Travolta, John

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Nationality: American. Born: Englewood, New Jersey, 18 February 1954. Education: Attended Dwight Morrow High School. Family: Married Kelly Preston (1991); son: Jett. Career: In Actors Studio workshop production of Who'll Save the Plowboy?, 1966; as teenager, appeared in summer stock, supper club productions, and commercials, late 1960s-early 1970s; made off-Broadway debut in Rain; toured with the musical Grease, 1973; made Broadway debut in musical Over Here!, 1974; made film debut in The Devil's Rain, 1975; appeared on TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975–77; won instant screen stardom starring in Saturday Night Fever, 1977; made screen comeback in Pulp Fiction, 1994. Awards: National Board of Review award for Best Actor, Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy, for Saturday Night Fever, 1977; Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy, for Grease, 1978; Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, British Academy Award nomination for Best Leading Actor, Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama, London Critics Circle Award as Actor of the Year, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor, Stockholm Film Festival award for Best Actor, for Pulp Fiction, 1994; Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical, for Get Shorty, 1995; Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical, for Primary Colors, 1998. Address: 12522 Moorpark Street, #109, Studio City, CA 91604, U.S.A.

Films as Actor:


The Devil's Rain (Fuest) (as Danny)


Carrie (De Palma) (as Billy Nolan); The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (Kleiser—for TV) (as Tod Lubitch)


Saturday Night Fever (Badham) (as Tony Manero)


Moment by Moment (Wagner) (as Strip); Grease (Kleiser) (as Danny Zuko)


Urban Cowboy (Bridges) (as Bud)


Blow Out (De Palma) (as Jack)


Staying Alive (Stallone) (as Tony Manero); Two of a Kind (Herzfeld) (as Zack)


Perfect (Bridges) (as Adam)


The Dumb Waiter (Basements, The Room) (Altman—for TV) (as Ben)


The Experts (Thomas) (as Travis); Look Who's Talking (Heckerling) (as James Ubriacco)


Look Who's Talking Too (Heckerling) (as James Ubriacco)


Shout (Hornaday) (as Jack Cabe); Chains of Gold (Holcomb—for TV, produced 1989) (as Scott Barnes)


Boris and Natasha: The Movie (Smith—for TV) (as Himself)


Look Who's Talking Now (Ropelewski) (as James Ubriacco); Eyes of an Angel (The Tender) (Harmon—produced in 1990) (as Bobby)


Pulp Fiction (Tarantino) (as Vincent Vega)


Get Shorty (Sonnenfeld) (as Chili Palmer); White Man's Burden (Nakano) (as Louis Pinnock)


Broken Arrow (Woo) (as Vic Deakins); Phenomenon (Turteltaub) (as George Malley); Michael (Ephron) (as Michael)


She's So Lovely (Cassavetes) (as Joey, + exec pr); Face/Off (Woo) (as Sean Archer/Castor Troy); Mad City (Costa-Gavras) (as Sam Baily)


Welcome to Hollywood (Markes, Rifkin) (as Himself); Primary Colors (Nichols) (as Gov. Jack Stanton); The Thin Red Line (Malick) (as Brig. Gen. Quintard); A Civil Action (Zaillian) (as Jan Schlichtmann)


Forever Hollywood (Glassman, McCarthy) (as Himself); The General's Daughter (West) (as Warrant Officer Paul Brenner)


Battlefield Earth (Christian) (as Terl); Lucky Numbers (Ephron) (as Russ Richards)


Swordfish (Sena)


By TRAVOLTA: books—

Staying Fit!, New York, 1984.

Propeller One-Way Night Coach: A Fable for All Ages, New York, 1997.

By TRAVOLTA: articles—

"Struttin' His Stuff," interview with Tom Burke, in Rolling Stone (New York), 15 June 1978.

"True-Grit Tenderfoot," interview with Timothy White, in Rolling Stone (New York), 10 July 1980.

"Travolta and De Palma Discuss Blow Out," interview with C. Amata, in Films and Filming (London), December 1981.

"Sex and the Single Star," interview with Nancy Collins, in Rolling Stone (New York), 18 August 1983.

"From an Actor's Notebook," in Rolling Stone (Boulder, Colorado), July-August 1985.

"Look Who's Talking," interview with Rosanna Arquette, in Interview (New York), August 1994.

"Back With a Bang/Fresco Kid," interview with S. Daly and Geoff Andrew, in Time Out (London), 19 October 1994.

"Travolta's Second Act," interview with Martin Amis, in New Yorker, 20–27 February 1995.

Interview with D. Wild, in Rolling Stone (New York), 28 December 1995/11 January 1996.

"The Crime of Your Life," interview with Steve Grant and Jan Janssen, in Time Out (London), 21 February 1996.

"Travolta: The Rolling Stone Interview," interview with Fred Schruers, in Rolling Stone (New York), 22 February 1996.

"Something in the Way He Moves," interview with Roald Rynning, in Radio Times (London), 15 February 1997.

On TRAVOLTA: books—

Reeves, Michael, Travolta: A Photo Bio, New York, 1978.

Thompson, Dave, Travolta, Taylor Publishing, 1996.

Simpson, Rachel, John Travolta (Superstars of Film), Chelsea House Publishing, 1997.

Clarkson, Wensley, John Travolta: Back in Character, Overlook Press,1997.

Edelman, Rob and Audrey E. Kupferberg, The John Travolta Scrap-book, Citadel Press, 1997.

Andrews, Nigel, Travolta: The Life, Bloomsbury, 1998.

On TRAVOLTA: articles—

Current Biography 1978, (New York), 1978.

Yakir, Dan, "Vinnie and Wenner," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1985.

Squire, Susan, "Look Who's Talking . . . Back," in Premiere (New York), March 1990.

Merrick, H., "Le Syndrome du Phénix," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1990.

Junod, Tom, "John Travolta Is a Big Being," in GQ (New York), October 1995.

Schickel, Richard, "Travolta Fever," in Time (New York), 16 October 1995.

Current Biography 1996 (New York), 1996.

Millea, Holly, "Stayin' Alive," in Premiere (New York), August 1996.

Radio Times (London), 24 August 1996.

Stars (Mariembourg), 1996.

Yanc, Jeff, "'More Than a Woman': Music, Masculinity and Male Spectacle in Saturday Night Fever and Staying Alive," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), Fall 1996.

Ressner, J., "The People's Choice," in Time (New York), 16 March 1998.

Biskind, Peter, "Compromising Positions," in Premiere (New York), April 1998.

Dougherty, M., "John the Divine," in Los Angeles, April 1998.

Junod, Tom, "Our Man in the White House," in Esquire (New York), April 1998.

* * *

It might be argued that no other actor in the history of motion pictures enjoyed the kind of career renaissance experienced by John Travolta in 1994. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was a red-hot commodity in Hollywood, as the star of the enormously popular Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Over the years, however, his career had faltered; before being cast in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, he was considered a has-been. Despite his appearance in the popular comedy Look Who's Talking and its two sequels, Travolta could not buy a prestige part. In fact, a number of his films even were released directly to video, quite an embarrassment for a star of his stature. But Pulp Fiction, one of the most talked-about movies of its year—and most influential films of its era—jump-started his career. For a second time, Travolta found himself atop the A-list of Hollywood stars.

Travolta earned his initial mainstream stardom as Vinnie Barbarino on the television situation comedy Welcome Back, Kotter. Teen girls swooned over him, he became a hot new sex symbol—and he was destined to be spared the fate of innumerable other television phenoms who eventually fade into oblivion. Actors who come to stardom in television series often are unable to surmount the public's perception of them in their series role. For this reason, they cannot find work once their shows leave the air. Fortunately for Travolta, he was able to play an extension of Barbarino in his role as disco dancing Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, the film that earned him an Oscar nomination and won him his big-screen fame. The actor's Brooklyn Italian-American street-boy attitude further endeared him to (mostly female) moviegoers, and his fancy moves on the dance floor almost single-handedly helped popularize the disco craze of the late 1970s. In fact, Travolta-as-Tony Manero became one of the icons of 1970s pop culture. He is as representative of the era as Bogie's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are mirrors of the film noirish 1940s, or as Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock reflects the late 1960s.

Travolta followed Saturday Night Fever with another tailor-made screen role: Danny Zuko in Grease. The popular musical, a nostalgia piece which fondly looks back on 1950s rock 'n' roll culture, was an ideal property for Travolta, allowing him to dance as impressively as in Saturday Night Fever and play yet another Barbarino clone. He also gave impressive performances in two other films: Urban Cowboy (which unfortunately failed at the box office), cast as a mechanical bull-riding hard hat; and Blow Out, Brian De Palma's variation of Antonioni's Blow-Up, playing a sound-effects man who inadvertently becomes involved in a murder scenario.

Travolta's celluloid successes, however, were destined to be outweighed by his misfires. In 1978, one year after Saturday Night Fever and the same year as Grease, he co-starred with Lily Tomlin in the dreadful Moment by Moment. Through the potentially interesting pairing of Travolta and Tomlin, the film confronts a number of social taboos: the older woman/younger man syndrome; the relationship between a rich woman and poor man; and, above all else, gender reversal. But the film proved a shallow, forced attempt at a feminist declaration. Even if Moment by Moment had been artistically successful, it would not have advanced Travolta's career. In Saturday Night Fever and Grease, he is the macho male, the focus of attention. In Moment by Moment, he plays the passive leading role, that of Strip, a drifter-beach bum. Tomlin is the dominant partner, with Travolta the object of desire, and he expresses markedly "feminine" characteristics such as vulnerability, sensitivity, and passivity. Travolta's army of fans had no desire to watch him playing such a role. To add to his misfortune, all of his mid-1980s films—Staying Alive (in which he reprises Tony Manero), Two of a Kind, and Perfect—were downright disasters. By the end of the decade, he was considered a faded star, a view which remained unaltered despite his appearance in Look Who's Talking.

In Pulp Fiction, the new John Travolta rose like a phoenix from its ashes. In the film, he at once redesigned his on-screen personality and revived his career. Travolta plays ultracool hitman Vincent Vega, who converses memorably with his criminal cohort (Samuel L. Jackson) and his employer's wife (Uma Thurman). In Pulp Fiction, Travolta was one of an ensemble; his role as Vega was as important to the story as any one of a half-dozen other characters, and his Oscar nomination as Best Actor easily might have been in the Supporting Actor category. But in his follow-up, Get Shorty, he most decidedly was the star of the show. He plays Chili Palmer, another hip thug, a loan shark who loves old movies and ends up hustling his way into the film industry. In Get Shorty, Travolta solidified the fame he had re-won in Pulp Fiction.

He next appeared as unlucky, inarticulate factory worker Louis Pinnock in White Man's Burden, a provocative morality tale set in a society in which African Americans are ensconced in the upper classes while whites inhabit the lower economic wrung. While far more artistically successful than Moment by Moment, both films are linked as radical departures at pivotal points in Travolta's career. If Tony Manero and Danny Zuko are macho and Strip is feminized, Vincent Vega and Chili Palmer are empowered and Louis Pinnock is helpless and victimized.

In the second half of the1990s Travolta—now ensconced as one of Hollywood's $15-$20-million dollar men—has been a prolific screen presence. Travolta has experimented with a variety of roles; he has played military men, heroes and villains, and blue-collar and white-collar types. In all, he has been interesting to watch, even when his scripts fail to match his talent. Travolta did well as an over-the-top bad guy in Broken Arrow, playing a rugged, diabolical Air Force aviator who hatches a scheme to steal nuclear weapons and blackmail the government for $250 million. This was Travolta's first outright villain since his supporting role as a low-class teen in Carrie, one of his pre-Saturday Night Fever credits. On the other end of the scamp-to-champ scale, Travolta literally played a cherub (albeit an atypical one) in Michael, cast as a cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, sexually active archangel. As a standard-issue sleuth, he is a tenacious army warrant officer investigating a murder in The General's Daughter. In A Civil Action, he is a slick, ambulance-chasing lawyer who is humanized and humbled while researching an environmental pollution lawsuit. He even played stalwart hero and psychotic villain in the same film: Face/Off, in which he is an FBI agent who, via special effects, switches faces with a sadistic terrorist. Extending his Louis Pinnock character, Travolta has played average Joes who find themselves in extraordinary situations. In Mad City, he is a dim-witted, recently fired museum security guard who becomes a hostage-taker. In Phenomenon, he is another blue-collar type, an auto repair shop proprietor mysteriously transformed into a modern-era Einstein. In contrast, Travolta won the coveted role of an aspiring President of the United States in Primary Colors, based on the notorious novel by "Anonymous" (aka Joe Klein). In his rendering of a charismatic, Clintonesque presidential contender, Travolta shows what a fine actor he is.

—original essy by Robin Wood

—updated by Rob Edelman