Maxwell Caulfield looks back on 'Grease 2' for the 40th anniversary

Maxwell Caulfield, who played Michael Carrington in Grease 2, looks back at the film 40 years later.

Video transcript

- Stephanie Zinone is a Pink Lady, which means if you're not a T-bird-- which you are not-- you can look. But don't touch. Michael, I wouldn't even look.

LINDSEY PARKER: I'm very excited to do this. I just wanted to make sure you see the shirt I wore for you today. You're the cool rider. You're the cool rider himself. What would they say if they knew it was Michael?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: You have my undivided attention, young lady.

LINDSEY PARKER: I'm going to go on the record. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Yahoo. I said that "Grease 2" is better "Grease" 1. I really do honestly believe that. But I feel maybe I had something to do with it. I feel like the tides have turned a little bit.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Did you get a lot of reaction to the article, I mean, negative people saying, are you out of your mind?

LINDSEY PARKER: I got a few of those. But honestly, I got more people that were like, finally. There were a lot of people sharing it, and a lot of people feeling vindicated, and a lot of people going like, yeah, I've always thought this. So I'm wondering when you started to see this kind of cult revival of the film, which is now coming to a perfect storm?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: My initial reaction was-- because, obviously, I've talked about the film over the years, from time to time, when it's come up. And I sort of used to be almost an apologist for the film.

LINDSEY PARKER: When I heard that you were going to do this interview, I was a little bit surprised.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Well, I'm happy to talk about it. Because it is what I'm best known for. So I'm not going to-- I'm not going to deny it or pretend that I've moved on to bigger and better things.

LINDSEY PARKER: You went on to do other things. But you have-- it's my understanding-- you use the word "apologist," that, for a while, you didn't necessarily have such fondness for the film. Were you bitter or anything like that?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Yeah that's a word. It's not so much I was bitter about the failure of "Grease 2." You see that it really was a big, splashy movie. Paramount really pulled the stops out. I mean, 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 at all. I'd always recognized that she was a very luminous and talented actress. It wasn't just purely looks. And she's gone on to prove that. But I was derailed, seriously derailed. And I think maybe I'd bought my own publicity.

LINDSEY PARKER: Did you think-- pun intended-- "Grease Lightning" was going to strike twice and you were going to be the new Danny Zuko, the new John Travolta, whatever?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Well, here, I'll tell you a story that I have told in the past, but I've never seen it in print. So I'll tell it to you. I think I just got kicked out of acting school. And I was working as a movie usher in the West End of London. And I came out. And the square was just starting to fill with young women. But I was aware that "Saturday Tonight Fever" was about to open.

And it happened, this was the big, fancy premiere. And suddenly, there were klieg lights raking the skies. And a white Rolls Royce pulled up. I'm there, probably eating some candy I've stolen from the concession stand, and watching all these screaming girls like it's Beatlemania. And Travolta got out. And they just went ballistic.

Everyone was crying and losing it. And I was like, 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?

LINDSEY PARKER: Travolta was already, from "Kotter" and other things, a star, and was definitely a star on the rise.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: "Grease" came out subsequent to "Saturday Tonight Fever." And then he turned into a planet. He wasn't just a star. He was a planet.

LINDSEY PARKER: I've heard that hundreds or maybe even thousands of people auditioned to be Michael Carrington. And you had more of a theater background. How did you get the role?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: I was doing a play off-Broadway called "Entertaining Mr. Sloan" down at the Cherry Lane Theater. A big part of my launch in New York was because I started getting being photographed by some of the top photographers of the day, Francesco Scavullo and Bruce Weber. But the guy who really put me over the top was Greg Gorman. And Greg took my photograph for Interview Magazine, the Andy Warhol publication.

And it was pre-AIDS Homosexuality was just being celebrated all over Gotham. I mean, the nightclub scene. it was absolute total rave, raving scene. And I happened to be in a play where I was playing a bisexual character. And it became a kind of a cause celebre. I mean, we had-- the people out in the audience every night, you just wouldn't believe it. I mean, it was like, Diane Keaton sat next to Mikhail Baryshnikov with Tennessee Williams.

It was a confluence of events.

LINDSEY PARKER: Although they ended up casting a relative unknown like yourself for this lead, there were some already very established names that were in circulation for it.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: The role, I think, was originally written for Andy Gibb. I've heard of Leif Garrett, and Shaun Cassidy, and Rick Springfield, and a lot of guys who were way more qualified to play it than me. But I had an off-Broadway rep. That's all I could lay claim to. Michele was completely unknown. And they took a big chance casting unknowns. But they always told us that maybe Travolta or Olivia were going to sort of ghost through the movie, just deliver that little million-dollar cameo that would have probably helped us a little along the way.

But they quite wisely kept their distance.

LINDSEY PARKER: I heard that you wanted to call the movie "Son of Grease." And I wonder, actually, if "Grease 2" had just been presented as its own thing, a musical set in 1962, it wasn't called "Grease Electric Boogaloo," whatever, just call it something else, I feel like people might have been more receptive.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: I think you're right. I think "Grease 2" sounds little a dubious right out of the gate. I led a campaign while we were shooting the film, to the extent that I actually used to go around with a t-shirt that said "Son of Grease" on it. Because I wanted to remind them that that was the original script that Ken Finkleman 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 sort of Roger Corman studios in the '60s. This film is set a year before the assassination of JFK. It's almost like the end of the innocence. It was definitely going to 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.

LINDSEY PARKER: You mentioned the edginess, and maybe the "Grease 2" wasn't as edgy as the idea of "Son of Grease" was supposed to be, but I will say that in terms of just overt sexual innuendo, "Grease 2" is way edgier. There's "Reproduction," "we're going to score tonight," "let's do it for our country." This was almost like the sexual revolution was about to happen in the '60s, and Rydell High was ready to go.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: You're so right about that. It's only in subsequent viewings of the film that I picked up on way much more of it. I mean, that number "Prowling" is just out and out outrageous. It's absolutely outrageous, that number. The silhouettes of those girls, and the lyrics of that song.

LINDSEY PARKER: I will say there's only one problem I had with the entire movie, is it took a major suspension of disbelief to think that you, in '82, with your British accent, would get off the bus at Rydell High, and anyone would think you were a nerd or that you would be unpopular. The girls would have been into it, I'm sorry. Michelle Pfeiffer, Stephanie Zinone, would not have had a problem.

The idea that, like, someone like that, like yourself, would get off the bus, and that people would be like, ew, that took a lot of suspension of disbelief.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: That's cute. I wasn't wearing glasses when I got off the bus, was I? I wasn't doing the whole nerd thing. But I was kind of formally dressed. 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.

LINDSEY PARKER: To me, this is one of the reasons I preferred "Grease 2." I did not really like the message I got out of "Grease" 1, in that Danny Zuko didn't treat Sandy very well. She then, at the end, she still wanted him. And we're supposed to still root for them to get together. And she changes everything about herself at the end. Now, the genders obviously were flipped in "Grease 2." I related more to the Stephanie character than I did to the Sandy character.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Your point is very well taken. That's is as much a reason for the longstanding success of the film. Over time, the subtext of that film becomes more and more pertinent.

- And I give credit to who I want, OK?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: There is a bit of a feminist track in the film. And it's great. Because it was directed by a woman. In fact, my first two movies were both directed by women. And the next one I did was the complete flip of "Grease 2." And the director, wonderful, she was kind of the godmother of the punk scene at the time. Her name was Penelope Spheeris. I did a movie with her called "The Boys Next Door" with Charlie Sheen.

Charlie and I were playing homicidal maniacs. Frankly, I got to really vent my spleen over the lack of success in "Grease 2." So if you want to meet the dark side of Michael Carrington, watch "The Boys Next Door."

- We should have killed him.

- Almost did.

- Almost doesn't count.

LINDSEY PARKER: I'm glad to know that any regrets, or bitterness, or whatever that you may have had at one time is behind you. What is your one fondest memory of making this film as you look back on it four decades later?

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: Probably celebrating my 21st birthday in the cafeteria with the whole cast and the crew singing Happy Birthday to me. That was something I'll never forget. That was like a fantasy, to feel that. In some ways, it remains the most amazing experience I've had on a film. Doing the night shooting of the luau sequence, and going to the bowling alley and watching them do that fantastic routine with the bowling balls, and Adrian Zmed sliding the lane, necking with Michelle Pfeiffer in Griffith Park at sundown.

LINDSEY PARKER: Good work if you can get it. Once again, going on record, "Grease 2" is the superior Grease.

MAXWELL CAULFIELD: I've enjoyed chatting with you.

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