Travolta's Dizzying Dance; Pulling Himself Out of the Slide That
Followed `Saturday Night'
By Pat Broeske
Special to The Washington Post
MIAMI - "Could you please point for us?" A teenage girl, flanked
by giggling friends, is apprehensive but determined as she moves
toward John Travolta.
Travolta - who is here making a new movie - smiles but shakes his
head. "Oh, puh-leeze," the girls beg, hoping to see the disco pose
that became his signature when he was one of the hottest movie stars
of the '70s.
Travolta, now 35 - and 30 pounds heavier than in his white-suited
disco days - finally gives in. Sweating through his long-sleeve white
shirt, worn with baggy teal pants, he thrusts his hip into position
and points his finger into the blazing Florida sky at an imaginary
mirrored disco ball.
The girls erupt in squeals and giggles and collect his autograph.
Then they walk off - without even asking about the movie he's filming
"Saturday Night Fever," 12 years later.
Travolta's career has taken a momentous slide since the glory days
of "Saturday Night Fever," and he hasn't even been seen on the screen
since 1985 - when "Perfect" bombed.
"The Experts," a comedy he made last year, went to video after a
brief theatrical release in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.
He has since completed two movies that await release. And he's
here making a $10 million action-drama, "Chains of Gold," in which he
plays a social worker whose concern for a boy leads him into the
gritty world of street gangs and crack dealers.
He believes his latest work compares with his best - but doubts he
could ever re-create what went before.
His goal, then?
"How about being hot with cool edges?
"How about if people don't go crazy for me, but they just like me.
And they come to my movies."
When "Saturday Night Fever" was released in December 1977,
Travolta was already a TV hit - especially with teensweathog Vinnie
Barbarino on ABC's "Welcome Back, Kotter."
One of the films of the '70s, "Saturday Night Fever" transformed
Travolta into both a bankable feature film star and a pop culture
icon. With worldwide grosses of $350 million, the Paramount Pictures
film popularized discomania in addition to promoting a soundtrack
album that - with worldwide sales of more than 25 million copies -
ranks as the second-largest selling album ever, right after Michael
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael hailed Travolta as "an
original presence." Newsweek's David Ansen praised his "triumphant
starring debut." Frank Rich, then of Time magazine, called him "a
In February 1978, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best
Actor for his portrayal of disco stud Tony Manero.
Shortly afterward, his name was added to the 1978 edition of Who's
Who in America.
Recalls Travolta: "It was all so amazing. The excessiveness of it
all. The weird thing is, I thought `Saturday Night Fever' was just
going to be a steppingstone. We did the movie thinking it would be a
small art film.
"I didn't know how to figure it. Was it the dancing? Was it the
character? Was it the drama or the comedy? What was it?"
Whatever it was, it unleashed a mania for the then-24-year-old
former chorus boy.
He was a Time magazine cover in April 1978. (Menachem Begin - and
the latest Middle East turmoil - had to settle for a teensy mention on
the upper-right corner.) Heralding "Travolta Fever," the issue's
five-page spread compared him to legendary film actor Montgomery Clift
and enshrined his status as a pop culture icon.
His status grew in June 1978, with the release of "Grease" -
featuring Travolta as leather-jacketed high schooler Danny Zuko.
Paramount's ode to '50s raunch - and innocence - rewrote the
record books. Worldwide grosses ultimately topped $400 million -
making it the most profitable movie musical of all time. The
soundtrack, which has Travolta warbling with his screen sweetheart,
Olivia Newton-John, is one of the best-selling albums in history.
Travolta got the first of four Rolling Stone covers in June of
that year. He would, declared the magazine, be "revered forever in the
manner of Elvis, James Dean (and) Marilyn Monroe."
McCall's June issue carried "His Mother's Story." In August,
Cosmopolitan told all about "Hollywood's New Sex Symbol." In
September, Good Housekeeping talked with both proud parents.
Travolta's image - both ruggedly handsome and incongruously
pretty, dazzling with those translucent blue eyes - was emblazoned on
bubble gum cards, posters and literally hundreds of magazine covers.
He was the subject of a slew of breathless paperback bios.
In October 1978, Travolta dined at the White House with President
and Mrs. Carter, sons Jeff and Chip and their wives, and daughter Amy
- a fan of his music.
In a TV Guide article that November, then-Paramount president
Michael Eisner declared him to be "the biggest star in the world, bar
none." Added Eisner: "Just the mere fact that he's in a project, or
might be in it, turns it into a major event."
The year came to an end with Travolta as the subject of a Playboy
It was also in December that "Moment by Moment" opened. Remembers
Travolta: "That was the first time I heard the words `Your career is
Travolta's career epitomizes the dizzying glamour and harsh
realities of Hollywood.
What happened to the one-time hottest star in the world? Were film
choices - and the management decisions that led to them - to blame?
Was he hurt by his own success, which in turn made each and every
movie an "event"?
Did his eagerness to please the press result in the wrong kind of
publicity, an image that seemed increasingly silly? Did his audience -
which included lots of teenage girls - grow up and away from him? Was
one of the most indelible symbols of the '70s affected by changing
times - and tastes?
It takes some prodding to get Travolta - who has a star's pride as
well as a star's charisma - to assess the situation. He doesn't like
to acknowledge that his career got off the track.
Consider: He was asked to present an Oscar (teamed with
Newton-John) for best music score at this year's Academy Awards. He
turned down the opportunity, telling the producers he'd rather present
a major award - in keeping with his own Oscar history. After all,
reasoned Travolta, he was once a nominee. He presented the 1978 Best
Supporting Actress award to Vanessa Redgrave. He gave Barbara Stanwyck
her honorary 1981 Oscar. He presented the 1982 Best Actor statuette to
"I felt like I had some kind of stat there," says Travolta.
But there's a big difference between being a pop icon with
promising talent and being an established acting heavyweight - like a
Hoffman, De Niro or Newman - who has an extensive body of work that
permits an occasional flop. Travolta starred in so few films that his
flops became all the more noticeable. Just as he was glorified for his
success, he was blamed for his failure.
Despite his recent absence from the screen, Travolta stresses, his
most popular movies run on TV and cable and are available on
"The fact is, a lot of people outside Hollywood don't know that I
haven't been working.
"Look at the kids who come up to me. They were too little to have
seen my movies when they first came out. They're watching them now,
without knowing when they were made."
Travolta - who has not done an interview since 1985 - is speaking
in his trailer during a lunch break on the set of "Chains of Gold."
He proves to be likable, gracious, exceedingly polite - he insists
on sharing his lunch with a reporter, constantly jumping up to pour
more iced tea. On the set, he is friendly and accessible to cast and
crew, and given to bursts of comedic improvisation before and after
takes. (For the record, he does a pretty good Streisand impersonation.
And his Stallonese is excellent.)
Unlike some stars, he placed no conditions on the interview. And
though he doesn't agree with a reporter's inclination to examine his
waning career, he answers every question.
There are moments, though, when he dances around some of his
career problems. "It doesn't feel that troublesome to me," he insists
at one point.
"Whatever you do," he cautions, "you shouldn't depict me as a
victim. Because if you depict me as one, you'll be wrong. I don't feel
like a victim. I don't play violins for myself. I never have."
Travolta, who has been a member of the Church of Scientology since
1975, abides by the doctrine that people are the cause of their
future, rather than the effect.
"That happens to be my own feeling as well. I don't blame anybody
for anything in my life. I don't like blame, shame or regret. What's
the point? Hey, you try turning back the clock.
"I don't believe in dwelling on failure. I believe in moving on."
He adds: "It doesn't matter what people think about me. They can
say what they want. But the fact is, they've never been where I've
After his two blockbuster hits, Travolta starred in just a
half-dozen films - with mixed results.
"Moment by Moment" (1978), with Travolta and Lily Tomlin in a
May-December romance, remains a notorious clunker.
"Urban Cowboy" (1980) was a commercial and critical success, and a
trend-setter, triggering a rise in the sale of Western wear.
"Blow Out" (1981) reunited him with director Brian De Palma. (In
his pre-disco days, Travolta costarred in De Palma's 1976 film
"Carrie.") As a sound effects man who inadvertently uncovers a murder
plot, Travolta earned some of the best notices of his career. But the
"Staying Alive" (1983), directed by Sylvester Stallone, resulted
in some of his worst notices. (Stallone also got clobbered.) But
moviegoers made it a hit (worldwide grosses: $150 million). Along with
"Grease" and the upcoming "Look Who's Talking," it remains one of
He reteamed with Newton-John in the innocuous and little-seen
comedy "Two of a Kind" (1983).
Then came "Perfect."
Travolta starred as a Rolling Stone investigative reporter out to
prove that health clubs are the new singles bars. Along the way, he
does some working out with leotard-clad fitness instructor Jamie Lee
Curtis. Directed by James Bridges and written by Aaron Latham - the
"Urban Cowboy" creative forces - it was hawked as a grand reunion. But
It was in the wake of "Perfect" that a burned-out and confused
Travolta considered abandoning acting. An avid flier, he briefly
pondered a career as a commercial airline pilot. He spent some time
Did he think his career was over?
"No, but I thought that I might not want my career to happen
"I didn't know if I could take the whole package. Was it worth the
pleasure of making a movie - which is always a pleasure - and the pain
of releasing it? I'm talking about all the stuff that goes into
getting a movie out.
"I remember saying to someone at the time, `I don't know if I can
continue doing this.' "
"I was feeling sort of out of it. Then two wonderful things
happened. Whoopi Goldberg wanted to make a movie with me - and she was
the hottest thing going.
"And Princess Di wanted to dance with me.
"And I thought, even when things are bad for me, they're pretty
It was at the invitation of First Lady Nancy Reagan that Travolta
attended the November 1985 White house gala for the visiting royal
couple. Once there, the First Lady took him aside and said the
princess was hoping he would ask her to dance.
Princess Di's dream dance with Travolta made headlines the world
Travolta and Goldberg spent about a year developing a comedy for
Cannon Films. "But we could never get the script right - and finally
Whoopi had to go back to work."
Travolta, who has also developed a Howard Hughes bio and a science
fiction thriller, eventually did the same.
He costarred with Tom Conti in aproduction of Harold Pinter's "The
Dumbwaiter," directed by Robert Altman for ABC.
And he made the four films back-to-back, culminating with "Chains
of Gold," which marks the first feature credit for respected TV
director Rod Holcomb (pilots for "Wiseguy," "The Equalizer" and "China
Beach"). Management Company Entertainment Group is producing.
"Look Who's Talking" is due Sept. 15 from Tri-Star Pictures. In
the $10 million romantic comedy, Travolta is a cabdriver who comes to
the aid of pregnant Kirstie Alley. He is later "picked" by her baby -
who "speaks" through voice-overs by Bruce Willis - to be its father.
Amy Heckerling ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High") directs.
"The Tender" is due early next year from Trans World
Entertainment. It's an offbeat drama about a shaky father-daughter
relationship that is strengthened after the pair finds a wounded dog.
What makes the film unique is that it's told largely through the eyes
of the dog. Robert Harmon ("Hitcher") directs the $10 million film.
According to Michael Phillips, who is co-producing with Michael
Douglas, Travolta was cast because the character he plays - that of a
desperate recovering alcoholic - "is so hard-edged that we had to have
someone in the role who is inherently likable. Or we will turn off the
audience from the first frame."
As for the ill-fated "The Experts": SCTV's Dave Thomas directed
the $13 million Paramount Pictures comedy about a pair of hip
nightclub owners who are talked into opening a club in a small town
that's actually a training ground for Soviet spies.
Travolta remains puzzled by the studio's decision to send it to
video after regional release: "I called over there and said, `I don't
get it.' "
Not everyone in town knows that John Travolta has gone back to
work. "One doesn't hear his name around town these days," says one
Another executive at a major studio, who has worked with Travolta,
reports: "I've just cast a pretty big film. I think the name of every
actor in the business between the ages of 22 and 35 came up. And I
never heard a single mention of John. He doesn't even make the casting
lists these days."
If Travolta is no longer on the lists of the kinds of major movies
he used to make, he still commands an impressive salary. His $2
million per film - down from the $3 million he received for "Blow
Out," "Two of a Kind" and "Perfect" - is due in part to the power of
his name in foreign territories. According to Travolta's manager,
Jonathan Krane, "Chains of Gold" is "over 100 percent funded by
Claiming that he is "happier now in my work than I've been in a
long time," Travolta explains, "Right now, the thing for me is the
film's story. The story - not just my character. I want to be a part
of a film. I don't want to be the film. Do you know?"
There is no denying that in the aftermath of Travoltamania, he was
the main attraction of his movies. The camera tended to treat him the
way it treated voluptuous starlets in the '50s, with lots of slow,
sensual pans of his body.
In contrast, his upcoming titles could hardly be called Travolta
"vehicles." He doesn't even appear in the first half-hour of "Look
There's another difference between then and now: Today Travolta is
playing mature roles. He's a father in "The Tender" and a paternal
figure in both "Look Who's Talking" and "Chains of Gold."
Moreover, says Travolta, playing a father feels "right" to him.
With a smile he pushes at his slight paunch and adds: "I definitely
look older. There's more gravity here."
For a man who was a major sex symbol, Travolta has a surprisingly
self-deprecating sense of humor about his body - which is no longer
"I'm fairly big on eating - and I don't like exercise," confesses
the six-foot actor - who estimates he now weighs around 190 "or so."
("I refuse to get on a scale.") He was 20 to 25 pounds heavier when he
filmed "Look Who's Talking" and "The Tender."
"But the weight was right for those roles," he protests. "It
And if a dance role came along? "I'm tenacious when I want to be. I
could get in shape."
For the moment, he admits to being worried about a love scene
coming up in "Chains of Gold," which calls for him to be shirtless
with costar and longtime friend Marilu Henner.
"I don't know what audiences will think. I mean, do you want to
see this?" he asks, pulling up his shirt and challenging a reporter to
"feel these (love handles)."
He was a lean, mean 161 pounds in the days when he willingly went
the sex symbol route. He was so proud of his waxed and well-muscled
body in "Staying Alive" - the result of seven months' training, and a
lot of advice from Stallone - that he used it to promote the movie.
That included a 1983 Rolling Stone cover that showed him flexing in a
Equally spectacular was the accompanying story, "Sex and the
It remains one of the most notorious celebrity interviews of its
time, showing the lengths to which both a magazine and a star would go
to get attention.
The detailed account of his sexual life and tastes wound up
hurting some of the women he'd talked about, says Travolta: "They were
upset because I had discussed intimate things. And I don't blame them.
Why did I go that far to make an impression?"
He answers his own question: "I'll tell you what, I was running
out of things to say and do at the time. I was suffering from
something that I won't fall into again, and that was, how do I
entertain the press?
"So I had something like a thousand interviews - covers of every
magazine. So I said to (the writer), `What's your angle?' I was hip,
you know. It was like, `What's your (expletive) angle and I'll join
you on it."
Travolta, who is single, makes his home in Orlando, Fla., in a
house with an adjacent landing strip for his Lear jet. It's a simpler
life than the one he led at his 17-acre ranch near Santa Barbara,
Calif., which he sold last year. For one thing, there's no full-time
household staff - "which is nice, because now I can walk naked into
the kitchen if I feel like it."
It is not by accident that he hasn't lived in Hollywood for more
than 10 years.
Explains Travolta: "I will be eternally grateful for the
opportunities the town has given me. But I wouldn't live there for
anything. The values there are so day-to-day.
"I think you have to be as strong as Streisand or Stallone to stay
in that town. You have to have nerves of steel. I'm not like that. I'm
strong in character, but I don't like the fight. I don't like the
fight ... "
Of nearly two dozen former Travolta associates asked to speculate
on the hows and whys of what has happened to him, no one had an unkind
word about him, personally.
And as was pointed out again and again, his is not an isolated
case. Observes Tri-Star President Jeff Sagansky - who was instrumental
in hiring Travolta for "Look Who's Talking": "Start going through a
list of the town's top actors. They've all gone through troughs."
Could his luck be somehow tied to the era he's most identified
Amy Heckerling, director of "Look Who's Talking," thinks so. "I
have this theory that people are embarrassed about anything they liked
in the '70s. I think people hold their hatred for discos against John.
And for bell-bottoms. And the rest of the fads.
"But the fact is, John's not responsible for what we all did
during that decade."
Travolta did choose his films, however. And his costars. Perhaps
not always wisely.
Travolta says he hasn't read the Hollywood trade papers in 12
years. His link with Hollywood is his management. Jonathan Krane has
represented Travolta since 1985 - when Travolta left Michael Ovitz at
Creative Artists Agency. A former lawyer, Krane has produced more than
20 films and is a co-founder of Blake Edwards Entertainment.
Explaining matter-of-factly that as the youngest of six children he
was "very spoiled," Travolta says that after "Perfect," he felt he
needed the kind of management that would spoil him too. "That was
around the time that Michael (Ovitz) was getting really big. He was
seeing to the needs of a lot of clients. I felt I needed undivided
There were creative differences. Travolta said Ovitz wanted him to
do "Running Scared." He didn't think he was right for it, but wanted
to do "Splash" - which was offered him, and which became a major hit.
But, recalls Travolta, Ovitz dissuaded him because Warren Beatty was
going to be doing a mermaid movie at the same time.
And there were Travolta's own judgment calls. "We tried so hard to
talk him into doing `An Officer and a Gentleman,' " recalls Lois
Zetter of the Le Mond-Zetter Agency. "Paramount wanted to reteam him
with Debra Winger," his "Urban Cowboy" costar. Travolta was
represented by Le Mond-Zetter for 11 1/2 years - including the period
that saw Travoltamania reach its height.
It was the late Bob Le Mond who had spotted Travolta, then 15, in
a summer stock production in New Jersey. The agency signed him at 16,
with his parents co-signing the contract.
Zetter makes no bones about wanting Travolta back. As for his
chances at getting back into major films, she surmises: "He'll have to
have a moderate hit so he can be viable for the big pictures, and
compete with the Kevin Costners.
"Don't think it can't be done, dear. Show business has no memory."
But comebacks don't just happen. In many instances, they require
Travolta, says one executive, should do some classy ensemble work
at a salary cut in a major film, so that critics and moviegoers will
be reminded of his ability.
Gene Siskel, critic for the Chicago Tribune - and a major
"Saturday Night Fever" fan (he paid $2,000 for Travolta's famed white
suit at a benefit auction) - thinks the actor should return to the
kind of role that made him famous.
"He should be gritty - and R-rated. He should be realistic again."
Pauline Kael believes Travolta can return: "I have nothing but the
highest regard for his talent. I want to believe that he'll be on top
again. The movies really need him."
Director James Bridges not only believes a comeback is possible,
but says he'd like to be involved.
"You know what I'd like? I'd like to do the second `Saturday Night
"I'd bring John's character to Hollywood and have his story
parallel what's happened to John.
"But - we would have a happy ending."