During the latter half of the 1970s, John Travolta was the biggest star in Hollywood; after a string of hits in films, on television and on the radio, he had emerged as a true cultural phenomenon, defining tastes in music and fashion while dominating innumerable column inches in newspapers, magazines and gossip columns. Like so many other celebrities, Travolta's initial fame proved short-lived, and by the 1980s he was viewed by the media and the public alike largely as a relic of his era; unlike so many other celebrities, however, he resurfaced, Phoenix-like, the following decade, re-establishing his claims to film superstardom and staking out new territory as one of the most acclaimed actors in contemporary film.
Born February 18, 1954 in Englewood, New Jersey, he was the youngest of six children in an entertainment family: his father, Salvatore, was a former semi-pro football player and his mother, Helen, was an alumna of a radio vocal group called the Sunshine Sisters as well as a high school drama teacher — all but one of his siblings pursued showbiz careers as well. By the age of 12 Travolta himself had already joined an area actors' group, and was soon appearing in local musicals and dinner-theatre performances; he also took tap-dancing lessons from Gene Kelly's brother Fred. By age 16, he had dropped out of high school to take up acting full-time, relocating to Manhattan to make his off-Broadway debut in 1972 in Rain. A minor role in the touring company of the hit musical Grease followed, and in 1973 Travolta appeared opposite the Andrews Sisters in the Broadway musical Over Here! In 1975, he also made his film bow with a bit role in the horror picture The Devil's Rain.
In 1975, Travolta was cast in a television sitcom titled Welcome Back, Kotter; as Vinnie Barbarino, a dim-witted high school lothario, he shot to overnight superstardom, and quickly his face adorned t-shirts, lunchboxes and the like. Before the first episode of the series even aired, he had also won a small role in Brian DePalmas 1976 classic Carrie, giving him inroads to the movie industry, and at the early peak of his Kotter success he even recorded a series of pop music LPs — Can't Let Go, John Travolta, and Travolta Fever — scoring a major hit with the single "Let Her In." Approached with a role in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, he was forced to reject the project in the face of a busy Kotter schedule, but in 1976 he was able to shoot a TV feature, director Randal Kleiser's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which won considerable critical acclaim. Diana Hyland, the actress who played Travolta's mother in the picture, also became his off-screen lover until her death from cancer in 1977.
In the wake of Hyland's death, Travolta's first major feature film, 1977's Saturday Night Fever, was released. A latter-day Rebel Without a Cause set against the backdrop of the New York City disco nightlife, it positioned Travolta as the most talked-about young star in Hollywood; in addition to earning his first Academy Award nomination, he also became a icon of the era, his white-suited visage and cocky, rhythmic strut enduring as defining images of late-1970s American culture. In 1978, he starred in Kleiser's film adaptation of Grease, this time essaying the lead role of 1950s greaser Danny Zuko; its box office success was even greater than Saturday Night Fever's, becoming a perennial fan favorite and, like its predecessor, spawning a massively popular soundtrack LP. In the light of his back-to-back successes, as well as the continued popularity of Welcome Back, Kotter — on which he still occasionally appeared — it seemed Travolta could do no wrong.
And then the bottom dropped out. Travolta's first misstep was 1978's Moment by Moment, a laughable May-December romance with Lily Tomlin; savaged by critics, the picture was a box-office disaster, the first major failure of his career. Travota then turned down the lead in Paul Schrader's hit American Gigolo — a role which, like the one offered in Days of Heaven, was then awarded to Richard Gere — to star in 1980's Urban Cowboy, which restored much of his financial lustre. Starring Travolta as a Texas oil worker, the film and its accompanying smash soundtrack did for country music and ten-gallon hats what Saturday Night Fever did for disco and leisure suits, and resulted in such an influx of new country fans that Nashville's entire early-1980s period was later dubbed the "Urban Cowboy" era by music historians. The following year he starred in DePalma's under-recognized Blow Out, resulting in some of the best critical notices of his career but falling well short of box office expectations.
Travolta then rejected the lead in An Officer and a Gentleman (yet another role then eagerly accepted by Gere) to reprise the role of Tony Manero in the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. Directed by Sylvester Stallone, the film was released in 1983 to respectable returns, but fell far short of its anticipated blockbuster status; Two of a Kind, released a few months later, reunited Travolta with his Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John, but again lightning failed to strike twice and the movie soon disappeared from theaters. By now Travolta's career was on shaky ground, and after a two-year absence from the screen he returned in 1985's Perfect; when it too failed to live up to expectations, he was roundly dismissed as a flash in the pan and a has-been, and several years of poor career choices, bad advice and missed opportunites were to follow. By 1988 Travolta had been missing from theaters for three years, and when the oft-delayed comedy The Experts finally surfaced in theaters in 1989, its disastrous showing seemed the final nail in his coffin.
Later that same year, however, the unheralded, low-budget comedy Look Who's Talking was released; co-starring Travolta and Kirstie Alley, it was produced for some $8 million but went on to gross close to $150 million over the course of the following 12 months, later spawning a pair of sequels, 1990's Look Who's Talking Too and 1993's Look Who's Talking Now. However, both of Travolta's 1991 pictures, Eyes of an Angel and Shout, fared poorly, and as the Look Who's Talking series sputtered to a halt he was again written off by the press. Then, in 1994, he made one of the most stunning comebacks in entertainment history by starring in Pulp Fiction, a lavishly-acclaimed crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a longtime Travolta fan who wrote the role of Vincent Vega specifically with the actor in mind. A critical as well as commercial smash, Pulp Fiction introduced Travolta to a new generation of moviegoers, and suddenly he was again a major star, with a second Academy Award nomination to prove it.
In the wake of Pulp Fiction, the resurrected Travolta became one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, and on Tarantino's advice he accepted the starring role in director Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty; acclaimed by many critics as his finest performance to date, it was another major hit, and he followed it by appearing in the 1996 John Woo action tale Broken Arrow. Phenomenon was another smash that same summer, and by Christmas Travolta was back in theaters as a disreputable angel in Michael. The following year he reunited with Woo in the highly successful thriller Face/Off, which he trailed with a supporting turn in Nick Cassavetes' She's So Lovely. After 1997's Mad City, Travolta began work on Primary Colors, Mike Nichols' political satire, portraying a charismatic, Bill Clinton-like U.S. President; an adaptation of the acclaimed book A Civil Action was to follow.