Happy 59th birthday today to John Travolta, the consummate, versatile actor, who rose from rather humble beginnings in the 1970s to become first a teen heartthrob, then a superstar dancer, singer, and handsome man-about-town soaking up every ounce of the Hollywood limelight. The man has weathered many ups and downs career-wise, going to almost unabashed obscurity in the mid 1980s, and then finally rising to the A-list once again when he co-starred in Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to low life, Pulp Fiction. Travolta remains a viable, bankable actor to this very day, and a symbol of contemporary movie musicals and a measuring stick for pop cultural figures of the 1970s.
The career of Travolta spans eras and generations, the earliest of which were ones who discovered him on the ABC-TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. On that show, he played Vinnie Barbarino, who was one of the “Sweathogs,” a juvenile group of underachievers in a Brooklyn High School who parlayed their styles and attitudes more like the Marx Brothers than the rough and tumble dangerous teenagers that kids of that stripe in reality really would be. Harmless and gregarious at every turn on the show, the Sweathogs were really just a comprised second banana ensemble to the show’s main star, Gabe Kaplan, who played their teacher Gabe Kotter and who, since he himself had been a Sweathog at one time, acted as a mentor and lighthearted and always trusting and caring foil to their comic absurdities. Travolta quickly stood out from the ensemble cast, with his perfectly blow-dried hairstyle, easy on the eyes good looks, an irresistible silly charm, and especially his oft-repeated use of the catchphrase which became synonymous with the program, “Up Your Nose With A Rubber Hose.” The show was relatively popular during the mid 1970s and some key marketing of the program (games, lunchboxes, and T-shirts) kept Travolta’s visage and image on teenager’s minds across the United States.
He then started to do some motion pictures a few months after Kotter caught on, his portrayal of the egocentric Billy Nolan in Carrie in 1976 was the kind of teenager that was light years away from Vinnie Barbarino. In that same year, he also appeared in the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which was based on a true story about a boy who had a rather faulty immune system and had to literally exist in a basically hermetically sealed plastic encasing (not unlike a large human aquarium), for fear of exposure to natural atmosphere might kill him. Although the film was played with a rather serious chord, it eventually garnered a sort of minor cult status and became perceived as more of a kitschy, unintentionally hilarious product on the resume of the film career of Travolta, especially when he became a superstar, something which happened about a year later, in late 1977, with the release of Saturday Night Fever.
With Fever, Travolta surprised everyone with his spot-on rendition of an affected, aimlessly naïve youth from Brooklyn, Tony Manero. Travolta’s portrayal of the character electrified audiences for many different reasons. Some were dazzled by his performance, which was equal parts sensual, charismatic, confident, and even racist and ignorant. As the main protagonist in Fever, Manero was a three dimensional character which acted as an axis around a film that was decidedly a little less so, a fantasy of sorts, in which a youth only finds solace and comfort from the day to day drudgery of his existence at the local disco, in which he is treated like a right monarch. Others were impressed by the dancing, in which Travolta contemporizes Fred Astaire to the throbbing disco beat which acts as the kind of aural energy to the film’s circulatory system. And others still were mesmerized by Travolta’s suave physicality in the movie, raising him from the teen heartthrob he became on television to a more universally revered one globally. Travolta was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Saturday Night Fever, but lost out to Richard Dreyfuss that year who won for his work in Neil Simon’s bittersweet comedy, The Goodbye Girl.
For those who thought it would be impossible for Travolta to have a follow up film to Fever that could land on equal ground or even surpass its success, were even more mind boggled when Grease (released in mid 1978) became as big of a smash, if not bigger. A loose film adaptation of the 1972 Broadway musical, which celebrated the 1950s and all the milieu and fun folderol that accompanied that memorable and complex decade, Grease not only became a smash that year, elevating Travolta even higher in the Hollywood mainstream and public eye than he had been before, but also became one of the great latter day musicals of all time, a production that still remains close to the vest for many fans. The multitude of songs, many which were sung by Travolta himself (he had dabbled in singing before; he had a top ten hit in 1976 with the single “Let Her In”) also remained pop culture artifacts and alongside the great American Broadway and musical songbooks of the latter part of the 20th century and to the present day. After the success of Grease, it seemed that there was no other star in the universe that shone hotter than the supernova that was John Travolta.
And then suddenly, as fast as the star rose, it plummeted back to earth, snuffing itself out as quickly in the process. Successive film after film that Travolta did became progressively worse and worse in terms of box office receipts and critical success (Moment to Moment with Lily Tomlin, Urban Cowboy, Two of A Kind where he reunited with his Grease co-star Oliva Newton-John). The 1980s quickly thrust Travolta into an almost “Where Are They Now” guise, although there was the well made film here and there (the terse, tense Brian DePalma cinematic ode to media paranoia Blow Out) and a rather hit of sorts in the Look Who’s Talking franchise, but in all honesty, Travolta was just a pawn adrift in the sea of celebrity voices which made that film and franchise the success that it was.
It took Pulp Fiction, and Quentin Tarantino to give the Travolta image a 180 spin, and bring him back to the popular mainstream. As Vincent Vega, the ponytailed, heroin-addled low-rent gangster, Travolta held his own in an ensemble of actors as diverse as Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman. It garnered him his second Oscar nomination. It also boosted his career like an extra jet pack on his person, as roles in films like Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Face/Off (both directed by John Woo) and various others followed. Again, there were clunkers, Wild Dogs, the throwaway remake of the 1974 action thriller The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (in which the performance by the bald-headed, goateed antagonist Travolta was eye-rollingly laughable), and the ridiculously Sci(entology)-Fi laugher Battlefield Earth. But, John Travolta, who’s a high-profile Scientologist, remains to this day a somewhat bankable and now, unbelievably, considering he always seemed ageless and still does look youthful, veteran Hollywood actor who still plunders on, especially in the face of recent tragedies like the sudden death of his son Jett in 2009 and even being accused of allegations of androgynous sexual abuse and harassment by former co-employees of his, in which lawsuits filed against Travolta were eventually dropped. It may have raised eyebrows at the personal lifestyles of the man at the time, but the Travolta legend pretty much goes on, relatively unscathed for the most part.
So celebrate the birthday of John Travolta today with a favorite flick, or glimpse some old clips of him with his boundless energy on Welcome Back Kotter, or crank the best-selling soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever or Grease. What it all amounts to is that John Travolta certainly has his place in the annals of Tinsel Town, from the many hats he wore as all the colorful characters he played, right down to his dancing shoes. Happy Birthday, John.