During the last few years of the 1970s, John Travolta reigned as one of the most towering stars in Hollywood, second, perhaps, only to Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford as a top male box office draw. After a string of hits in films, on television, and on the radio, Travolta emerged as a seemingly unstoppable cultural phenomenon, defining tastes in music and fashion while dominating innumerable columns of newspapers and tabloids. Like so many other celebrities, Travolta's initial fame proved short-lived, however, and by the mid-1980s the media and the public alike began to regard him as an outmoded relic of his era.
But in 1994, Travolta pulled off an astonishing feat: after years languishing in dull Hollywood by-product, he resurfaced, rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of has-been obscurity, reestablishing his claims to film superstardom and staking out new territory as one of the most acclaimed actors in contemporary film.
Born February 18, 1954, in Englewood, NJ, to Salvatore Travolta, a former semi-pro football player, and Helen Travolta, an alumna of a radio vocal group called the Sunshine Sisters and high-school drama teacher -- Travolta was the youngest of six children in a family of entertainers; all but one of his siblings pursued showbusiness careers as well. By the age of 12 Travolta himself had already joined an area actors' group, and soon began appearing in local musicals and dinner-theater performances. He also took tap-dancing lessons from Gene Kelly's brother Fred. By age 16, he dropped out of high school to take up acting full-time, relocating to Manhattan to make his off-Broadway debut in 1972 in +Rain. A minor role in the touring company of the hit musical +Grease followed, and in 1973 Travolta appeared opposite The Andrews Sisters in the Broadway musical +Over Here! In 1975, he took his film bow with a bit role in the best-forgotten horror picture The Devil's Rain, alongside Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner and Anton La Vey.
In 1975, Travolta was cast in an ABC sitcom entitled Welcome Back, Kotter. As Vinnie Barbarino, a dim-witted high school Lothario, he shot to overnight superstardom, and his face instantly adorned T-shirts and lunch boxes. Before the first episode of the series even aired, he also won a small role in Brian De Palma's wickedly funny 1976 horror picture Carrie, giving him inroads to the movie industry, and at the early peak of his Kotter success he even recorded a series of pop music LPs -- Can't Let Go, John Travolta, and Travolta Fever -- scoring a major hit with the single "Let Her In." Approached with a role in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, he was forced to reject the project in the face of a busy Kotter schedule, but in 1976 he was able to shoot a TV feature, director Randal Kleiser's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which won considerable critical acclaim. Diana Hyland, the actress who played Travolta's mother in the picture, also became his offscreen lover until her death from cancer in 1977.
In the wake of Hyland's death, Travolta's first major feature film, John Badham's Saturday Night Fever (1977), emerged in the fall of that year. A latter-day Rebel Without a Cause set against the backdrop of the New York City disco nightlife, it positioned Travolta as the most talked-about young star in Hollywood. In addition to earning his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, he also became an icon of the era, his white-suited visage and cocky, rhythmic strut enduring as defining images of late-'70s American culture. In 1978, he starred in Kleiser's film adaptation of Grease, this time essaying the lead role of 1950s greaser Danny Zuko. Its box-office success was even greater than Saturday Night Fever's, becoming a perennial fan favorite and, like its predecessor, spawning a massively popular soundtrack LP. In the light of his back-to-back successes, as well as the continued popularity of Welcome Back, Kotter -- on which he still occasionally appeared -- it seemed Travolta could do no wrong. And then, the bottom dropped out.
Travolta's first misstep was 1978's Moment By Moment, a laughable May-December romance with Lily Tomlin. Savaged by critics, the picture was a box-office disaster, the first major failure of his career. Travolta then turned down the lead in Paul Schrader's hit American Gigolo (a role which, like the one offered in Days of Heaven, was then awarded to Richard Gere) to star in 1980's Urban Cowboy, which restored much of his financial lustre. Starring Travolta as a Texas oil worker, the film and its accompanying smash soundtrack did for country music and ten-gallon hats what Saturday Night Fever did for disco and leisure suits, and resulted in such an influx of new country fans that Nashville's entire early-'80s period was later dubbed the "Urban Cowboy" era by music historians. The following year he starred in De Palma's under-recognized Blow Out, resulting in some of the best critical notices of his career but falling well short of box-office expectations.
Travolta then rejected the lead in An Officer and a Gentleman (yet another role eagerly accepted by Gere) to reprise the role of Tony Manero in the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. Directed by Sylvester Stallone as a kind of Rocky retread, the film was released in August 1983 to embarrassing returns and horrendous reviews; critic after critic quite rightly ripped it to pieces. Pauline Kael tagged it "ludicrous," and suggested, on the basis of this film, that the studios give their stars to director Stallone whenever they needed to be punished.
Two of a Kind, released a few months later, reunited Travolta with his Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John, but lightning again failed to strike twice and the movie soon disappeared from theaters. By now Travolta's career was on shaky ground, and after a two-year absence from the screen he returned in 1985's Perfect, a reunion with director James Bridges that cast Travolta as a journalist modeled on Aaron Latham who investigates the aerobics scene. When it too failed to live up to expectations, he was roundly dismissed as a flash in the pan and a has-been, and several years of poor career choices, bad advice, and missed opportunities were to follow. By 1988 Travolta had been missing from theaters for three years, and when the oft-delayed comedy The Experts finally surfaced in theaters in 1989, its disastrous showing seemed the final nail in his coffin.
Later that same year, the unheralded, low-budget comedy Look Who's Talking was released and marked a comeback - albeit an admittedly temporary one. Co-starring Travolta and Kirstie Alley, it was produced for some eight million dollars but went on to gross close to 150 million dollars over the course of the following 12 months, later spawning a pair of sequels, 1990's Look Who's Talking Too and 1993's Look Who's Talking Now. However, both of Travolta's 1991 pictures, the long-shelved Eyes of an Angel and Shout, fared poorly, and as the Look Who's Talking series sputtered to a halt he was again written off by the press.
Then, in 1994, Travolta made one of the most stunning comebacks in entertainment history by starring in Pulp Fiction, a lavishly acclaimed crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a longtime Travolta fan who wrote the role of Vincent Vega specifically with the actor in mind; Travolta reportedly waived his salary to play the role. A critical as well as commercial smash, Pulp Fiction introduced Travolta to a new generation of moviegoers, and suddenly he was again a major star who could command a massive salary, with a second Academy Award nomination to prove it.
In the wake of Pulp Fiction, the resurrected Travolta became one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, and on Tarantino's advice he accepted the starring role in director Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty. Acclaimed by many critics as his finest performance to date, it was another major hit, and he followed it by appearing in the 1996 John Woo action tale Broken Arrow. Phenomenon was another smash that same summer, and by Christmas Travolta was back in theaters as a disreputable angel in Michael. The following year he reunited with Woo in the highly successful thriller Face/Off, which he trailed with a supporting turn in Nick Cassavetes' She's So Lovely. After 1997's Mad City, Travolta began work on Primary Colors, Mike Nichols' political satire, portraying a charismatic, Bill Clinton-like U.S. President. An adaptation of the acclaimed book -A Civil Action followed, as did the 1999 thriller The General's Daughter, in which Travolta co-starred with Madeline Stowe.
In 2000, the actor starred as an alien invader in the sci-fi thriller Battlefield Earth, based on the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (whose teachings Travolta publicly admires and advocates). That same year he returned to human form to portray a financially strapped TV weatherman in Lucky Numbers, a comedy directed by Nora Ephron. Though Travolta had high hopes for Battlefield Earth, often citing it as the next Star Wars (and even going so far as to plan a sequel before the first was released), the film was seen as little more than an overblown, over-budgeted orgy of excess, and Lucky Numbers fell flat at the box office as well. Facing yet another comeback, Travolta shed some pounds and jumped back into action in the summer of 2001 with Swordfish. A complex tale of mixed loyalties, computer hacking, and espionage, Swordfish teamed Travolta with X-Men star Hugh Jackman in hopes of dominating the summer box office.
Having somewhat recovered from yet another career slump, Travolta went on to star in the low-key A Love Song for Bobby Long, which Lionsgate openly touted as a serious Oscar contender. Unfortunately, the film was not well received by audiences or critics, and neither was the comic book adaptation The Punisher, which Travolta appeared in around the same time. While he received more praise for his performance in Ladder 49, a film about the lives of firefighters, his career took another hit in 2004 when he reprised the role of Chili Palmer in Be Cool, a sequel to Get Shorty. The film was panned both in the press and at the box office as a major disappointment.
Unfazed, Travolta joined the cast of Todd Robinson's Lonely Hearts (2007), the second major American studio release to investigate the homicides committed by lovers Raymond Martinez and Martha Beck against octogenarian women in the 1940s. Whereas Leonard Kastle's 1970 black comedy The Honeymoon Killers observed the incidents from the perspective of the murderers, however, the more sober Robinson film follows two homicide detectives (Travolta and James Gandolfini) in their pursuit of the serial killers (here played by Salma Hayek and Jared Leto). Millenium Films slated the picture for stateside release in mid-January, 2007.
Meanwhile, Travolta geared up for two wildly diverse additional roles to carry him through the end of that year. In the March 2007 road comedy Wild Hogs, he stars alongside a dream cast - Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy - as one of four listless suburbanites who decide to "live on the edge" by grabbing their sawed-off choppers and hitting the open road as would-be Hell's Angels. And in Hairspray, Adam Shankman's screen adaptation of the stage musical (which, in turn, is an adaptation of John Waters's 1988 feature) Travolta reprised the Edna Turnblad role, made famous by female impersonator Divine, by donning a dress and a coiffe. .
Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide