Grease 2 Star Maxwell Caulfield Celebrates 40 Years Of Being Cult Cinema's Cool Rider

When "Grease 2" was released in 1982, the film didn't stand a chance. Four years had already passed since the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starring "Grease" became the highest grossing film of the year, setting an unrealistic standard for any film to follow. In the four years between "Grease" and "Grease 2," the pop culture landscape had completely changed. MTV had launched the year prior, rendering movie musicals "uncool" in a sea of available music videos.

Despite having nearly double the budget of the first film, the thematic changes made for "Grease 2" were a bit too bold and too edgy for the conventional fans of the bubblegum original to handle. Make no mistake, "Grease" is filled with adult themes and crudeness, but it's hidden in ways "Grease 2" chose to bring to the forefront.

Paramount made the bold decision to cast the film with relative unknowns and non-singers, and didn't have the luxury of years of Broadway workshopping to perfect the script or music. A majority of critics and audiences alike hated "Grease 2," but in the years that followed, "Grease 2" has been reclaimed by rabid fans who insist the film is genuinely great, and was merely misunderstood at the time, myself included. I've dedicated years of my professional career in film analysis preaching the good gospel of "Grease 2," and lamenting the fact Hollywood didn't turn Maxwell Caulfield into a superstar. In honor of the film's 40th anniversary and its new Blu-ray, I was blessed with the opportunity to sit down with Caulfield, and honor the legacy of one of the greatest cult films in existence.

Maxwell Caulfield appreciates his fandom

When my Zoom box popped up to chat with Maxwell Caulfield, I immediately told him that having the chance to talk to him was a dream come true, and pointed out that I was not only wearing a "Grease 2" shirt from Super Yaki, but that on the wall behind me was a commissioned alternative movie poster of "Grease 2" from Jennifer Dionisio, making him the first person I've ever interviewed who adorns my walls every day. His eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. "Oh, wow!" he exclaimed. "This is incredible." It's clear that Caulfield had a great appreciation for fans of "Grease 2," especially when it's been well documented that he's not always had the most positive feelings about the film.

During the original press run for "Grease 2" back in 1982, Caulfield told New York Magazine that he was nervous about what it was going to be like becoming a household name. "Next year, if this film is marketed right, everyone will want to look like Maxwell Caulfield," he said. "I'm fascinated to see if the public is going to accept me or reject me." 

The publication called Caulfield "The Next Overnight Sensation," but after "Grease 2" majorly flopped, it never happened. Meanwhile, his co-star Michelle Pfeiffer was cast the following year in "Scarface," a role she almost didn't get because of "Grease 2," but the rest, as we say, is history.

I told Caulfield that "Grease 2" is one of my favorite films of all time, to which he replied "Good girl," and for a brief moment I think my limbs turned into pudding.

Stay in touch with your favorite movies

Caulfield was visibly grateful that I was so open with my love of "Grease 2," and offered me some sage words of wisdom. "It is important to stay in touch with those films that almost become a part of your very being because they touched you in such a profound way at the time, because as we get deeper and deeper into this crazy world, it just seems to just get more confusing with every passing month to be able to go back to those touchstone things — those elements of your life, and it's critical," he said. "The fact that you've elected to make 'Grease 2' one of those films that just resonates for you, that's a good thing."

I was born a full eight years after "Grease 2" had already flopped and been forgotten about. However, thanks to the 20th anniversary re-release of "Grease" in 1998, releases of "Grease 2" started getting a rental push hoping to capitalize off the name recognition. I was given a copy of the film by my mother, and I was immediately hooked. Caulfield told me this is common with many of the fans he meets.

"You've got no preconceived notions about the film!" he exclaimed. Watching the film in 1998 from the comfort of my own home meant there were no reviews telling me the film was bad and no word-of-mouth making it to my 8-year-old ears to convince me not to like the film. "You hear a lot of people say, 'Oh yeah, that was a turkey,' but you go, 'No, that's not the film I watched last night, that film I watched was just fantastic,'" he said.

He's right. I loved "Grease 2," and it was only when I got older that I realized my feelings weren't universal.

'It's a fantasy version of high school'

"Grease 2" follows a similar story beat as the original, with an updated feminist lens. Choreographer Patricia Birch was promoted to the director's chair, and her influence is inescapable. For one, the dance sequences are truly remarkable, but more importantly, thanks to her vision and Ken Finkleman's script the Pink Ladies are presented with far more power and influence, and the T-Birds are eggheaded goofs in leather jackets.

"It was dreamy, because it is, admittedly, a fantasy version of high school," said Caulfield. There's no male power fantasy to be found in "Grease 2" the way there was in "Grease," and despite the archaic gender roles constantly trying to impact the world of the film, the women are clearly in charge.

"But at the same time, it's also the very best of American high school because of the rivalries, the teen angst, the camaraderie, the factionalizing on campus," he continued. "Everybody's trying to develop their cool, because you're at that age where you're pretty awkward, and self-conscious."

These anxieties are displayed far more prominently than in the original, with characters like Rhonda (Alison Price) struggling with the shape of her nose, Dolores (a very young Pamela Adlon) annoyed at having to live in the shadow of her older sister Paulette (Lorna Luft), T-Birds leader Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed) incapable of accepting that he'd been dumped by Pfeiffer's Stephanie Zinone, and Caulfield's Michael Carrington (cousin of Olivia Newton-John's Sandy) worried that Stephanie would never see him as anything more than a British brainiac.

An examination in toxic masculinity

The T-Birds in "Grease" are grossly misogynist monsters, but because John Travolta is one of the most captivating leading men in history, the film's shortcomings are frequently overlooked. "Grease 2" wasn't afraid to call out the awful behavior of some high school boys, painting T-Bird Louis DiMucci (Peter Frechette) as a pathetic jerk who needs to grow up for trying to manipulate his girlfriend Sharon (Maureen Teefy) into sleeping with him the song "Do It For Our Country."

Caulfield couldn't help but notice the similarities between the "Grease" films and another movie musical classic, "West Side Story." When the Spielberg remake was announced, Caulfield heard all of the similar complaints as the rest of us like "Why bother remaking it?" and "The original is already perfect!" Caulfield was the lead in one of the most infamous examples of "Why do we need a sequel?" films in history, so he knew better than to disregard the film. He watched the film with his wife of over four decades, British acting royal Juliet Mills, and was absolutely blown away. "People talk about this new expression, 'masculine toxicity,' and it's a very real thing, let's not deny it," he said.

"Grease 2," like "West Side Story," is a love story trapped in a film about male rivalries. The T-Birds continue their beef with the Cycle Lords biker gang (called "The Scorpions" in the previous film) as well as develop a new rivalry with a clean-cut barbershop trio who challenge them in the talent show. As much as "Grease 2" is about women being independent badasses, it's also about the way men stumble over each other to fit the mold of the masculine alpha.

The real 'Cool Riders'

Caulfield wanted to make it known that the late, great Dennis Stewart, who played Leo Balmudo/Craterface in both "Grease" films, was the complete opposite of his character on screen. "He was such a sweetheart and everyone loved him," he said.

As it turns out, all of the bikers in Balmudo's gang were actually the stuntmen, as "Grease 2" contains a hell of a lot more dangerous action than its predecessor. Gary Davis served as Caulfield's stuntman, pulling off the riskier moves like jumping a police car in the bowling alley parking lot. Where the original "Grease" focused on a drag race in a hot rod, "Grease 2" is all about motorcycles. Michael learns through the perennial banger "Cool Rider" that in order to even be considered a possible boyfriend for Stephanie, he'd need to become "a dream on a mean machine" and a "devil in skin tight leather."

What follows is Michael living somewhat of a double life, appearing by day to be the English class essay writing pro in sensible sweater vests that helps the T-Birds and Stephanie with their homework, but by night is a leather clad biker with the ability to pull off tricks the kids at Rydell High didn't think were possible. "All of us boys got on bikes," he said. "Although there's that funny sequence of Goose (Christopher McDonald) and Nogerelli, where they're supposed to be riding bikes together, and it's so obvious they're on the back of a truck."

We both pictured the moment in our heads and shared a huge laugh. I told him the moment only adds to the film's charm, and he agreed.

Make America corny again

Perhaps it's the fact "Grease 2" is a bit more open with the corniness and shortcomings of American culture, which makes it harder for other people to accept its moral compass.

"I do think, the underlying message of 'Grease 2,' is something that maybe people like yourself think about in a more profound way than the average movie goer who is just taking it strictly at face value," he said. "There were some very interesting subtextual politics in that film."

While "Grease" certainly has its funny moments, "Grease 2" is consistently hilarious. One liners like Sharon screaming, "We're gonna die and I'm wearing my mother's underwear" live in my head rent free, as does Lorna Luft's Paulette sitting on the floor and pushing a bowling ball with both hands (as to not break a nail) and still hitting a strike, and the entire song "Reproduction" where students sing about sex while their teacher (played by Tab Hunter) looks like he's going to pass out.

"The film's got to be corny from time to time," said Caulfield. "I mean, America's corny." Caulfield believes, and I agree with him wholeheartedly, that there needs to be a return of making films that aren't afraid to poke fun at Americana, because as he said, "Right now it's very easy to be very down on our country. It's very, very easy."

At the same time, the world is and continues to be fascinated with Americana, and it's clear that we're failing the global landscape with our continued divisiveness. "It'd be really, really great if we could get our cool back again," Caulfield said.

'You've got to be able to back up your cool'

So much of "Grease 2" is centered on the characters' quest to find their version of cool, and given the generational gap between us, I asked him what that means to him.

"Obviously there's a lot of style elements to cool, but you've got to be able to back it up, too. You've got to have the style. You've got to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk, but I also think, to be really cool, you've got to be fair. Cool people are able to sort of just be slightly removed. They're able to be just not drawn into all the drama or all the anarchy. They just are able to maintain a certain distance, which gives them a little added objectivity. Cool cats always are one step ahead and comfortable in their own skin."

It's taken four decades, but I firmly believe that "Grease 2" has far surpassed "Grease" in terms of being cool. Since day one, "Grease 2" and all involved have always understood what kind of film they were making, and it was only a matter of time for the naysayers to understand what a camp masterclass the film is and has always been.

But the coolest element of "Grease 2" will continue to be Maxwell Caulfield, the heartthrob leading man scorned by the cruelty of the Hollywood machine who can now sit from the comfort of his living room and spend hours talking with people who see the film for what it is, and honor his fantastic work. As Stephanie Zinone sang in her landmark song, "If it takes forever then I'll wait forever/No ordinary boy, no ordinary boy is gonna do/I want a rider that's cool."

Fortunately, there's no need to wait forever. It may have taken 40 years for the world to catch up, but Maxwell Caulfield, and "Grease 2," are cool.