Interviews


John Travolta


Occupation: Actor, Dancer
Date of Birth: February 18, 1954
Place of Birth: Englewood, N.J., USA
Sign: Sun in Aquarius, Moon in Virgo
Relations: Wife: Kelly Preston (actress); children (with Preston): Jett, Ella Bleu
Education: High school dropout

 

IT wasn't so very long ago that John Travolta rested on the "Hey, remember when I was taken seriously?" tier of talent. If it weren't for the fact that writer-director Quentin Tarantino took 12 hours out of his hectic life to convince the former superstar to play heroin-addicted hit man Vincent Vega in his sanguinary opus Pulp Fiction, Travolta might have remained a fond throwback to the era of platform shoes and gold chains. But despite his own doubts, and the misgivings of the film's producers, Travolta signed on to the project for the very modest sum of $140,000. Chicken-feed salary aside, Travolta came away from the experience with quite a bit to show for his effort: a Best Actor Oscar nomination, a flood of promising prospects, and the most dramatic comeback story since the phoenix.

Born the youngest of six children to tire salesman and former semiprofessional football player Salvatore Travolta and high school drama teacher Helen Travolta, John was a late-in-life baby, and therefore a miracle according to his Roman Catholic parents: his upbringing was appropriately pampered and permissive. Encouraged to yield to creative whims, the Travolta offspring staged nightly shows in the basement of their suburban New Jersey home, where their kindly father had constructed a theatre for their amusement. This nurturing childhood naturally led to thoughts of a life onstage, and by the age of 12, little Johnny had already joined an actors workshop in his hometown of Englewood. Soon he was appearing in local musicals and dinner-theatre engagements and indulging his natural inclination to groove by taking tap lessons from Gene Kelly's (lesser-known) brother Fred. Travolta, who also picked up some moves from watching TV's Soul Train, attributes his avid interest in dancing to the fact that the school he attended was fifty-percent black.

At the age of 16, Travolta dropped out of school (with his parents' permission, mind you) to pursue acting full-time. He made his off-Broadway bow at 18 in Rain, then joined a touring company of Grease, in the minor role of Doody. A Broadway debut opposite the Andrews Sisters in the World War II musical Over Here! in 1973 and a bit part in the horror film The Devil's Rain (1975) barely held a candle to Travolta's fortuitous casting in the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979). As Vinnie Barbarino, the dim-bulb leader of the passel of underachieving high school delinquents called the Sweathogs, Travolta quickly became every girl's dream crush of the mid-'70s. He further burnished his teen-idol status by cutting a trio of pop albums, Can't Let Go, John Travolta, and Travolta Fever, and in the process earned a Best Male Vocalist award from Billboard.

A minor role as the mean-spirited classmate whom Sissy Spacek dispatches telekinetically in Brian De Palma's horror flick Carrie (1976) provided a bit more exposure, and his appearance in the made-for-TV weepie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble that same year awarded him his first mainstream critical praise. Travolta came away from the latter with something equally significant, his first major romantic relationship, with Diana Hyland, the older (by 18 years) actress who played his mother in the movie. One year later, in 1977, Travolta held his lover in his arms as she died of cancer. (Travolta's mother succumbed to the disease within two years of Hyland; it was in the wake of her death that he first turned to the Church of Scientology seeking solace.) The very bad year ended on a happy note, though, when the release of John Badham's box-office smash Saturday Night Fever, in which Travolta played cocky Brooklynite disco king Tony Manero, birthed an honest-to-God John Travolta craze: before you could say "Stayin' Alive," three-piece polyester suits, gold chains, and duck-butt haircuts were making astonishing inroads into the style sensibility of an entire nation. (Tony's original white get-up fetched a record-setting $145,500 at a Christie's auction, to give you an idea of this guy's cultural impact.)

The touchstone of an era, Saturday Night Fever grossed over $350 million and paved the way to the promised land for its disco-dancing star. Travolta followed up his Oscar-nominated performance in the movie with lead roles in the film version of the musical Grease (as a slick, singing greaser), and in Urban Cowboy (as a macho honky-tonk-patronizing Texan). He seemed destined to symbolize the pop-culture landscape, regardless of role: his Tony Manero ignited the disco fad of the late '70s; his Danny launched a revival of '50s music and fashion; his Buford "Bud" Davis made mechanical bull-riding a nationwide fad of embarrassing proportions. Iconic status aside, Travolta's career was nonetheless headed for a major and inevitable derailment: the late '70s and most of the next decade dished up a seemingly endless string of box-office bummers (witness Moment to Moment, Two of a Kind, Perfect, and The Experts), and, for various reasons, he gave the thumbs-down to leads in Days of Heaven, American Gigolo, and An Officer and a Gentleman  plum roles greedily snatched up by Richard Gere. By the mid-'80s, Travolta was dodging the slings and arrows of outrageously bad fortune: if not exactly persona non grata around Hollywood, he was certainly yesterday's news, and as yesterday's news he endured ugly tabloid rumors that he was gay, bisexual, fat, and hopelessly under the sway of a mind-controlling cultthe cult being the mysterious and misunderstood Church of Scientology.

Yet Travolta somehow preserved his innate cool through all his trials. Even during the darkest hours of his relegation to icon hell, his lavish lifestylecomplete with a 20-bedroom waterfront Maine chateau, the French provincial in Florida, the pads in Carmel, Santa Barbara, and Hollywood, his stable of luxury automobiles, and the three jets he pilots himself  remained intact, for a number of reasons. Reason number one: Travolta had secured a percentage of the profits from the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks (which sold in excess of 19 million copies). Reason number two: not all of the doltish movies in which he starred during the dark years were flops (Look Who's Talking, and to a lesser extent its two equally inane sequels, were box-office winners). Reason number three: Travolta always maintained a winning attitude about his losing streak: "I've always thought that as long as I did the right things and had the right intentions, everything would fall into place."

Travolta's home life finally fell into place when he wed actress Kelly Preston George Clooney's one-time live-in, as well as Charlie Sheen's onetime fiancée) in 1991; their son Jett arrived the following year, daughter Ella Bleu in 2000. With the life-ordering support of family and his galvanizing faith in Scientology in place, career lightning up and struck a second time, in the form of Pulp Fiction. Just like that, Travolta once again topped every director's A-list. Not only did he resuscitate a basically flat-lined career with his winning portrayal of the paunchy, ponytailed Vincent, but he hurtled forward at a dizzying pace, snapping up roles as a loan shark-cum-film producer (Get Shorty), a rogue bomber pilot (Broken Arrow), a mechanic turned genius (Phenomenon), a rug-cutting archangel (Michael), an F.B.I. agent who literally loses face (Face/Off), and a disgruntled former museum employee who becomes a cause célèbre after he takes a dozen schoolchildren hostage (Mad City).

Travolta's hectic career pace shows no signs of letting up any, either, as he continues to top every director's wish list. He inherited Tom Hanks's plum role of a U.S. president whose libido runs amok, in Universal's 1998 adaptation of Primary Colors, the best-selling satire of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Late in the year, he popped up in a small cameo in Terrence Malick's rapturous realization of the James Jones World War II novel The Thin Red Line, and headlined director Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action, based on the Jonathan Harr book of the same name. He was roundly ridiculed for his involvement in the execrable 1999 military murder mystery The General's Daughter.

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