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celebrities > john travolta

john travolta

John Travolta. Born on February 18, 1954, in Englewood, New Jersey, of Italian-Irish descent. Highly popular young star of American TV and movies of the late 70's and later a likable lead of the 90's. A high school dropout at 16, he began his acting career in summer stock in New Jersey. After a period of training in acting and dancing he began doing commercials and off-Broadway. He moved to Hollywood, where he got occasional small roles on TV, then joined the national touring company of "Grease", eventually making the Broadway casts of "Grease" and the Andrews Sisters' musical "Over Here!". He got his big break in 1975 when he joined the cast of the TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter", in the role of dimwitted but lovable Vinnie Barbarino. Although his role in the series was secondary, he immediately attracted an enthusiastic following and soon became one of television's top stars. Film assignments quickly followed. An appealing young man with a dazzling grin, luminous blue eyes, and a characteristic cleft chin, he extended his popularity to the big screen with a convincing performance in the role of Tony Manero, king of the Brooklyn disco scene, in the film Saturday Night Fever (1977) and enjoyed another success with the screen version of Grease (1978), and with Urban Cowboy (1980), which helped popularize Western wear in the early 80's. During this period, he also released a few hit records, having done all his own singing in Grease.

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 twelve, 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 came away from the latter with something equally significant, his first major romantic relationship, with Diana Hyland, the older (by eighteen 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 fashion sensibility of an entire nation. (Tony's original white get-up recently 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 seventies; his Danny launched a revival of fifties 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 seventies 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-eighties, Travolta was dodging the slings and arrows of outrageously bad fortune: if not 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 cult--the 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 lifestyle--complete with a twenty-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 considered 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 in 1992; their son Jett arrived the following year. 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 has thus far managed to keep hurtling forward at a dizzying pace, with roles as a loan shark-cum-film producer in Get Shorty, as a villainous bastard in director John Woo's Broken Arrow, and as a mechanic turned genius in Phenomenon. After the success of Get Shorty, everyone's favorite Comeback Kid landed a $17-million contract to headline Roman Polanski's The Double, but "creative differences" led to Travolta's swift exodus. Production ground to a halt (despite the fact that Travolta's reins were handed over to the capable Steve Martin, co-star Isabelle Adjani apparently developed her own case of cold feet) and Travolta was subsequently slapped with a breach-of-contract suit; he countersued for breach of contract, fraud, and interference. Not that Travolta doesn't have plenty of work to fill the void: apart from starring roles in Michael, Face/Off, and the upcoming Mad City, he inherited (from Tom Hanks) the role of a U.S. president whose libido runs amok, in Universal's adaptation of Primary Colors, the best-selling satire of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

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