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John Travolta: True-Grit Tenderfoot

The actor begins to separate the dancer from the dance

actor, John Travolta

John Travolta in London on September 3rd, 1980.

Evening Standard/Getty

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry* 
—Hank Williams

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE FROM THE STAR — or face being fired immediately. This is the stern ruling that has come down to the rank-and-file extras. Not surprisingly, there is something sinister and smoldering in the manner of many of the local, on-set “expendables,” all of them dressed in tight, dirty jeans — the pale young women, slump-shouldered and sullen in frayed halter tops, their sour-faced men stalking back and forth in washed-out Western shirts. Standing stiffly in their midst is John Travolta, his one-way eyes as piercing as a raven’s, wearing a sleek, black cowpoke get-up accented by the splash of scarlet in his two-tone satin shirt.

There’s a movie being made here called Urban Cowboy, based on a 1978 Esquire article by Texas-born writer Aaron Latham. It’s a contemporary, boomtown Western, a farmboy-meets-girl romantic fracas that ultimately figures around the mechanical bull sitting defiantly in one corner of Gilley’s, the world’s largest honky-tonk, a three-and-a-half-acre, prime-for-brawling saloon nestled in the dingy heart of Pasadena, Texas. The bull, a rock-hard hunk of bucking and swiveling hydraulic might, was devised to toughen the timing of rodeo bull riders, but country singer Mickey Gilley and partner Sherwood Cryer installed this one to cool off the club’s shit-kicking clientele — mostly drugstore cowboys who labor by day at nearby petrochemical plants.

This afternoon’s shooting schedule concerns the film’s climactic bull-riding contest, wherein Bud Davis (Travolta) challenges archrival Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn), a sinewy ex-con with “real cowboy” rodeo credentials who has diverted the attentions of Bud’s rambunctious bride, Sissy (Debra Winger).

The club’s noisy air-conditioning system has been shut off to avoid interfering with the sound technicians, and the sweltering environs have been suffused with musty artificial smoke. To make matters worse, today’s ration of beer is Gilley’s own, not the far superior, long-necked Lone Star the extras had previously been served — an indiscretion greeted with grunts of “What’s this, cow piss?” It is all the camera crew can do to hold back the Gilley’s regulars until the day’s shooting is in the can. Paramount is struggling to place a frame around a frame, so to speak, and the filmmakers can’t help editing these people’s lives in the process; and they, in turn, can’t help openly resenting it. (In order to keep the club open during Paramount’s four-month-long cinematic bender, the management of Gilley’s has insisted the movie folk clear out every night no later than seven.)

There’s an undeniably spooky aura about the way Travolta looms on the sidelines of the “bull ring,” somehow shutting out the envious, even angry glares surging down from the bleachers erected around this strange arena. Nevertheless, there is an informal posse among the Pasadena-area talent, who occasionally crack clumsy jokes about the “Texas ways” Travolta has yet to assimilate. When one cocky local fella summons up the courage, he blurts out that he’s heard Travolta, who is reported to be hog-wild about aviation, is actually scared shitless of flyin’! No one offers Travolta a hearty Texas backslap to diffuse the gag. He smiles and gamely murmurs, “Lies, lies.” But his timing is off, and the uneasy instant is swallowed up in the silence.

“The first night I went down to Gilley’s with Travolta, we slipped in a side door to show John exactly what it looked like,” director James Bridges later tells me. “Before we could stop him, he was on the dance floor. He had a beard then, and nobody noticed him. But the minute we were in the ‘hot’ area around the bull, people began to recognize him. There were catcalls, the redneck honky-tonkers baiting him while their girls screamed with excitement. A little too much macho tension there.

“I was in there one night when there were fifteen fights,” Bridges continues. “I was there one night when somebody’s eye was gouged out. And I was there when Steve Strange [who runs the bull machine] threw a guy on the bull. He said to me, ‘Watch.’ And he took the controls and threw him up in the air. The guy’s back fell against the plastic base of the bull and he split his head open. There was blood everywhere; everybody thought he was dead. They got him up after about fifteen minutes. Steve walked over, laughing, poured beer on the base to wash off the blood, then looked around and said, ‘Next.'”

When I mention all of this to Travolta afterward, he falls silent for a moment, stares off into space, then looks me squarely in the eyes.

“The people who hung out there were ready for a fight, definitely.” Travolta agrees. “But I liked it, ’cause I got a real charge out of that danger.”

YOU HAVE TO PLAY THE COWBOY, YOU know; it has certified all the major stars,” says James Bridges matter-of-factly. “McQueen, Newman, Brando — they all had to play that American hero to solidify their careers forever.”

The cowboy brand placed on Travolta in Urban Cowboy seems more matinee idol than hard-bitten buckaroo. From the moment he clambers onscreen, all the way through to the staccato punch-out that precedes the film’s happy ending, Urban Cowboy‘s photography evinces a near-adoration of him. Hell, there’s one upward pan — a slow, sensual boots-to-cheek-bones assessment of the star — that lies somewhere between reverence and violation.

“It was an absolutely conscious approach,” explains Bridges. “When you’re dealing with a star like John Travolta, there is a commodity to be captured that does not have anything to do with the role he’s playing. And because of his incredible celebrity, his visual image does have more impact than his acting. I guess you could say it was an enormous asset I had to conquer.

“He’s become one of my best friends.” Bridges adds. “I think that incredible success and incredible attacks on him have made him a more interesting person. He’s bright, vulnerable and tough; he’s a contradiction. He reminds me so much of Monty Cliff.”

Bridges says that Travolta “doesn’t believe in indulgence or method acting. He is a total professional who believes inform and structure. His work is clean.

“That toes-to-face shot, where you see him from the bottom up in Gilley’s. John suggested that whole shot,” says Bridges. “I was setting up a different sequence, and he said, ‘Let’s try one of these.’ It’s a shameless movie-star moment.”

Truly, there is a different John Travolta making movies these days than the one who soared in Saturday Night Fever. He has developed the instincts to exploit the charisma that moved New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael to dub him “an original presence.” Professionally, he has become as insulated as a working actor can possibly be, and after Urban Cowboy, he hopes to control his career even further through his own production company. As for the mystery surrounding his personal life, it can be no accident that after years of extraordinary press coverage, we’ve learned precious little about who he is.

And so, when Travolta, 26, ambles into Joe Allen’s in Los Angeles for an informal lunch, it isn’t surprising that he exudes no particular panache beyond a boyish likability. He arrives alone, as he will for subsequent meetings, driving himself to each rendezvous in his Mercedes. He shakes my hand, plops into a chair opposite mine and puzzles over the menu, trying to decide whether he should eat something nourishing or go straight for brownie cake topped with whipped cream. (He eventually opts for the latter.)

Relaxed in faded jeans and matching jacket, well-worn boots and a snug blue T-shirt, he wryly unfurls his long arms and offers himself for inspection. “Beer,” he explains, playfully poking the bulge above his belt.

After a few minutes of unfocused banter, I ask him how he would describe himself on the phone to someone who had never seen him before.

“That would depend on the day,” he answers.

“So, what if somebody called today?”

“I’ll think about that,” he demurs, scratching at his three-day-old beard, “and maybe before the end of the interview I’ll give you a better-spoken answer than I can think of right now.”

For the remainder of lunch we debate the virtues of the West Coast (he recently purchased a home in Studio City and owns a ranch in Santa Barbara) versus the East (he grew up in Englewood, New Jersey). After our meal, we ride over to the nearby offices of Front Line Management, the headquarters of Irving Azoff, who produced Urban Cowboy with Bob Evans. The place is deserted, and as the copper sun creeps down behind the Hollywood Hills, we sprawl out on the overstuffed couches in Azoff’s comfortable inner sanctum.

“You’ve had enough time to consider my question about your self-image,” I remind him. “Now I’m calling you on it.”

“Well, he says timorously, “I’m a person who likes to be inspired and likes to inspire; I like to exchange that flow. And I’m unsettled, anxious, passionate, compassionate, hungry, excited, disappointed. I go through the gamut of emotions a lot; I trust very easily and mistrust very easily. I’m clear, confused, analytical, and add another one — cautious.

“I guess I put a lot of effort into wanting people to admire me, like me, love me,” he asserts. “But I don’t want the constant battle of trying to make it happen. If I could just have more confidence about how I feel about a subject. I’ll hold on strongly to what I believe, and then someone comes along and I want to understand him and duplicate him so much that suddenly I let his viewpoint really affect me. It’s the damnedest thing, because I don’t like myself when I do that.

“I really have to work at getting some new goals, because pretty much everything is attainable at this point.” He absently rubs a shine into a fancy silver and gold belt buckle commemorating his role in Urban Cowboy. “Like feeling proud of myself: I really cherish the days I have that kind of feeling. It’s so foreign to me. I’m an emotional person who tries to intellectualize my feelings. Often, people are so success-oriented that they skip that step of acknowledging the success they’ve obtained. And then they go downhill again and have never acknowledged their success.”

Saturday Night Fever turned you into a cultural icon. What was your reaction to the impact of the film?”

“I think with Fever, people were evaluating my impact more than they were my acting. As for Moment by Moment, God, you would have thought we had committed murder or something! It was, like, serious trouble. “And the weird thing,” he continues with a sigh, “was that everything in my life up to that point, well, I don’t know of a career that had gone more smoothly and successfully than mine. Welcome Back, Kotter, Carrie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble [a made-for-TV movie], Saturday Night Fever and Grease — they were five major strokes that were 100 percent all right. Unfortunately, at the very peak, when the lights were on full and everybody was waiting — Moment by Moment. Boom. Failure.

“Then I read the script for Urban Cowboy, and I wanted to check out Gilley’s and the bull. It seemed like something new to me, with a rough element that made it exciting. The bull riding, the dancing, the dangerous atmosphere — it had all the right elements. It was a one-shot project and I made my own decision, took my own risk.”

“Both Cowboy and Fever are movies whose central theme is that of a young person’s rites of passage,” I say. “The success anyone has with making that transition to adulthood determines the success of everything else he or she ever does.”

“You know,” he says softly, fidgeting, “if I can have a conversation with someone who won’t judge what I have to say, he has me as a friend. Honestly, I don’t judge other people. But then, there are very few people who I feel vice versa with, who I can say anything to that’s in my heart.”

He leans back, spent, his arms limp in his lap. But his eyes dart wildly around the room, as if seeking a safe place. “I keep on thinking there’s gonna be that effortless day when everything is in sync, when it’s much easier to accept the lows with the highs and there’s no longer this endless search for harmony.”

THE BABY IN A SIX-CHILD HOUSEHOLD, JOHN IS the son of Sam “Dusty” Travolta, the former coowner of a Firestone tire outlet in Hillsdale, New Jersey. His mother, Helen, an actress, director and acting coach, died of cancer in 1978.

“He was always very shy. I’m the same way,” says John’s father, a kindly, reticent man. “He was very, very curious. He wanted to know the answer to everything, like, ‘How far up is the sky?’ and ‘Why can’t you make me an airplane that can fly?’

“He loved flight and airplanes, involving himself in anything connected with them,” Dusty continues. (John now pilots his own twin-engine Cessna 414.) “But he was also a good dancer, and he played basketball at the CYO. He could have been a helluva football player, too. He was an excellent mimic. He would take one of my cigars, make believe he was smoking it and do a pretty good imitation of me.”

As for John’s attraction to show business, his father recalls that “as a kid, he saw a production of Gypsy and loved it, so he bought the soundtrack to the Broadway show. He used to go down to the cellar and play it all day, memorizing every part. My wife had trunks and trunks of old costumes down there, and he’d use them to rehearse all the parts — the men’s parts and the women’s parts, everyone from the chorus dancers to the newsboys. Then, when he was ready, he would invite my wife and me down to see his little show. But he would never let the kids see this. His brothers and sisters teased him a lot.

“See, Johnny was always real skinny, and his older brother Joey gave him a nickname — ‘the Bone.’ I’d come home from work and Joey, who was always cracking jokes anyway, would say to me in front of Johnny, ‘Hey, dad, what’s left of a chicken after all the meat is gone?’ And I’d laugh and say, ‘Why, the bone.’ Johnny would get very upset and hurt, thinking that Joey and I were making fun of him.”

Rumors have been circulating for some time that John is feuding with Joey, a moderately successful actor and singer whose style and mannerisms resemble John’s.

“It’s not true,” Dusty counters. “When Joey got married recently, John paid the whole family’s way out to New York for the wedding and put us up in hotels. Johnny would go all-out for any member of the family, and vice versa.”

“I generally get a positive feeling from my family,” says Travolta when I ask him about how they’ve reacted to his elevated status. “But I’m too smart not to know that it affects them in a negative way, too. I’ve been so busy I haven’t really talked with them to find out — probably because I don’t want to.

“Joey came into the business after I was established, and I think he’s gotten out of it more or less what he expected to, and that was to make a living at it and be recognized somewhat, and I think he’s attained that. I don’t know if he’s shooting for what I have.”

Travolta was about twelve when he went public with his acting ambitions, sleep-walking through school so he could concentrate on the Actors Studio workshops held in Englewood. He eventually landed a role in a Studio production of Who’ll Save the Plowboy?, went on to appear in summer-stock productions of Gypsy and Bye Bye Birdie, then decided to quit school and pursue his passion full time in the Big Apple.

“My father didn’t want me to quit,” says Travolta. “My mother said to him, ‘He’s sixteen and should be able to make his own choice.’ So there was a deal that I could be out for one year.” He never went back.

Travolta soon met up with manager Bob LeMond, who placed him in a series of upscale commercials; he did about forty, including spots for Honda, Hagar slacks and Mutual of New York. He got a supporting role with a touring company of Grease, a singing-dancing snippet in Over Here and a bit part in the 1975 horror film The Devil’s Rain. Just a few months later, Travolta tested for, and won, the part of Vinnie Barbarino in a new TV comedy series, starring Gabe Kaplan and Marcia Strassman, called Welcome Back, Kotter.

“We didn’t ever miss a Kotter episode,” says Mr. Travolta. “My wife used to get so mad because people would ask if John was the Vinnie Barbarino character — meaning, was he a dumb kid? I wouldn’t say he was a brain, but he was no dope, either.”

“My mother was outwardly emotional,” says John, “and I was the kind of kid who liked to play on people’s emotions, so in order to get my way, I’d threaten her with frightening things, like, if I didn’t get to go to Chicago in an airplane to visit my sister, I would jump out the window. Seeing her react strongly was satisfying to me as a kid. I’ll give you one more example that has a little more bite to it. I said to my mother when I was six years old that if she didn’t cook me chocolate pudding, I’d cut off my weenie — and she made the pudding, fortunately.”

Helen Travolta developed her own strategy for dealing with her conniving offspring. Mindful that young John was awestruck by James Cagney (“the only one outside my family who was a main source of inspiration”), she would pretend to telephone Cagney, saying to John, “Jim here wants you to do as you’re told!”

“Okay!” Travolta recalls replying in abject terror. “Does he, does he like me? “I was, of course, afraid to get on the phone,” John assures me. “I don’t know whether it was because I’d be afraid it wasn’t true, or whether I’d be too damned inhibited to talk to him.”

AH YES, IT’S A SWEET STORY, ISN’T IT?” SAYS SNOWY-haired James Cagney with a rumbling chuckle. “She encouraged him by using me as a symbol and she did that with both his training at home and his work as a young actor.”

Learning several months ago that Cagney was at his Beverly Hills residence, Travolta contacted Marge Smith Zimmermann, Cagney’s longtime friend and aide, who invited him to meet his hero at Cagney’s St. Patrick’s Day party. Rubbing shoulders with Pat O’Brien and a host of other old-timers, Travolta (who’s half-Irish) blended in well with the ballyhoo and blarney.

“I did a dance for him,” Travolta says, blushing. “As a matter of fact, I did the dance from Urban Cowboy, a little hoedown that resembles an Irish jig of some sort.”

John wound up spending the night there, and repaid the hospitality by inviting Cagney, his wife, Frances, and Marge Zimmermann up to his ranch for a long weekend.

“We did a lot of walking, talking about my past and his past, his viewpoint on acting and mine, and watching movies, his and mine,” says Travolta. “Basically, being with him was what I always wanted to do; I just wanted to know him. His movies were mainly city-type movies, but I found that his heart is really in the country. He showed me a walk he did in Love Me or Leave Me, in which he played a gimp, and I was dying to know how he did that walk up the wall in Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

“To me,” says Cagney, “Saturday Night Fever was just another film — but John’s acting is always very fine. Impressive. I saw the Cowboy thing too, and he’s as straight as can be in it, a very convincing job. When I was visiting him, he was very self-controlled, you know. That seems to be his way. There’s no furor to the boy, no fanfare. He seems very direct and even-tempered all the time — and good to talk to, because he’s got an excellent mind. But in the time we spent together, there was no great display of affection by him.”

With at least one exception. “In the mornings up in Santa Barbara,” Marge confides, “John would always ask me, so timidly — he’s so like a little kid that you have to remind yourself he’s not — ‘Can we wake up Jamesy now?’ I’d go into the guest bedroom, wake Mr. Cagney, and then John would go in and lie on the bed next to him and shyly talk and try to make him laugh with all these cute remarks.”

“I was in my glory,” Travolta says, reflecting on the experience. “Ironically enough, we’re maybe the only men in history who have been in a dramatic role that we also sang and danced in. Him with Yankee and me with Fever and Grease.”

Notwithstanding its inaccuracy, when I repeat the remark to Cagney and outline the extent to which he was a direct role model, rather than a mere symbol, for his adoring fan, he is taken aback.

“Oh?” he exclaims. “I didn’t have any idea John felt that way about me. And, er, I guess I was able to act, dance and sing — although my singing was always a little questionable. I had to be able to do the three without any serious trouble, because that was my bread and butter.

“John, he’s got plenty to learn,” Cagney quietly concludes, “but he will. And then he’ll use it correctly. When I saw Cowboy, I said, ‘The kid’s got it all.'”

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THUS. IN 1974, WHEN TRAVOLTA ARRIVED in Durango, Mexico, to do The Devil’s Rain, he was, in his own words, “so depressed I just felt like nothing could work right.” He had been in analysis for about nine months and was disappointed in himself for “choosing negative people to be around. I just wanted to be more consistent with feeling good; I didn’t want it to be such a darn roller coaster.”

In Durango, he met actress Joan Prather, now in the cast of the popular ABC-TV sitcom Eight Is Enough.

“He was in need of friends,” Prather recalls. “He was depressed, as was I, and we were the only two young people there, really. It was a very lonely time for him. The friends he had were using him as a door wipe, to put it bluntly. We were together for three months, but I wouldn’t call it dating. We were just the very best of friends. I’m very stable, and I could see that he also wanted to be that way. I had taken all my [Scientology] materials and books down to Durango with me, because I thought I’d have a lot of free time.

“One day Johnny got very ill with the flu. In Scientology, we do a thing called a ‘touch assist,’ which makes you get better much faster. It’s not magic. If you have a broken bone, it’ll heal in two weeks instead of six. So I was giving him this assist, and in the middle of it, he looked at me and said, ‘This is the first time anybody’s ever really helped me without wanting anything back for it.’ I started showing him my Scientology books, and he just couldn’t read enough of them.

“I was really supposed to be in Saturday Night Fever,” Prather adds, “but it didn’t happen. You see, the story line of the film was our story as friends.”

At this point, it should be noted that after five years as a Scientologist, Travolta is “CLEAR,” a term designating that, in the eyes of the highly controversial Church of Scientology, John is in “a state of supra-human awareness and ability.” “Cleansed of unwanted feelings and mental images” is how Travolta puts it, adding that the organization’s use of the word church is “figurative.”

“Basically,” John explains, “you go into it because you want to handle some problems. It has no barriers on what it is.”

But there are some barriers in Scientology: for instance, against journalists and government agencies that inquire into its instructional procedures, business administration and policy-making structures, especially those of the self-descriptive Guardian Office — one of the organization’s twenty-one departments.*

The church maintains that it has been subjected to “thirty years of documented government harassment,” and that Dianetics, its complex and costly approach to mental health, is quite simply “a therapeutic philosophy and practice which enables a person to think for himself and enjoy a more creative life.” All this press-release prose aside, the IRS, FBI and Justice Department are currently investigating the church’s claim to tax-exempt status and an array of alleged dirty tricks, including break-ins and character assassinations, much of it emanating from the church’s branch in Clearwater, Florida — a center Travolta visits for advanced courses.

At present, nine members of the church have been sentenced to jail for such crimes as conspiring to steal government documents, theft of government documents and conspiring to obstruct justice. (The convictions are now under appeal.)

“Why,” I ask Travolta, “is Scientology such a controversial creed?”

“The only thing I can say,” he replies, “is that anything powerful usually does create an effect or conflict in some way.”

“Not because of anything specific to the nature or operating methods of the church?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”

“How about, say, the way the church and members of its hierarchy conducted themselves after they moved to Clearwater, under the pseudonym of the United Churches of Florida?”

“No,” he says, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I don’t know much about that.”

Prather, who has done a television commercial for Scientology, dismisses the charges as a “put up” orchestrated by the FBI and the city fathers of Clearwater.

AFTER SPEAKING WITH DOZENS OF PEOPLE WHO have known or worked with Travolta over the years, two virtually unanimous outlooks emerge: (1) everyone is charmed by his kindness, cherishes the time they’ve spent together and longs to be close to him: (2) few of these people feel they truly are, and it nags at them.

What those nearest to him seem to value most is his unique sense of humor.

“He’s a terminally silly person and nobody ever knows it,” Marcia Strassman maintains. “I think the thing he used to love about Kotter was that it was one place where he could play. He’d walk onto the set and it was like he was home, because we didn’t think of him as a superstar. So he and Gabe used to do these two kids. Gabe was Jeffy and Johnny was Billy. The two of them could go back, like, twenty years. They would chase each other all over the studio. It was just hysterical.”

Strassman also recalls getting a “touch assist” from Travolta one day on the Kotter set: “I was in the dressing room, I had a headache and John came in and said, ‘What’s the matter?’ I told him and he went, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll give you a touch assist.’ And I went, ‘I beg your pardon?’

“What a touch assist is, is they touch your knee, your arm, all over, and what it’s supposed to do is put your mind on what they’re touching and you forget your headache. He finished and said, ‘Well, do you feel any better?’

“I said, ‘No! You’ve been touching my knee for an hour and a half now and it’s been real annoying — and I still have my headache!'”

“He has a whole comedic side to him that no one ever sees,” Joan Prather reaffirms. “When you talk about the joy of entertaining, he was like that. Like a little kid. He used to do a great imitation of Elvis. We’d be waiting outside the church, and he would do ‘Hound Dog’– any of Elvis’ songs. And he’d have it down so perfectly! You couldn’t stop laughing! He really loved to have a good time, or he can, or, I mean, he used to, anyway.”

YOU KNOW, JOHN HAD TWO DEATHS IN THE TIME we were doing Kotter,” says Strassman. “And those were the only two times I’ve seen Johnny upset. He’d just get real quiet, very quiet. I mean, if you know him really well, his face is an open book.”

Travolta met Diana Hyland in 1976, when she was cast as his mother in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. The blond, effervescent Hyland was forty years old and terminally ill with cancer. Travolta was twenty-two. They had been together for approximately one year when she died. Travolta has said that if she had lived, they would have gotten married. Before she died, he promised Diana he would remain close to her now-six-year-old son, Zachary, and he has.

The following year, Travolta’s mother died after a long bout with cancer.

“I had a real dichotomy in which I had great success and at the same time great sorrow and tragedy,” Travolta says, shaking his head in disbelief. “A lot of people got frustrated when my grief and tragedy were publicized. They were saying, ‘Because you’re famous, suddenly your loss is more important than our loss.’

“My mother was really compassionate and helpful when Diana passed away. She had a big understanding in that area. I think that a lot of people, by the time they get in their sixties, have really experienced a lot of death.”

“She would have killed for him,” states Strassman, who came to know Helen Travolta well during the four-year run of Kotter. “And if you love someone that much, it’s always someone you have problems with, you know, because she wanted him to be a success so much. I’m sure that was a problem for him for a long time, but he adored her. And when Saturday Night Fever happened, it was like Helen took a deep breath and said, ‘Okay, I can die happy. I’ve seen him get what he deserves.’

“When his mom died, everything just sort of sagged,” she adds. “He could finally admit he was tired and just say, ‘I can’t.’ It’s very hard for Johnny to say ‘I can’t’ about anything.”

As a result, despite months of preparation that included French and etiquette lessons, he withdrew from his next scheduled film, American Gigolo.

“I was in a pretty bad state of mind,” Travolta says. “I was really feeling the loss of my mom. Plus, Moment by Moment had just been released and had created a negative storm. I really wasn’t emotionally fit to do any movie.”

One might have expected Travolta to have been upset when his father remarried six months after Helen’s death (“There was some initial friction from all the kids,” says Dusty), but his public reaction was a selfless one: “I just absolutely want him to be happy.”

THE LAST TIME I ENCOUNTER JOHN TRAVOLTA, there is a timid knock on the door of my suite at the Santa Barbara Inn, an elegant, oceanfront hotel-and-villa complex. The door swings wide and there he stands, alone, in his familiar boots and Western jeans, the beaming Cowboy buckle peeking out from under his unbuttoned brown suede sport jacket. “Until I get a new character to play with,” he explains, “I usually hold onto the last one, almost like schizophrenia.”

The jacket and a thin suede tie are concessions to the management should we decide to eat in the stuffy downstairs dining room. But we immediately agree that room service is the preferable option and order a third of the main courses on the sizable menu, in addition to a surfeit of Mexican appetizers and a generous supply of beer.

The staff, alerted to the presence of an esteemed visitor, delivers the copious order with comical swiftness. We settle down to the motley banquet, spread out on a great oval table next to a flickering fireplace. The setting is a festive one, but for some reason Travolta is intense and grows increasingly contemplative.

There is a strange wistfulness about this young man who appears to be immune to the effects of fame. He speaks with great bemusement about his career advisers’ suggestion that “a person in your position” should not purchase a modest home in unglamorous Studio City (he did anyway). And he cannot understand, after having perused some 300 scripts over the last year, why he is unable to find a single property with which he feels comfortable. Throughout our talk, there is sadness in his voice and flashes of fear in his eyes. He has begun to lower his guard.

Travolta confesses he is extremely apprehensive about the reception to Urban Cowboy, but he seems more intent on discussing Cagney.

“Sounds like you’ve made a friend,” I say as I drain a bottle of Dos Equis.

“You bet I did,” he says. “And I’m gonna spend as much time with him as I can, because I think he enjoys being with me and I’m proud to be with him.”

I am pondering the profound affection Travolta has for Cagney when, recalling John’s recent personal losses, I suddenly see their relationship in a morbid light.

“Where,” I ask, “do you think people go when they die?”

He stops eating and leans forward, framing his face with his palms. “I think — I hope — they go on to another body,” he murmurs. “I have a feeling of having done this before; I’ve been an actor before. I don’t know where or when. I know I have a very strong feeling for aviation and had something to do with it before. It seems too familiar, this business and aviation; my affinity for it was at too young an age, and too strong.”

“Awhile back,” I say, “you told me you enjoyed certain kinds of danger. It’s been said that trying to love may be one of life’s greatest dangers. What do you think love is?”

After a long pause, he says, “To me, when it’s felt the rightest, it’s just wanting the other person to survive, wanting them to do well, endlessly. Maybe it has something to do with selflessness — but I don’t mean that it ever comes before yourself. You have to have that feeling toward yourself, too.

“The thing is,” he implores, “they always do survive. Meaning that I believe they go on. I don’t believe a spirit is capable of dying. [Firmly, almost to himself] It’s not capable of dying. What I think is the most frustrating part is that they’re not here with you in this lifetime anymore, so you can still have the love toward them, hoping whatever they choose and whatever they do in their future, that you’re still giving them that love — and they’re getting it. There’s, like, a dance of the spirit that we don’t see.

“It’s the only thing that saves me from total disillusionment in life,” he says, gripping the table. “It’s the only thing that made me want to keep going, because if I didn’t believe that, I don’t know how much I could deal with the setup in this business, this life. I just don’t know….”

“The idea that your loved ones still exist…” I muse. “Do you ever say things, now, to your mom or Diana?”

“Yes,” he says with a fragile smile. “I will speak things to them. But what I end up doing is dreaming about them all the time. A night never goes by when there isn’t one of them in some part of a dream.

“It’s interesting,” he continues, self-absorbed, as the fire’s glow fills his smooth face and glints off his silver buckle. “They’re always very much alive in those dreams, like their deaths never happened, and there’s a great satisfaction, because I believe those dreams when I’m in them. It’s almost too incredible. Like last night, I had a dream about my mother. We were in Chicago, and my sister Margaret and I were in the back of a car talking and having a great time and she was there — there was no doubt about it. It’s the only time when they can live again in full life… but it’s so hard.

“When I wake up, it’s always such a disappointment, almost like it’s all been reversed.” He looks into the fire, his eyes welling up. “It’s as if my realities are dreams and my deepest dreams aren’t yet realities.”

* from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” © 1949, by Fred Rose Music

* According to a Pulizter Prize-winning series of articles by Better Orsini and Charles Stafford of the St. Petersburg Times, a 1965 policy issued by founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard designates as “fair game” anyone who “actively seeks to suppress or damage Scientology or a Scientologist by suppressive acts.” (Federal investigators obtained documents showing that the church has an enemies list that includes Edward Kennedy and Jackie Onassis.) The penalty: “May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.” Hubbard revised this directive in 1968: “The practice of declaring people fair game will cease. Fair game may not appear on any Ethics Order. It causes bad public relations. This P/L [policy letter] does not cancel any policy on the treatment or handling of an SP [suppressive person].”

In This Article: Coverwall, John Travolta

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