Now 63, John Joseph Travolta shot to fame in the 1970s with leading roles in the blockbuster movies Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and he has fascinated film fans ever since. However, in a career spanning five decades, there have been some pivotal moments in the personal and professional life of the Hollywood giant which reveal the real man who exists when the cameras aren’t rolling. The following 20 facts add up to a fascinating backstory to how Travolta came to be the man he is today.
20. He was too cool for school
Travolta has admitted that he was never a model student growing up, which could explain why he never actually completed high school. Even from early on the Grease actor preferred to act rather than study at Dwight Morrow High School in his home town of Englewood, New Jersey. He once said, “I participated in football and basketball, and did what they were doing, but not many kids understood my going to acting studios at night.”
19. He has the luck of the Irish
Travolta has been cast mostly as an Italian-American, which is natural enough as he is predominately of Italian descent. While he was brought up in a strict Roman Catholic household by his parents Salvatore and Helen, the star is on record as saying that his family was more interested in their Irish roots. Subsequently, it was more potato than pasta as young John was exposed to more Irish culture than Italian.
18. He joined the Scientologists in the ’70s
Despite his more religiously conventional catholic upbringing, Travolta became devoted to something more on the fringes – Scientology. As early as 1975 he began to follow the controversial cult while on the set of The Devil’s Rain in Mexico. After trawling through a copy of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, Travolta was transformed.
17. Welcome Back, Kotter welcomed him to the big time
While Travolta acted minor parts in television programs and stage shows in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until 1975 that he shot to real prominence – landing a starring role in the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Playing the dumb but devastatingly good-looking Vinnie Barbarino, the fun-loving actor certainly got the ladies’ attention during the show’s four-year run. However, the best was still to come.
16. He comes from a supportive family
Travolta’s sister, Ellen, also had a small part on Welcome Back, Kotter, but she wasn’t the only member of his family to enter the entertainment sphere. His mother, Helen, was a dancer and actress in her own right and was one of the main influences in Travolta’s decision to pursue an acting career – in fact she was the one who enrolled him in his first drama class. Both Helen and Ellen enjoyed minor roles in Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
15. He was talked out of making a big splash
For an actor, one of the most irritating and frustrating aspects of the job is when you turn down a part for a movie that then becomes a major hit. Travolta felt this sting in 1984 when he auditioned for the starring role in the romantic mermaid comedy Splash opposite Daryl Hannah. His agent at the time persuaded Travolta it wouldn’t be big, leaving Tom Hanks to fill the void for the box office smash.
14. He’s got dance moves to Di for
Travolta’s outstanding dancing skills were always evident in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and later in Pulp Fiction, but none other than Princess Diana wanted to see them up close in real life. The two danced together at the Reagan White House in 1985, proving not only that the energetic performer could recreate his fictional moves on an actual dancefloor, but also that he could impress someone as graceful and elegant as Princess Di. Bravo!
13. He can sing for his supper
Lest you think that Travolta is a mere actor, he also has form as a crooner too. His first crack at singing in 1975 was a fruitful one, with his debut disc – “Let Her In” – making it as high as number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Although acting took precedent as the years proceeded, Travolta wasn’t completely out of the singing business yet. In 2008 he performed a duet with Miley Cyrus on “I Thought I Lost You” for the Disney movie Bolt, proving that he’s more than a one-hit wonder.
12. He suffered a heartbreaking goodbye
Although she played his mother in the 1976 film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the actress Diana Hyland was romantically involved with Travolta off-set. They fell in love despite the 18-year age-gap between them, but the relationship came to a tragic end after Hyland succumbed to breast cancer. After a courageous year-long battle with the disease, the 41-year-old died in the arms of a heartbroken Travolta. He later accepted a posthumous Emmy Award on her behalf for her role in the film.
11. He’s a bona fide flying ace
Add aircraft pilot to the list of real-life roles Travolta can perform. The actor took an interest in flight from an early age, attaining his pilot license when he was just 22 years old. His interest has only soared ever since, and he owns and flies his own private jets and has an aircraft company. Forget small airplanes – Travolta is qualified to fly aircraft as big as the Boeing 707. Maybe he should have been chosen to star in Con Air rather than Nicolas Cage!
10. He’s been accused of not flying straight
Not all of Travolta’s aerodynamic endeavors have flown straight, at least according to one former employee. In 2014 Douglas Gotterba, a former pilot for Travolta’s aircraft company, Alto, alleged that he had been engaged in a sexual relationship with the star for six years during his tenure. This was quite the assertion, considering the actor had only been known to be with women in the past, and that he had been married to actress Kelly Preston since 1991…
9. A cult has a hold on him
… But this isn’t the only time Travolta has been accused of hiding his sexuality. Early in 2017 a claim emerged regarding supposed secrets that the Church of Scientology was using to blackmail the star. A former church insider told scandal sheet The National Enquirer, “I was a witness to the pressure put on Travolta. He was afraid they were going to reveal his sex life… He came to me, desperate and afraid of their threat that everything he ever told them would be revealed publicly if he defected”
8. He’s in the Hasty Pudding Club
He is certainly in the upper echelons of his profession, but Travolta is also highly respected among social elites. The prestigious Hasty Pudding Theatricals club at Harvard University – a student society known for staging cross-dressing burlesques and musicals – awarded Travolta its Man of the Year Award in 1981. The honor is given to those who have made a “lasting and impressive contribution to the world of entertainment.”
7. He nearly came to a sticky end in the cockpit
Spending time doing something he loves the most almost cost Travolta his life in 1992. While at the controls of one of his planes, he was chilled to the bone when the power began to fade. Rapidly losing control of the aircraft due to the electrical malfunction, the quick-thinking performer and experienced pilot managed to keep things on an even keel and landed manually.
6. He has done the hard yards
Not every successful actor is fortunate enough to enjoy overnight success in their youth, and Travolta was certainly one who had to scratch and claw to get to where he is today. Before his meteoric rise in the 1970s, the Hairspray star had to make ends meet by taking on several jobs – ranging from luggage porter to supermarket check-out boy.
5. He claims to be a cult success
We’ve already seen how Travolta’s big break came when he landed a role in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, but the actor actually credits the Church of Scientology for getting it. Apparently, the teacher of one of his Scientology course classes had the nascent star and about 150 other students point in the direction of ABC headquarters while telepathically transferring the message, “We want John Travolta for the part.”
4. He’s been involved in some rum business down in Brazil
It is probably no surprise that an actor with the profile of John Travolta would cause a splash around the world, but bizarrely he is a major hit in Brazil. So much so that in 2013 the makers of the Brazilian rum Ypióca Cachaça poached Travolta for the brand’s next television commercial – one which features the actor playing some soccer on the beach in Rio, as well as busting a few dance moves.
3. His single-minded dedication meant no stunt double was needed
He’s not in Jackie Chan’s league when it comes to performing his own stunts for a movie, but Travolta did do all of the dangerous work for 1980 romantic drama Urban Cowboy. So committed was he to the part, that he had the producers find a way to get a real mechanical rodeo bull set up in his house while he practiced riding it for two months. Now that’s dedication!
2. His masseurs felt aggrieved
Weirdly in 2012, two masseurs came forward to file lawsuits against Travolta, claiming that they were both sexually assaulted by the actor. The two male massage therapists were unsuccessful with their accusations in court, leaving the judge to dismiss the assertions in both cases. An angry press statement from the Travolta legal team said at the time, “This lawsuit is complete fiction and fabrication.”
1. He was in Grease seven years before the movie came out
There is no denying just how much the phenomenal success of Grease played in transforming Travolta’s fortunes early in his acting career, but it is a little-known fact that he was actually in the stage show cast of the musical years before it ever hit the big screen. Travolta was a part of the Broadway production in 1971, before emerging as the leading male star of the movie adaptation in 1978.