‘Grease’ Star’s Daughter Pays Heartbreaking Tribute to Her Biggest Cheerleader

CBS via Getty Images
CBS via Getty Images

Susan Buckner was the most, to say the least, according to her daughter.

“She was simply the best,” Samantha Mansfield tells The Daily Beast in an exclusive statement.

Her boundless energy practically a propulsive force in her daughter’s life, Buckner was always Mansfield’s biggest cheerleader. “Every school play, every college audition, I had her unwavering support ringing in my ears,” she recalls. When Mansfield trucked out to New York City to begin her career, Buckner cajoled Steve Buscemi—who had recently filmed a TV pilot in her home—to record a special good-luck message for her.

“I used to joke she was my own personal Rottweiler, fiercely loyal and always having my back,” Mansfield says.

She returned that loyalty, and was among those at Buckner’s bedside when she died earlier this week at age 72.

Best known to the rest of the world as Rydell High’s peppy good-girl cheerleader Patty Simcox in the smash-hit musical Grease, Buckner was something more to those who knew and loved her—an incredible mother and her family’s rock.

“We’re clinging to each other for support as we navigate this immense loss,” Mansfield explained over email. “Anyone who ever met her, or even just shared a space with her, couldn’t help but be swept away by her radiant energy and warmth. She possessed that undeniable charisma, a beauty that shone from within as brightly as it did without. We were all so fortunate to be touched by her light.”

Family Confirms ‘Grease’ Star Has Died at 72

Buckner was just 25 years old—but already a former Miss Washington and an alumnus of The Dean Martin Show—when she got her break, landing the role of Patty in 1978’s Grease alongside John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.

“The way she would talk about her time on set sounded like a dream,” Mansfield says. “Everyone was kind and wonderful and happy to be there.”

Buckner’s Patty, the embodiment of school spirit, immediately endeared her to the audiences who flocked to see Grease. When she cried “Do the splits, give a yell! Show a little spirit for old Rydell!” it was impossible not to love her.

But Buckner wasn’t quite as clean-cut as her perky cheerleader counterpart—she had her fun between takes. In Grease’s iconic school dance contest, there’s a memorable moment where Jeff Conaway, the actor who played the roughshod greaser Kenickie, slides in on his knees to lift Buckner’s puffy blue dress up over her head. “We practiced that part… a lot,” Buckner once recalled laughingly in an interview for VH1. “Sorry, Jeff!”

Though she moved on to other projects post-Grease, collecting a series of guest credits on shows like The Love Boat and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Buckner’s life remained inextricably tied to the blockbuster movie musical. She regularly returned to Los Angeles for fan events, including 2012’s Grease Sing-A-Long at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as both its 20th and 40th anniversary events.

Mansfield recalls accompanying her mother to the 20th anniversary, which was held in 1998 at Mann’s Chinese Theatre (now Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), as a particularly special moment.

“It really did feel like an over-the-top high school reunion,” she says. “She had such an incredible relationship with the dancers from the show—especially Annete Charles, who played Cha Cha.”

But much of the rest of Buckner’s life was devoted to passing on her love of the arts to the next generation. A long time dance instructor in Coral Gables, Florida, she fell into directing children’s theater almost by accident, when she was convinced to help out with an elementary school production of a certain rock ‘n’ roll musical.

Her son, Adam Josephs, a fifth grader at Pinecrest Elementary School at the time, had been cast in the show as a T-Bird and Teen Angel. “Mrs. Roberta Brand, the theater director, asked her to be involved and my mom loved it,” Mansfield says, “so much so that she stayed on to do Bye Bye Birdie the following year.” When Mansfield entered the fourth grade, her mother helped direct her in shows like The Wizard of Oz, Beauty & The Beast, and The Secret Garden.

But whether in the director’s chair, teaching a class, or tripping the light fantastic up the red carpet, Buckner never stopped being the fun-loving and nurturing mom that Mansfield knew so well.

“My mom was pure love. That unconditional love shaped how I love—fiercely and openly,” she says. “We'd tell each other constantly throughout the day, and I do the same with my kids. Now, when I see the way my daughter looks at me, it reflects the same adoration I held for my mom. There's truly no greater gift than that mirrored love across generations.”

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