“You have my undivided attention, young lady,” Maxwell Caulfield says bemusedly, as he logs on to Yahoo Entertainment’s Zoom interview and immediately notices my Grease 2 T-shirt. Caulfield of course went on to become the Rex Manning of Empire Records, but the British stage actor’s big-screen debut took place 40 years ago, when he was cast as the Cool Rider, aka Michael Carrington, in another cult-classic musical movie: Grease 2.
Caulfield —who celebrated his 21st birthday on the Grease 2 set, just as he was coming off the It-Boy buzz of his breakout role in the off-Broadway play Entertaining Mr. Sloan — actually once blamed Grease 2 for derailing his promising theater career. Sadly, greased lightnin’ did not strike twice with the controversial sequel, which — despite being helmed by Grease producer Allan Carr, boasting nearly double the budget of its popular predecessor, and starring another talented newcomer, Michelle Pfeiffer — was not the one that moviegoers wanted back in the summer of ‘82. Grease 2 ended up grossing only about $15 million at the box office, compared to Grease’s $132 million.
But as Paramount Pictures releases a new limited-edition Grease 2 Blu-ray SteelBook to commemorate the misunderstood movie’s 40th anniversary, Caulfield, at age 62, has finally come to terms with its legacy. “My initial reaction, because obviously I've talked about the film over the years from time to time when it's come up, was I used to be almost an apologist for the film,” he admits. “But I'm happy to talk about it, because you know, it is what I'm best known for. So, I'm not going to deny it, or pretend that I've moved on to bigger and better things.”
Caulfield also appreciates that Grease 2 has amassed a devoted underground following in recent years — with midnight movie screenings, the Grease 2-inspired musical Cool Rider!, a very comprehensive fan website, and a vinyl soundtrack reissue — although when I mention that I once dared to write a Yahoo article arguing that Grease 2 is a better movie than Grease, he still seems incredulous. “Did you get a lot of reaction to the article?” he asks. “I mean, negative people saying, ‘Are you outta your mind?’” I assure him that — on the contrary — the article’s comments section made me realize I was far from alone in my opinion.
“It's not so much that I was bitter about the failure of Grease 2 to launch,” Caulfield explains. “You see that it really was a big, splashy movie. Paramount really pulled the stops out. I know 12 million bucks doesn't sound like a lot of money now, but they spent a lot of money making that film, and they took a lot of time making it. … I'll be honest with you: It was tough to see Michelle's success, on the scale of it. Not that I begrudged her it at all; I'd always recognized that she was a very luminous and talented actress, and it wasn't just purely looks, as she's gone on to prove time and time again. But yeah, I was derailed, seriously derailed — and I think maybe I'd bought my own publicity.”
It’s easy to understand why everyone, from Carr to Caulfield himself, might have predicted that Caulfield was going to become The Next John Travolta once Grease 2 hit theaters on June 11, 1982. With his swoon-inducing British accent and sculpted cheekbones that made him seem like the sixth member of Duran Duran, Caulfield certainly had that sort of teen-heartthrob potential. (Frankly, the only problem I had with the movie was it took a massive suspension of disbelief to accept that Michael Carrington, the goody-two-shoes exchange student and unrequited love interest of Pfeiffer’s Stephanie Zinone, would not be Rydell High’s BMOC the moment he stepped off that yellow school bus — or that he would have to cover his pretty face with motorcycle goggles to get the girl.)
Caulfield actually chucklingly recalls working as a movie usher in London’s cinema district and witnessing the Beatlemania-like commotion when Travolta showed up for the West End Saturday Night Fever premiere, thinking, “‘Man, wow, I'd like a piece of this!’ Flash-forward four years later… It was a pretty tall order. Be careful what you wish for, isn't that what they say?”
Travolta was of course already a star on the rise from Welcome Back, Kotter when he signed on for the original Grease, and Travolta’s Grease co-star, Olivia Newton-John, was a bona pop superstar. Established male pop stars like Andy Gibb, Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy, and Rick Springfield — “A lot of guys who were way more qualified to play it than me,” Caulfield says humbly — were all in the running to play Michael Carrington before Caulfield won the role, and Pfeiffer was even more of a newbie than Caulfield. “I had an off-Broadway rep; that's all I could lay claim to. Michelle was completely unknown, and they took a big chance casting unknowns,” Caulfield admits.
“Oh, they'd always told us that maybe one if both of them were going to show up in the sequel — you know, that Travolta or Olivia were going to sort of ghost through the movie and just deliver that little, million-dollar cameo that would've probably helped us a little along the way,” Caulfield adds. “But they quite wisely kept their distance.” (Plans for Travolta and Newton-John to briefly appear in Grease 2 as auto shop owners, with Travolta singing a song called “Gas Pump Jockey,” never materialized.)
With Grease 2 having to live up to the hype of 1978's phenomenally successful Grease, the sequel was perhaps always doomed to fail. Caulfield even “led a campaign” to have the movie be called Son of Grease, or go by some other title, because he thought “Grease 2 sounds a little dubious right out of the gate. … I actually used to go around with a T-shirt that said Son of Grease on it, because I wanted to remind them that the original script that Ken Finkelman had written was called Son of Grease. It was actually an edgier film. It was a little more reminiscent of a biker movie from the Roger Corman studios in the ‘60s. You know, this film is set a year before the assassination of JFK. It's almost like the end of the innocence. So, I think it was definitely going be more motorcycle-centric, the movie as a whole. And as they got closer and closer to production, I think they started to second-guess themselves a little bit.”
While Grease 2 didn’t turn out to be as edgy as Finkelman’s original Son of Grease concept, it definitely had a sexed-up soundtrack. While Grease’s songs slyly alluded to backseat and under-the-bleachers action, Grease 2 was far less subtle. There was “We’re Gonna Score Tonight,” with its bowling/sex metaphors; “Reproduction,” with ‘50s heartthrob Tab Hunter playing a hot-and-bothered biology teacher in fogged-up eyeglasses; and of course, the problematic “Let’s Do It for Our Country,” a horny plea for Cold War coitus. “It's only in subsequent viewings of the film that I picked up on much more of it,” Caulfield laughs, recalling one especially racy Red Light District tune sung by lead T-Bird Adrian Zmed. “I mean, that number ‘Prowlin’’ is just outrageous… the silhouettes of those girls and the lyrics of that song!”
While “Let’s Do It for Our Country” has admittedly not aged very well, the feminist slant of Grease 2 has stood the test of time. Unlike Grease’s spineless Sandy, the wise- and gum-cracking, ladder- and motorcycle-straddling Pink Lady Stephanie was never going to change herself for any man. “I think Stephanie Zinone was always going to be, in many ways, the most interesting character in the film, and that's fine. I had no problem with that, particularly given the actress that they'd cast,” says Caulfield. “And I think that's as much a reason for the longstanding success of the film — that over time, the subtext of that film becomes more and more pertinent.”
Caufield continues, “There is a bit of a feminist track in the film, and it's great because it was directed by a woman [Patricia Birch]. In fact, my first two movies were both directed by women. The next one I did was the complete flip of Grease 2, and the director, she was kind of the godmother of the punk scene at the time. Her name was [Decline of Western Civilization documentarian] Penelope Spheeris. I did a movie with her called The Boys Next Door with Charlie Sheen, with Charlie and I playing homicidal maniacs. Frankly, I got to really vent my spleen over the lack of success of Grease 2. So, if you want to meet the dark side of Michael Carrington, watch The Boys Next Door!”
Despite that sarcastic quip, Caulfield seemingly no longer harbors any bitterness over his participation in Grease 2. “In some ways, it remains the most amazing experience I've had on a film,” he gushes, listing off his fondest memories: “The night shooting, the luau sequence, going to the bowling alley and watching them do that fantastic routine with the bowling balls and Adrien Zmed sliding the length of the alley… and necking with Michelle Pfeiffer at Griffith Park at sundown.”
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