'Saturday Night Fever' and 'Grease' made him a '70s icon, but suddenly his career stopped dead - until a decade later when Tarantino cast him in 'Pulp Fiction'.
John Joseph Travolta was born to catholic parents. His Irish/American mother, Helen Cecilia Burke, was a singer and actress who went on to become a school drama teacher – she gave birth to Travolta at the age of 42; his father Salvatore Travolta, a second generation Italian/American, was a semi-professional football player before becoming a tire salesman.
Sharing their home was five of Travolta’s siblings. Most of the family were performers: his mother, his brothers and sisters, Joey, Sam Ellen, Ann and Margaret all have gone on to work in TV, film and music too. Encouraged by both parents - their dad would set up a mini theatre in their basement as a place for them to perform.
Around the same time Travolta became interested with aviation, as he would often see-off his mother and sister at the airport, who were flying off for a performance. He read up on aviation and if the young Travolta wasn’t in his home-made theatre, he could be found in his backyard with girls he had persuaded to wear their Brownie uniforms and play flight attendants whilst he captained his make-believe airplane.
Travolta was musical as well - he loved listening to it, mainly the Beatles and learned to play the guitar. He won a dance competition doing the twist - he went on to take up tap dancing and was lucky enough to be taught by Gene Kelly’s brother.
At the age of 12, Travolta joined a drama workshop. Helen later enrolled him in a New York Drama School, where he studied acting and dancing. He later won a role in a local production of ‘Who’ll Save The Plowboy?’
Not content with his new place at the Dwight Morrow Drama School, age 16 he dropped out and moved to New York City where he lived with his sister Ann. Soon afterwards he appeared in a number of TV commercials and local summer stock productions. His first professional acting role was in a musical comedy: ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (1970).
Acting became hard to come by in New York, so Travolta went to Hollywood but his acting career never took off. So, aged 18, Travolta returned to New York and eventually won a role on Broadway in a musical set in the 1950s ‘Grease’ – playing Doody. Later that year, he played in the Broadway show “Over Here” with The Andrews Sisters and went on to tour with the show. He was then cast in minor roles in the TV shows ‘Kids’ and ‘Emergency’.
In these early years, Travolta spent most of his money on flying lessons – he is now qualified to fly a number of different planes including a Boeing 707 airliner.
In 1975, Travolta won his first major part that lasted four years in the sitcom ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ - this catapulted him into the limelight and captured the hearts of teenage girls across the US after playing lippy teenage delinquent Vinnie Barbarino. His sister Ellen occasionally appeared in the show too.
Travolta took advantage of his TV profile and his love of music and recorded the hit single ‘Let Her In’ which charted at number 10 in America - the album reached the top 20.
Now aged 20, Travolta was cast his first big film ‘Carrie’ (1976), where he played a school bully who taunted Sissy Spacek’s title character who had telekinetic powers – one night she was pushed too far causing a bloody disaster!
The same year Travolta took on the role of an immune deficient boy in TV movie ‘The Boy in the Plastic Bubble’ (1976). Whilst filming he fell in love with his co-star, Diana Hyland, who 18 years his senior, played his mother. Sadly Hyland was later diagnosed with cancer and died in his arms in 1977.
Travolta's next role saw him hit the dancefloor in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977) playing Tony Manero and disco dancing to the legendary Bee Gees soundtrack. To prepare for the role Travolta took nine months of dance lessons. He was rewarded with his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Like one of his many aircrafts, Travolta was riding high on the phenomenal success of his last project, so he coupled his love of acting with his penchant for a song and played Danny, the male lead, a warbling womanising teenager in ‘Grease’ (1978). Danny’s love interest was female lead, Australian actress/singer Olivier Newton-John as Sandy. Cinema queues were bigger than ever: the film and its sound track became a massive hit: Grease the album sold over 10 million copies and gave Travolta another shot at being a pop star; the film went on to be one of the most successful musicals of all time.
The hit, ‘Urban Cowboy’ (1980) was Travolta’s next film playing a country boy who had moved to the city and fell in love with Debra Winger’s character. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe awards and inspired a country music craze across America.
Unfortunately Travolta’s career took a nose dive after this. He actually turned down the lead role in ‘American Gigolo’ (1980), with the role going to Richard Gere instead. He also turned down Gere’s part in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (1982), Tom Hanks’ part in ‘Splash’ (1984) and Michael Douglas’ part in ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987).
Travolta did go on to say “yes” and agreed to reprise his old disco dancing character Tony Manero in the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, ‘Staying Alive’ (1983) - directed by Sylvester Stallone and it proved just as successful as its predecessor.
That same year, Travolta teamed up again with Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John in ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983), a romantic comedy where the pair sang together again on the soundtrack. Two years on he was strutting his stuff in Jamie Lee Curtis’ aerobics class in ‘Perfect’ (1983).
Travolta maintained a low profile until 1989 when he made a brief comeback in the hit comedy ‘Look Who’s Talking’ (1989) alongside Kirstie Alley. He went on to appear in both sequels.
That same year Travolta starred in ‘The Experts’ (1989) where he met his wife, actress Kelly Preston. Travolta and Preston eventually married on 5th September 1991 by a scientologist minister – however this marriage was declared illegal so they married again in accordance with the law.
Travolta’s career was relatively low key until 1994, when he returned to the big screen in Quentin Tarrantino’s hit ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). He worked alongside Samuel L. Jackson as part of a hit-man duo playing foul mouthed Vincent Vega. Travolta earned his second Academy Award nomination, $140,000 salary as well as a revived career.
During the following years Travolta gained more success in films ‘Get Shorty’ (1995) which won him an American Comedy Award for Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (leading role) and a pay-check of $3.5m; ‘Broken Arrow’ (1996) another $7m; ‘Phenomenon’ (1996) $8m, and ‘Michael’ (1996) putting a cool $10m in the bank.
Travolta went on to play a convict who swapped faces with Nicholas Cage in the hit action flick ‘Face/Off’ (1997) and received a $15m salary. He went on to play US Governor Jack Stanton in ‘Primary Colors’ (1998) for an $18m fee, starring alongside Emma Thompson. He gained a hefty 30 pounds to play the part.
After ‘Primary Colors’ the offers came flooding in. Later on in 1998 Travolta appeared alongside talents such as George Clooney (who incidentally dated his wife Kelly before she met Travolta - she gave Clooney his pet pig) and John Cusack in war drama, ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) which scooped a massive seven Academy Award nominations and then as a lawyer in ‘A Civil Action’ (1989) $20m, and ‘The General’s Daughter’ (1999) for the same salary.
During the 90s, Travolta’s biggest pay-checks for his films totalled well over $121m – so enough to finance his expensive taste in airplanes and flying them. Going into the new millennium he continued to command the same sized payments.
A New Year and a new genre in the multi-million dollar futuristic sci-fi flick ‘Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000). When the book was first written, Travolta was keen to turn it into a film, but no studio would back its production – it proved to be a massive flop and failed to make any profit.
Over the next few years, Travolta seemed to pick the wrong type of films. Lucky Numbers (2000) alongside Friends star Lisa Kudrow barely even made an appearance in UK cinemas, ‘Swordfish’ (2001) faired a little better.
For a change Travolta played a nice guy in ‘Domestic Disturbance’ (2001) leaving the nasty role to Vince Vaughn. He returned to a bad guy in Marvel Comic’s big screen version of ‘The Punisher’ (2004).
Later in the year, Travolta played an alcoholic English professor in ‘A Love Song For Bobby Long’ (2004) where his image was dramatically changed with short white hair. He stayed in the drama genre for his next big screen outing as a fire sergeant in ‘Ladder 49’ (2004) playing Captain Mike.
The following year Travolta reprised his role as Chilli Palmer in ‘Be Cool’ (2005), the sequel to 1995’s hit ‘Get Shorty’. Once again he teamed up with his original co-stars Rene Russo and Danny DeVito and was also reunited with his Pulp Fiction co-star Uma Thurman. He was also seen in crime thriller ‘Lonely Hearts’ (2006).
Travolta’s career is still going strong and he can be seen clad in leather as a middle aged biker, desperate to regain his youth, in the comedy ‘Wild Hogs’ (2007) with comedians Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen.
Aside from his acting, Travolta is very much a family man who adores his wife and children. His private life took a tragic turn in January 2009 when his son, Jett (who suffered from Kawasaki Syndrome) died while the family were on holiday in the Bahamas. It was later revealed that Jett was autistic and had a history of suffering from seizures.
Travolta seems to have many talents, he is a FAA licensed pilot and owns a staggering 5 airplanes which includes an ex-Australian airliner The Quantus 707-138; it is named Jett Clipper Ella after his kids. Travolta is a goodwill Ambassador for the airline Pan Am which was an operator of the 707. His home in Florida is situated in Greystone Airport and has its own handy runway.
Travolta wrote and illustrated a short children’s book in 1992 with the title Propeller One Way Night Coach about a young boy who travelled across America in the 1950s.
2007 is the year that Travolta swapped sex when he played mother Edna Turnblad in the remake of John Waters’ film ‘Hairspray’ (1988). Edna’s pleasantly plump daughter gains fame from a local dancing contest on TV. ‘Hairspray’ (2007) has a star-studded cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Jerry Stiller and Queen Latifah. Set in the 60s with great music and big hair.
In 2009 Travolta starred in a remake of the 70's classic, 'The Taking of Pelham 123' with Denzel Washington and the same year starred alongside Robin Williams in the comedy 'Old Dogs'. The movie was a real family affair, as Travolta's wife Kelly and daughter Ella Bleu also had starring roles. His latest roles include 'Killing Season' (2013), 'Criminal Activities' (2015) and 'In A Valley Of Violence' (2015).
A loving father and husband, dancer, singer, actor and licensed pilot – Travolta’s career is still going strong. His third child was born in November 2010.