After the ‘Fever’ Broke : John Travolta, a pop-culture king of the ‘70s, struggles to revitalize his film career
“Could you please point for us?”
A teen-age 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 blue pants, he thrusts his hip into position and points his finger into the blazing Florida sky at an imaginary mirrored disco ball.
“Saturday Night Fever,” 12 years later.
The girls erupt in squeals and giggles and collect his autograph. Then they walk off--without even asking about the movie he’s filming now.
Travolta’s career has taken a momentous slide since the glory days of “Saturday Night Fever.”
He hasn’t been seen on the screen since 1985--when “Perfect” bombed.
“The Experts,” a comedy he made last year, went to video after brief theatrical release in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.
He has since completed two movies that await release. And he’s currently 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 that 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 teen-age girls--as the swaggering Sweat-hog 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 sound track album that--with worldwide sales of more than 25 million copies--ranks as the second largest-selling album ever, right after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
New Yorker critic Pauline Kael hailed Travolta as “an original presence.” Newsweek’s David Ansen praised his “triumphant starring debut.” Time’s Frank Rich called him “a revelation.”
In February, 1978, he was nominated for a best actor Academy Award 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 stepping stone. 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 intensified 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 sound track, 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. (Those four covers make him a record-holder amog actors.) 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 interview.
It was also in December that “Moment by Moment” opened. Remembers Travolta: “That was the first time I heard the words, ‘Your career is over.’ ”
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 teen-age 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 Olivia 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 Ben Kingsley.
“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 successes, he was blamed for his failures.
His Hollywood status hasn’t been helped by the fact that he hasn’t been seen in a movie since 1985.
But, Travolta stresses, his most popular movies run on TV and cable and are available on videocassette.
“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--was speaking in his trailer, during a lunch break on the set of “Chains of Gold.”
He proved to be likable, gracious, exceedingly polite--he insisted on sharing his lunch with a reporter, continually jumping up to pour more iced tea. On the set, he was 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 didn’t agree with a reporter’s inclination to examine his waning career--the “take on the story,” as he put it--he answered every question.
There were moments, though, when he danced around questions about 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 Scientologist since 1975, abides by the doctrine that says 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.”
Adds Travolta: “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 been.”
After his two blockbuster hits, Travolta starred in just a half-dozen films--with mixed results.
“Moment by Moment,” with Travolta and Lily Tomlin in a May-December romance (1978), remains a notorious clunker.
“Urban Cowboy” (1980) was a commercial and critical success, and a trend-setter, triggering a rise in the sale of cowboy boots and Western wear.
“Blow Out” (1981) reunited him with director Brian De Palma. (In his pre-disco days, Travolta co-starred 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 movie bombed.
“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 Travolta’s favorites.
He reteamed with Olivia 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 nobody came. It was in the wake of “Perfect” that a burned-out and confused Travolta considered abandoning acting. An avid flyer, he briefly pondered a career as a commercial airline pilot. He spent some time traveling.
Did he think his career was over?
“No, but I thought that I might not want my career to happen anymore.
“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 damn good.”
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 that the princess was hoping he would ask her to dance.
Princess Di’s dream dance with Travolta made headlines the world over.
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 co-starred with Tom Conti in a prestige production 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 cab driver 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 (“The 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 executive.
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, and M.C.E.G. chairman, Jonathan Krane, “Chains of Gold” is “over 100% funded by foreign pre-sales.”
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 Who’s Talking.”
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 pin-up material.
“I’m fairly big on eating--and I don’t like exercise,” confesses the 6-foot Travolta--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 really was.”
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 he has upcoming in “Chains of Gold"--which calls for him to be shirtless with co-star 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 well-muscled and waxed 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 skimpy loin cloth.
Equally spectacular was the accompanying story, “Sex and the Single Star.”
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 done 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 that has 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, 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.”
Burt Reynolds’ plummet is, of course, legendary. Great actors like Marlon Brando have had highs and lows. A whole host of performers--led by Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss--have had their once-floundering careers revived by the Disney studio.
As to what put Travolta’s career in trouble: One studio executive believes publicity was a factor.
“When John first became a star, the image he projected was sincere, appealing and open. He was the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’d made good.
“But the image changed. John stayed nice--but the image changed. He was always posing with cars and airplanes and at his estate.
“I don’t think John ever meant to flaunt it,” the source continues. “But, he began to look like one of those old-time movie stars. To some extent he lost the appeal of the underdog.”
Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker, feels the publicity Travolta did for “Staying Alive” worked against him. “Suddenly, everyone was making fun of him for posing on magazine covers. They were reviewing his body instead of his movies. The ridicule got out of hand.”
Could his luck be somehow tied to the era he’s most identified with?
Amy Heckerling, the 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 co-stars. Perhaps not always wisely.
Stallone remembers his surprise at learning that Travolta was going to make “Two of a Kind” with Olivia Newton-John, following the box office success of “Staying Alive.”
“I felt he was on another level than she was. What he needed was a female star of equal stature. He needed to make a quantum leap.”
Director James Bridges laments that Travolta didn’t get to do more of what many moviegoers felt he did best. “If only there’d been more movies that would have allowed him to dance.”
Travolta says he hasn’t read the Hollywood trade papers in 12 years.
His link with Hollywood is his management. Krane has represented Travolta since 1985--when Travolta left Michael Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency. A former lawyer-turned-manager, Krane has produced more than 20 films and is a co-founder of Blake Edwards Entertainment.
He founded M.C.E.G. in 1982, with the idea of putting his clients to work in projects that the company finances and distributes--as well as non-M.C.E.G. projects. Recent M.C.E.G. titles include “Getting It Right,” directed by client Randal Kleiser, and “The Chocolate War,” directed by actor Keith Gordon.
According to Krane, the game plan is to keep Travolta working in movies he is excited about in order to shed “the baggage of his past.”
Some of that baggage came via “Two of a Kind” and “Perfect,” which were packaged--along with the commercially successful “Staying Alive"--by Ovitz at CAA.
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 attention.”
There were creative differences. Travolta said that Ovitz wanted him to do “Running Scared.” He didn’t think he was right it, but wanted to do “Splash"--which was offered him, and became a major hit. But, recalls Travolta, Ovitz dissuaded him because, at the time, Warren Beatty was going to be doing a mermaid movie too.
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” co-star).”
Travolta was represented by La Mond-Zetter for 11 1/2 years--including the period that saw Travoltamania reach its height.
It was the late Bob Le Mond who 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 the fact that she’d love to have him 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 concessions.
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.”
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.”
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 Fever’ sequel.
“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.”