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Class Acting

With remarkable candor, John Travolta talks about the highs and lows of his tumultuous and fascinating career—and what he's learned along the way.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 1)

"My mother was an actress, she did community theater," he begins. "My father and his brother ran Travolta Tire Exchange, which was a Firestone outlet in Westwood, New Jersey." His mother, Helen, was of Irish descent; his father, Salvatore, had Italian roots. Together, in a big, boisterous household in the suburbs of New Jersey, they raised six children. John was the youngest. And he still remembers the rich, mysterious smells of his boyhood home.

"Cigarettes made everything festive," he recalls. "My mom smoked and my sister smoked. So smoking meant show business and travel. My father smoked cigars his whole life. And cigars meant... safe. Dad was home. Security. Safety. And I can't smell a cigar without thinking of the kind of secure feeling I'd get around Dad. Baseball games on Sunday. Just that ambience of him watching in the living room. Him reading the paper. He used to get every paper. The New York Times. The Daily News. A local New Jersey paper. They'd be all over the living room. His joy was the paper, the games and his cigars. Of course, he smoked, like, White Owls, but it didn't matter. The smell to me was what counted."

Today, both parents have passed away, and on big family occasions John takes on the role of head of the Travolta clan. He's also taken on his father's love of cigars. In his work habits, Travolta is strict and disciplined. He drinks fine wine, but does so sparingly, only a few times a month. Cigars are one of his few indulgences. "I smoke about five cigars a week, but I wouldn't call myself a connoisseur. I like Davidoffs, Dunhills and Montecristos. I like to smoke at the end of the day, usually out on the terrace with a cup of espresso. Kelly will often join me; she enjoys a small cigar."

Travolta's mother was an experienced drama coach, and she groomed John's older sisters, Ellen and Margaret, for careers in acting. That often left John crying for attention. "I was insatiable in wanting to be a performer. Daily, I would perform for Mom and Dad. They'd have a bottle of wine, they'd sit there, Dad would have a cigar, Mom would have a cigarette, and I'd entertain them for a couple of hours. And they'd watch and Dad would say, 'Boy, Helen, he's really somethin' now, isn't he?' And Helen would say, 'Gee, look at that.' I was fed all this support and I went right toward it. When Ellen came home from a show, the first thing she had to do was come right to the basement and watch me do something that I had prepared for her. Every day of my life was performing."

Travolta cultivated another passion that inspired dreams of romance and glory: aviation. The family home was near the flight paths in and out of New York's LaGuardia Airport, and at night he would lie in bed and let his imagination take flight. "I used to lay awake at night because I wasn't a good sleeper and I would hear the rumble of propellers overhead and things like that. With the jet age, there came a transition. But when I was anywhere from five to nine, the big, heavy propeller airliners were lumbering overhead. I'd sit there and think, 'Where are those people going? If the little light over the seat was on, were they reading a book? Are they sleeping? Is it the kind of plane you can sleep on? What time will they get there?' So I'd be right up there with them. In school, too. I'd be sitting in class and I'd look out the window and see this plane lumbering up and I'd think, 'Wow, that's west. Is the plane going to Chicago or Kansas or Las Vegas?' Somewhere out there..."

By the time John was a little older, his sister Ellen was making her way as an actress. As he watched her, and occasionally accompanied her on trips to exotic places like Chicago, his passions for acting and aviation became permanently intertwined. "It's funny, because my sister Ellen always thought that my primary love in life was aviation. But she wasn't around, she was already gone. Only my mother and my father and my other brothers and sisters knew how precocious--and sometimes obnoxious--and how absolutely theatrical I was.

"I wanted to be a child professional actor. At five or six, I wanted to be in the national company of Gypsy, but my sister and my mother wouldn't let me even go up for that kind of thing. I went up for the 'Garry Moore Show' when I was a kid, with the hope and the desire to be a part of this as a child. Then when I was 12, I finally got in my first play, Who'll Save the Ploughboy?. That was exciting; it was an Actor's Studio group in town. And then I started to do summer theater, and it built and built."

School, by contrast, was deadly dull; by the age of 16, Travolta wanted out. "I was making a living in acting. And I went to my dad and said, 'Look, this is what I want to do. And I'm certainly not going to get the kind of grades to pursue a professional life of any sort outside acting. So this is my opportunity. I have an agent and, really, this is the time to let me go.' My mother was all for it. My father said, 'Look, I'll give you a year. But if you don't pull this off, you're going back to school. I said, 'OK, give me a year. And I just made dead sure I got my Actor's Equity card that year. I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card, I was in four commercials. I starred in summer stock and I got leads. I had a little part in a soap opera. I just made sure that that year was chock-full and that I made a good salary."

As always, acting and flying went hand-in-hand. "I started flying when I was 16. Though I was working as an actor, I was also working at a grocery store, and my whole paycheck that year went to my air lessons. Then, finally, I worked full-time as an actor, and what I made as an actor I put toward my air lessons. I got my solo at 19, got my license at 23, got my instruments and jet license at 26. So now I've been flying jets for 18 years."

Flying, he found, was a perfect complement to acting. "Where acting can be introverting, depending on the subject matter, I think flying is extroverting. It turns your attention out. You have to concentrate and you have to look at things, you have to observe. Sometimes with acting, even though it's fun, it's more cerebral. You're dealing with memories, thoughts, concepts. Flying is very A to B. Often I find that to be very therapeutic."

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