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.
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"Please," he says, showing his guest to the table. "Make yourself at home. What would you like to drink with dinner? Water? Coke? A glass of wine?"
Peter Evangelatos, the actor's private chef, emerges from the kitchen with a bite of supper: four whole lobsters, fresh from Maine, steamed filets of sea bass, direct from Chile, and a plate of light, savory vegetable ravioli, homemade of course. Should Travolta and his guest choose to be indulgent tonight, an array of obscenely rich chocolate desserts stands at the ready.
"Have a lobster," Travolta says, holding out the platter. "They're very fresh. And Peter steams them just the way they do in Maine. Very simple."
In person, Travolta has a fascinating presence. He's a big guy, standing 6-foot-1, with a thick, powerful trunk. But his voice is soft, his manner is gentle, and the more you get to know him, the more Travolta seems like a big, huggable teddy bear, with a warm, open heart and a delightful touch of whimsy. And without an evil cell in his entire body. Even at the age of 44, there is still a wonderful boyish sweetness about Travolta, as if by some miracle the greed, the manipulations and the pervasive tawdriness of Hollywood life have never touched the inner man.
Travolta, though, is no Peter Pan. In his early years, in the hit TV series "Welcome Back, Kotter," and in the movies that turned him into a teen idol and a Hollywood sensation--Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy--Travolta had a coltish swagger and charm. But he also had a timorous sensitivity, a look in his eyes of wounded youth and vulnerability. Those are gone now. Travolta, in his maturity as a man, radiates a quiet confidence and inner strength. And he's not just an actor now; he's a businessman who, for a major movie like Primary Colors, commands a reported fee of $18 million and a cut of the profits. Travolta runs his own production company, JTP Films Inc., and he has four houses, four jets, two pilots and a staff of 24. Peter Evangelatos and many of the others who work for Travolta refer to him simply as "The Boss," and they say it with respect.
This degree of wealth and power makes the man now sitting at the table, enjoying his lobster, all the more intriguing. No matter how great his current success, Travolta's manner tonight is modest and shy, almost self-effacing. He seems to enjoy the toys and the trappings of success, but they are not what drive him or fulfill him. At his core, Travolta is an artist, and his real needs and real satisfactions are elsewhere. These are rooted in only one place: The Work.
And Travolta's work is now in full flower. Since his stunning resurgence in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Travolta has been on an incredible roll: Get Shorty. Broken Arrow. Michael. Phenomenon. Face/Off. Mad City. Primary Colors. And now, A Civil Action. Over the past four years, he's made 12 movies, with barely a pause for a breath. Tonight, here on the lot of Paramount Studios, he's in the closing stages of shooting yet another major film, a military crime thriller called The General's Daughter; after dinner, he'll go back to the set. After this, he has several more big projects ready to roll, starting with Shipping News.
Travolta's private life has also flowered. Seven years ago, at the age of 37, he married the beautiful and talented actress Kelly Preston (Jerry McGuire and Holy Man), and the couple now has an adorable five-year-old son named Jett. Travolta says the marriage is very strong, and you needn't ask how he feels about Jett. In the course of dinner tonight, Jett appears with his nanny and spontaneously crawls up into Daddy's lap, to give him a huge hug around the neck. Travolta's eyes mist and you can see him almost melt with joy.
As Evangelatos freshens drinks and serves another round of lobster, the time has come to get down to serious business. What are the roots of his acting talent? What are the secrets behind his resurgence? What has he learned through all the good times and bad? First, though, there is another matter to discuss, and when you bring up the word "cigar," John Travolta smiles, settles back, and a rush of warm boyhood memories start playing across his face.
"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."
Travolta's first big splash as an actor came in 1975 as Vinnie Barbarino, in the popular high school sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." The next year he starred in Carrie, a Brian De Palma thriller. Then, in 1977, lightning struck: Saturday Night Fever. As Tony Manero, a paint store clerk propelled by dreams of dance-floor glory, Travolta took America by storm. Overnight, disco tunes and dancing swept the nation. Saturday Night Fever became a landmark film, an emblem of both a decade and a generation. At the tender age of 23, John Travolta was flying incredibly high. He was a teen idol, a Hollywood sensation, and in some eyes he was even an icon of American popular culture. On a promotional tour in London, wild crowds almost crushed his limo.
For a few short years, Travolta tasted only glory. Grease, the now-classic high school musical starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was a huge hit in 1978. Then he donned cowboy duds and scored another success with Urban Cowboy. In 1981, in De Palma's Blow Out, Travolta earned high praise for his portrayal of an obsessive sound man who accidentally records a political assassination. At the box office, though, the film sputtered, and his career began sliding into the hard times of the 1980s, what Travolta now refers to as his "cool" period.
One of his first real lows came in 1978 with Moment by Moment, with Lily Tomlin. The critics savaged it; the film bombed. But Travolta learned a lesson that has served him well ever since. "The critics came down hard on that movie-- and on me. I started to take it personally and then I thought, 'If this is what's going to happen--where I can do no wrong, and then suddenly one movie can make me wrong, well...'
"I'll give you a parallel. When I was 18 years old, I went to Las Vegas for the first time. The first 10 minutes, I felt it was the most glorious place I had ever known in my life. I was so happy. My $10 turned into $20. Well, in the next 20 minutes, my $20 turned into $30--in debt. And I said, 'Wait a minute. If in 20 minutes' time, this was the best place in the world and then suddenly the worst place in the world, then there's something wrong with this place.' When Moment by Moment happened, when I was the most celebrated star to come into movies since Rudolf Valentino, when I could do six projects in a row and do no wrong, and then for one project to put that kind of cast on everything else, I said, 'There's something wrong with this. And because there's something wrong with this, I'm not going to ever take either side too seriously.'
"So I approach it like a business now. I say, 'OK, how are the reviews for the movie? OK, good. Did we get Siskel and Ebert? Good. Did we get The New Yorker? The New York Times? The L.A. Times? Good. OK, what quotes can we use from the articles? OK, use that one. And that one.' And it comes down to this: did we do a good enough product, in a majority of critics' eyes, to use what they say to promote the movie? I always like the reviews to be good. But if they're not, instead of taking them seriously, I just put them on the side and say, 'They're not usable.'" So here is one of Travolta's laws of how to survive Hollywood and its fickle finger of fate: good or bad, never take reviews to heart.
Faced with a series of disappointments in the 1980s, Travolta went into a period of deep introspection. He became a devout follower of Scientology, and he set out to broaden his horizons. "I traveled the world but I based myself in the United States. I was in Santa Barbara for 10 years, and I was in Florida for six years. Within all that time, I traveled." In 1993, with Sylvester Stallone at the director's helm, Travolta did Stayin' Alive, a sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The film lacked the fire and freshness of the original, but it did well at the box office. But not well enough to catapult Travolta back into Hollywood glory.
During these low years, Paris became a welcome anchor for Travolta, both as an artist and as a man. "All my favorite movies are French," he says now, moving on to a bit of sea bass. "A Man and a Woman and Going Places--in French, Les Valseuses--are my two favorite movies. My two favorite American movies? I don't know, they've changed over the years. But I think A Man and a Woman is the most romantic movie ever made. Just because it captured the real feelings of two people falling in love, and it had music that matched those feelings and images that matched those feelings. It was a marriage of all three. To me, every image of that movie looks like a work of art."
Going Places, released in France in 1973, was a raw, biting comedy that needled bourgeois society and launched the careers of two budding French talents, Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere. Travolta was impressed. So, on his first trip to Paris, in 1978 during a promotion for Saturday Night Fever, he went looking for Depardieu.
"I had seen Going Places in 1974, and I just loved him ever since that movie. So by the time 1978 came around, four years later, I sought him out. I thought, 'I'm in Paris. This is probably where he lives. I've got to find him.' And I found him. He couldn't speak a word of English. And I just basically told him through a translator how crazy I was about him. And we struck up a friendship. He was blown away that someone from that far away would come seek him out. He learned a little English for me, and I learned a little French from him. And we had this very interesting relationship.
"Gérard was very much the kind of man that I responded to. He was affectionate. He was smart. He was artistic. And approachable. Whatever neurosis he may or may not have had was not affecting his relationships. He was spirited and funny and all those great things that I like in a person, but in particular I liked in him as a man. Because it's tough to be a man in the world, I think. I don't think men know how to do it. How do they remain all these things and be effective and all that stuff? I just think that innately Gérard has it, and he isn't afraid of any part of his personality. I really like that."
In his youth, Travolta may have had some confusions about his male identity, but now he's come through that and he counts himself among the lucky: "I'm very comfortable with the kind of man I am. I just notice discomfort in other men with certain behavioral traits. After years and years of observing this, I said, 'You know what? It's tough being a guy.' I think there are very few men who really understand what it's all about. They're so confused by images, by the media, by confusing role models, by how women have changed over the past 25 or 30 years. Finally, after getting frustrated for many years, trying to find men I could be friends with, finally I did find a few."
By the end of the 1980s, after long years of introspection and growth, Travolta emerged stronger, and his career was ready for a turn for the better--and so was his love life. While in Toronto, making a lackluster comedy called The Experts, Travolta met Kelly Preston. According to Preston's account, published in Redbook, the two did not rush into romance; they took it slowly, trying to clear up their lives and trying to get it right. Then, in 1990, at a New Year's Eve party in Gstaad, Switzerland, Travolta, the ultimate romantic, came before the assembled throng, dropped down on one knee and asked Preston to be his bride. They were married in September 1991, in a ceremony in Paris, of course.
Their marriage is strong, Travolta says now, because he and Preston, also a follower of Scientology, are well suited and place enormous importance on quality communication. "It's been a wonderful union," he says. "And I think it's because we're very realistic about relationships and who we are. We already know. I waited late to get married and she had been married before."
When they have problems, they work hard to maintain their balance and perspective. "In marriage, you have to be willing to look at 'the D word,'" Travolta says. "Realistically. Because it's always an option. We have. But we don't want that. We want to actually make it work out. We know that you could choose to move on to someone else, do the Hollywood thing. But then why bother to get married? If we come to a crossroads, we always know the option. But the option is no longer interesting to us. After one year of being together and one year of marriage, we decided, 'Well, what do you do? Just do this again with the next person?' That doesn't solve anything."
Jett, they've found, is always a compelling reason to work through any problems that may arise from trying to mesh two high-powered lives and careers. Travolta says it's an added blessing that Preston is herself a successful actress; she understands the craziness of the movie world and the time, passion and commitment it takes to be a dedicated artist.
"I don't know how you could do it without that, really," Travolta says. "I mean, you could if you were in the situation where one of you had a career and the other devoted their life, as a career, to you. But, short of that, I don't know how you could do it."
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