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c. 1973

Grease’s leading man

Years before John Travolta shot to stardom in the role, Danny Zuko belonged to another up-and-comer

The cast of the American musical Grease rehearsing at the New London theatre off Drury Lane in preparation for the opening night on 26th June. Leading the cast is Richard Gere with Stacey Gregg chosen from thousands of hopefuls to play Sandy, 20th June 1973. (Photo by Tom King/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

“Summer lovin’, happened so fast…” You may not have seen Grease at the cinema – hey, you may never have seen the film at all – but you almost certainly know the song, and, of course, the singer. Dressed all in black, his hair slicked back, the epitome of 50s cool, it can only ever be… Richard Gere.

It’s easy to forget that the theatrical production was an enormous success on its own terms.

Yes, four years before the all-conquering 1978 film propelled John Travolta into the stratosphere, the part of Danny Zuko belonged to Richard Gere. 

Grease the film so eclipsed Grease the stage musical that it’s easy to forget that the theatrical production was an enormous success on its own terms. As in, when the Broadway production closed in 1980, it was, at 3,388 shows, the longest run in Broadway history.

But back in 1973, Gere was only 23 years old, and still some way off his breakthrough rôle –  1980’s American Gigolo

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According to Gere: “Grease was one of the first things I did in New York. I started out as an understudy and I was covering five guys and every night, one of the guys didn’t show up or there was a problem, and I was doing all the parts. When it came time to do it in London, they asked if I would come in and lead and play Danny. It was the first time I had been out of the country.”

Before Gere brought Danny to London, the production opened in the rather more provincial British town of Coventry, later transferring to London’s West End. 

In England, like New York, it was a universal smash. Almost. Reviewing the production for Coventry’s local paper, critic David Isaacs wrote :“What a waste of talent. Why on earth talented performers are wasting their time with this puerile nonsense it is difficult to assess.”

1973
Gere posing as Danny with Stacey Gregg
Tom King / Mirrorpix / Getty Images
1972
Gere was understudy to this Danny. Actors Carole Demas, wearing poodle skirt, and Barry Bostwick in a scene from the broadway version.
Bill Ray / Life Magazine / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
1972
Dick Clark (center) chats backstage with members of the original Broadway cast, New York.
Tim Boxer / Getty Images
1973
Gere supports his co-star
Tom King / Mirrorpix / Getty Images
1973
The cast rehearsing at the New London theatre off Drury Lane in preparation for the opening night on 26th June. Stacey Gregg was chosen from thousands of hopefuls to play Sandy
Tom King / Mirrorpix / Getty Images
1973
Gere as Danny and Jacquie Ann Carr in rehearsal
Sunday People / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix via Getty Images
1973
Gere as Danny and Stacey Gregg as Sandy
Sunday People / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix via Getty Images
1973
Richard Gere and Jacquie Ann Carr
Sunday People / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix via Getty Images
1973
Richard Gere with actress Stacey Gregg
Graham Wood / Evening Standard / Getty Images
1973
Five members of the cast arrive at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, on motorcycles
Michael Webb / Keystone / Getty Images
1973
Some of the cast of the show ‘Grease’ arrive at Earls Court London for the 1973 Motor Show driving a Chrysler Windsor circa 1950
Evening Standard / Getty Images
1973
Gere gesturing at a cameraman at a party to celebrate the opening of the show
Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis / Getty Images

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