bubbles from Champagne had disappeared and temperatures are starting to get hot. ‘How could you bring us out here without having an outboard to get us back?’ And the guy retreated to the cabin. We thought, ‘Oh, now we’re really up a creek because he’s gone below and there’s nobody to sail this thing.’

“And he emerges a few minutes later, and he has painted his body, with lipstick or something — he painted what looked like cliché Indian war paint on himself. He had feathers in his hand and a rattle. And he started dancing around the deck of his sailboat, summoning the wind. I swear to God. He was a freaky, interesting, mid-70s guy, danced all around the boat, and I swear to God the wind came up, we sailed back, we made it into the marina, we got to the set on time, and we shot that night. Totally bizarre, but absolutely true.

The cast of Grease in the diner scene: from left, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Didi Conn, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Dinah Manoff, Jeff Conaway, and John Travolta. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount c/o the Everett Collection)

“We didn’t tell [anyone on set] anything, because we thought, ‘My God, if we’d been stuck out there we would have gotten in such trouble. You know, What were you guys thinking? You can’t go doing that!’ It would’ve wound up costing the production a lot of money. So we didn’t tell anybody. We just kept it to ourselves. But a major bonding moment for the T-Birds!”

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