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The reluctant Angel

Frankie Avalon twice refused to do 'Grease,' then relented in 1977 for the film version and again to go on the current national tour.

January 07, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Frankie Avalon can't escape the clutches of the Broadway musical "Grease." Even back in 1969, three years before the bouncing nostalgic look back at the fabulous '50s hit Broadway, the show's writers Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs approached the former teen dream about playing the leading role, Danny Zucko.

Avalon, now a fabulously fit 62, said "Grease" wasn't the word for him. He didn't want to relive the '50s, the decade that turned Avalon into the Justin Timberlake of his day with such catchy hit tunes as "Venus."

"I said, 'The '50s; I am trying to get out of that decade,' " Avalon recalled in a recent interview. "The years go by and it goes on Broadway and I get to see it. I enjoyed it."

Then in 1977, while he was playing golf at the Lakeside Golf Club, his manager approached him on the links with the script of the film version of "Grease." Paramount had called and wanted him to play the role of Teen Angel, who sings "Beauty School Dropout" to the poor beleaguered high school dropout, Frenchy.

Again, Avalon said no. "I saw the play, and it's not my style," Avalon says. "He comes down from a rope and he has long sideburns like Elvis and a black jacket. It is an extension of an Elvis angel."

Avalon met with producer Allan Carr and director Randal Kleiser to tell them why he wouldn't do it. But he started to warm up once he began talking to the creative team, especially when Kleiser told him he had been an extra in all of those wonderfully campy "Beach Party" movies Avalon made with Annette Funicello in the 1960s.

"I told them I am a straight-ahead singer," Avalon says. "Twenty years ago I was that teen angel. Randal said do it any way you want, so they started to create, as opposed to the black, an angelic kind of teen angel. I did six days of rehearsal and three days of shooting. The most important thing I was concerned about was I didn't want to be a joke in this picture. I wanted some credibility."

Avalon, who has been in the business nearly 50 years, says "Grease" is the most successful thing he's ever done. And now he's reprising his role of Teen Angel in the national touring company of "Grease," which arrives at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood today for a six-day engagement. After each show, Avalon gives a mini-concert of his hit songs.

Backstage at the Kodak on a recent morning, Avalon says he's never met anyone who doesn't like "Grease." He's nattily dressed in black pants and sweater and yellow turtleneck. A long white scarf drapes his neck. Though he has some lines around his eyes and flecks of gray in his curly black hair, Avalon doesn't look much different than he did in his "Beach Party" days.

The show's director, Ray DeMattis, who appeared in the original 1972 production of "Grease," says Avalon "knows exactly what to do. No one knows his audience better than he does. It's amazing. When he has that microphone in his hands and the spotlight picks him up, he drops 20 years and becomes a kid. Nobody knows 'Beauty School Dropout' the way he does."

Initially, DeMattis thought Avalon would want to do his own thing on stage, so he was surprised when Avalon wanted direction. "He wanted it to be just right and like all good performers, they need someone out there with an eye to see how they are coming over."

The median age of the cast of the touring company, DeMattis says, is 23. So for most of them, the '50s is akin to the Dark Ages. Avalon makes himself available to the kids when they have questions about the decade, says DeMattis.

"He's a wonderful ideal for these kids who are just starting their career," says DeMattis. "He is a hell of an icon for them to meet at this young age."

Avalon made his first movie, "Guns of the Timberland," in 1960, appearing opposite veteran Alan Ladd. The same year, he starred in John Wayne's historical epic, "The Alamo." Just as Hollywood today is looking to music world to find the next big thing in the movies, so Avalon found himself in front of the cameras strictly because of "dollars and cents."

"I'm sure the reason why Warner Bros. said, 'Let's get this kid' is that he has lots of fans out there and he's getting 12,000 to 15,000 fans letters a week. 'Let's put him in a picture with a guy like Alan Ladd,' " Avalon suggests. "And then John Wayne always had a new young singer in his movies. He started with Ricky Nelson in 'Rio Bravo,' and I came along and did 'The Alamo.' Wayne had seen some of the rushes from 'Timberland' and thought I would be right."

The success of the 1962 low-budget nuclear thriller, "Panic in the Year Zero," starring Avalon and Ray Milland, lead to the "Beach Party" movies.

The scrappy American International Pictures produced "Panic" for around $225,000. "It came out to real good reviews," Avalon recalls. "AIP was smart enough to send the star with the picture around the country to promote it. We did a tour of theaters in Los Angeles, and it made its money back just in Los Angeles alone."

Subsequently, AIP signed Avalon to a nonexclusive contract. He was friendly with writer Lou Rusoff, and they would often talk about doing a picture about young people. After one such discussion, Rusoff wrote a script called "Beach Party."

"It was about young guys on a beach with their girls," Avalon says. "The next thing I knew, they cast this girl on loan from Disney called Annette Funicello. The director was Bill Asher. I had worked with Bill when he was doing a lot of specials for television. We talked about the project, and sooner or later we were on the set doing it. And it just worked."

The seven "Beach" movies Avalon and Funicello starred in where made quickly on a shoestring budget.

"We were constantly filming," says Avalon. "We were doing 28 setups a day. I would say to Bill Asher ... 'I don't think my character Frankie would say this.' And he'd say, 'What are you talking about? Just say the line. Let's have fun with it.' "

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