Danny Zuko, the heartthrob hero of Grease, is a role synonymous with John Travolta. The 1978 film adaptation of the stage musical, which garnered Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations and made over $360 million at the box office, starred Travolta opposite Olivia Newton-John as Sandy.
Long before Travolta crooned over Newton-John, however, Barry Bostwick originated the role on Broadway, bringing a soul-searching 50s nostalgia to the part. Bostwick would later teasingly accuse Travolta of “stealing” his concept of Zuko, while Travolta admits all actors who subsequently played the part were “inspired by Barry’s original ideas”.
After a spell working as a circus performer and a few years making a name for himself in musical theatre, in 1972 Barry Bostwick joined the cast of stage musical Grease. Bostwick was the first actor on Broadway to play Danny Zuko, leader of the T-Birds and the play’s charismatic leading man, opposite Carole Demas as the original Sandy.
The show, which opened at Broadhurst Theatre on June 7, 1972, received little attention at first. “It was a slow grind,” Bostwick has since recalled. “… I just remember opening night. My father came to New York from California. And I think on the way home to our loft down on the Bowery, he said, ‘You better start looking for a new job.’ Because he didn’t think it was any good.”
However, the show slowly picked up popularity, mostly by word of mouth and local popularity. It became an international hit when it debuted in London just a year later, with Richard Gere starring as Danny across the pond after working as Bostwick’s understudy.Credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Later in 1972, Grease went on tour in the USA, and among the actors vying for the lead role was the young John Travolta, who was nearly a decade Bostwick’s junior.
“His audition was completely unfocused,” tour director Tom Moore has admitted. “It was all over the place. But he had a terrific voice. He was immensely charming. And he was very attractive. He looked like a French movie star.” In the end, Moore concluded, “He was too young for the part [of Danny]… So we made him Doody, a goofy character who got kind of thrown away in the movie.”
Bostwick has showered praise on Travolta’s early promise. “He was right out of high school and incredibly charming and talented… he sang Those Magic Changes with innocence and guile.” Travolta spent the next two years on tour, working alongside Barry Bostwick as well as other Dannys. “I got to observe three to five Zukos and got to see exactly what worked and what didn’t,” Travolta said later.
Bostwick wasn’t the first Danny that Travolta saw in the role – but when he did, it was a revelation. Travolta would admit in 2022: “I quickly realised that all the Zukos were inspired by Barry’s original ideas – including, as it turned out later, me!”
Bostwick has suggested that he brought an authenticity to the role thanks to being part of an older generation. “We were all products of the late 50s, so we had in our memory banks the sound and the feelings of what those songs did to our emotional lives, and how they were the soundtrack for our high school memories… I think that we were still somewhat playing the real characters. Even though we were too old to be playing them, I think there was an honesty to the piece that over the years has lost its teeth.”
When director Randal Kleiser was casting for the 1978 feature film, 23-year-old Travolta was, in his own words, “the perfect age to play Zuko.” Travolta had also become a household name after starring in Saturday Night Fever. Henry Winkler refused the role of the movie Danny for fear of perpetuating his typecasting as Happy Days’ Fonzie, though he later described himself as a “damn fool” for turning the film down.
Meanwhile, Bostwick had outgrown the role of Danny onstage and was replaced by his other understudy, Jeff Conaway – who later played Kenickie in the film adaptation, becoming the only Grease stage star other than Travolta to be cast in the movie.
Bostwick holds no grudges that his old co-star Travolta became the best-known Danny of all time, and has commented: “He was perfect for the part, with his sexy grin and terrific singing and dancing.” However, Bostwick has seconded Travolta’s claims that Bostwick was the true heart and soul of Danny. “He stole his entire performance from me!” Bostwick said laughingly in one interview.
Still, Bostwick has at least one beloved film musical role, as Brad in 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He won his first Tony Award for starring in The Robber Bridegroom, and also won fame as Mayor Randall Winston in Spin City.