For a long dry stretch there, John Travolta was simply staying alive, professionally. Now this one-time Sweathog and, more recently, Scientologist has been welcomed back by Hollywood in a big way. “Travolta Fever” — the title of his classic 1978 album, which someone ought to reissue quick — broke out again in 1995. Following up the massive success of his Oscar-nominated return to form in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” Travolta delivered another stellar turn in the smash film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty.” Playing hood-turned-filmmaker Chili Palmer with Cary Grant-meets-Robert De Niro charm, Travolta was — and this is a risky word for this magazine to use with him — perfect. There’s more where that came from, including “White Man’s Burden,” “Phenomenon,” “Broken Arrow” and Nora Ephron’s “Michael,” in which Travolta plays a fallen angel. Hey, Mr. Kot-ter, look who’s talking now!
During your professional dark ages, did you develop a bitter, “up your nose with a rubber hose” attitude toward Hollywood?
No, never. Let me put it this way: Imagine you finish Blow Out and the studio wants you to do An Officer and a Gentleman, and you say, “No, I’m going to become a pilot,” and they say they’ll wait. Well, that happened all the time. Big movies were offered to me, and I said no. You can’t blame others for your saying no to things. And because he knew my bad habit, Quentin told me, “Get Shorty is not the thing you say no to.” That was the cue that finally started me saying yes to things.
You must feel like Danny DeVito’s character in “Get Shorty” — everyone’s trying to get Johnny.
I can’t keep up with it. On Friday, I got 17 offers. I haven’t had 17 offers in my life. Even in my first heyday — Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Academy Award nomination, the whole bit — I’d get three offers a year, tops. Either the industry’s changed and needs more product, or I’m more valuable to them at this point. I don’t know which it is, but it’s an extraordinary situation.
Do you ever worry about it all going away again?
I’m a realist on some levels. I don’t know if my career will get back to where it was between my first arrival and now. You have some room for error, but you have to make good choices, or your value diminishes. Right now I’m in a good spot.
Whom do you turn to for advice on your choices? Obviously, Tarantino is one.
I’ve had the good fortune to have his guidance on a number of my choices. Get Shorty was advice from Quentin and producers Danny DeVito and Stacey Sher. Quentin also felt strongly that I should do White Man’s Burden. He didn’t help me choose John Woo’s Broken Arrow, but he enlightened me about John Woo. The movie I’m doing next, Michael, was Steven Spielberg influenced. So I’ve got Quentin and Steven looking after me. I’m a lucky guy.
Does Scientology affect your choices?
I think it always comes into play in every aspect of my life. Yeah, it helps.
In between heydays, did you ever just show up for a movie and collect a check?
I always tried to maintain a level of work, because I have too big an ego not to. If it didn’t work, I’d be disappointed, because I always gave my best.
Is success more fulfilling the second or, in your case, the sixth or seventh time around?
I think so, because I have more life to give my roles. I have a family that creates another purpose for doing well. And I have a better feeling for what I’m doing — I care more. Back then I’d take off a year and become a jet pilot, study Scientology, travel the world. Now after 20 years, I can honestly say, “I’m ready to go to work.”
With “Get Shorty,” do you feel like you’re at the top of your game?
I’m very proud of it. And I was thrilled they let me contribute my feelings about the character. I wanted that dichotomy — with him being a movie buff — because it was an interesting way to cut the danger of the character.
Was there a little of Quentin Tarantino in your performance?
The way my character talks to Rene Russo’s about her acting was totally how Quentin would have talked to me about who I was to him. That part of the character is more Quentin than me. I have a passion about airplanes and other things.
In this post—”Pulp Fiction” era, what did you make of the criticism of violence in the movies by Sen. Bob Dole and others this year?
The Dole thing is interesting. Let’s just say that gratuitous violence is not OK. But if you start monitoring it, you can’t do Pulp Fiction or Schindler’s List or The Silence of the Lambs. You can’t monitor taste. Putting the violence issue aside, if there’s a new feeling in Hollywood, it’s because Quentin was the first person in a while to feel like we could treat an audience with intelligence. Now we can assume the audience is brighter than we have in the past 10 years. We can have scenes that are eight pages long, with lots of words, and it’s not going to bore anyone as long as it’s good.
Even when you’re playing thugs, audiences love you. Any theories about the nature of your appeal?
All I know is how I feel about people. I’ve never been in an ivory tower as far as my willingness to reach out and communicate. I enjoy people; I learn from them, get life from them. And hopefully I give life back. It sounds simple, but I don’t know what I’d do without my ability to have a rapport with people. It keeps me going.
Were you always that way? If I’d met you in the “Fever” days, would I have thought you were an aloof pain in the —
You would have loved me! [Laughs.]
No star attitude?
Oh, no, never. Life was too humbling. I had a lot of losses: My girlfriend Diana Hyland, my mother, my manager died. Life was very real to me, if you know what I mean.
There’s news in the trades of you getting these extraordinary $21 million paydays. Does that give you a sense of validation?
It does. I won’t always take advantage of it. In all honesty, I’ve always been the best deal in town, and now I’m just getting what everyone else is. Well, maybe a little bit more.
Might it be time to do a grunge remake of your old mellow-rock hit “Let Her In”?
Let me tell you, if I hadn’t done that record, my career would have been much different. I was written up in Time magazine as having the No. 3 hit song in the country and the No. 1 comedy. [Producers] Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr saw that and offered me Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
How will you remember 1995?
The beginning of the year, I was starting to film Get Shorty; Pulp Fiction was still playing; and the Oscar campaign started. It’s exciting, but my concern is: Am I prince for a year and now it’s all over? It’s been 18 years since Saturday Night Fever, so I thought, “Will it be another 18 years?” Then for a couple months there was a letdown. And then my dad died. He was 82, and he’d gone to the Oscars. But that was sad for me. Then Broken Arrow starts up, and I play this psychotic guy in an action movie, and I had tremendous fun, even though I still have this overall feeling of losing Dad. Then Get Shorty comes out, and it’s a big hit, and I’m feeling like maybe this good streak of work will stay awhile.
What kind of advice do you give younger actors like your “Broken Arrow” co-star Christian Slater?
Just the mere fact of putting things in perspective and not taking everything so seriously in terms of image. He loves that because he saw that I was a big goofball. He’s adorable, funny, smart. He’s a wonderful actor. I think he can’t make a mistake as far as being a human being.
I’ve heard you and your Oscar competitor Tom Hanks have become friends this year.
I adore him. One hundred percent adore him. Nobody believes this, but last year I was kind of rooting for him at the Oscars. This year I’m going to root for myself, if I’m lucky enough to be there again. It’s been great knowing him and being able to share my success at the same time. We’re on very parallel tracks.
Any chance you’ll work together?
As a matter of fact, Quentin and Tom and I are talking about a project. It’s nonexistent at this point, but we had a dinner meeting that was tremendous.
Have you and Hanks discussed how far you’ve come from “Welcome Back, Kotter” and he’s come from “Bosom Buddies”?
Yes, I do believe that came up.
So what are your hopes for 1996?
I hope I keep working.