John Travolta has traveled a long way since being a Broadway chorus boy. It is sort of shocking to realize the New jersey native has now enjoyed a 40-year screen career that began with a bit in a 1972 episode of “Emergency.” Even after initial fame as dimwitted Vinnie Barbarino on the ABC sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975-79), it seemed unlikely Travolta would become an enduring movie star. The two-time Academy Award nominee long ago proved an excellent actor with requisite star charisma. His career is famously filled with highs and lows and at this stage, he is becoming more of a character actor.
Fresh from the success of “Welcome Back, Kotter,” he starred in the critically acclaimed TV movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” (1976) and had a supporting role in “Carrie” (1976). Travolta next did the film taking him to superstardom. “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) is the seminal film of the disco era and beneath the music and dance was a serious story of a young man seeking more from life than the confines of Brooklyn. From the opening beat of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” set to his strut, Travolta delivers a dominating performance as Tony Manero and received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Though the film is now a dated relic, Travolta’s dancing remains electrifying and his dance skills impressed no less than Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The 1983 Sylvester Stallone directed sequel “Stayin’ Alive” was a dismal failure.
“Grease” is the word. The 1978 screen version of the Broadway musical was a huge hit driving his stardom even higher. His performance as the 1950s cool guy Danny Zuko would probably be the favorite of many of his fans. His teaming with older Olivia Newton-John worked and more than any other film, Travolta’s charismatic charm is evident. In addition to dancing, he also sings notable the “You’re the One I Want” duet.
The third of Travolta’s dance “trilogy” is “Urban Cowboy” (1980) which helped sparked the line dance craze. Far from Brooklyn, Travolta is a blue collar hardhat in Pasadena, Texas spending his nights at the famed honky tonk Gilley’s. Dancing was not really the big thing. Riding the mechanical bull was. “Blow Out” (1981) is a little remembered but good Brian DePalma thriller set in Philadelphia. Travolta portrays a sound effects man capturing on tape a car accident that is really murder.
The actor entered a 14-year slump including dreadful bombs like “Perfect” (1985) and playing second fiddle to talking babies in “Look Who’s Talking Now” (1989) and its two sequels. Quentin Tarantino to the rescue. “Pulp Fiction” (1994) was a brutal sensation and Travolta’s career roared back to life with his ferocious Oscar nominated turn as hit man Vincent Vega. The film produced another magic Travolta moment: his wicked dance with Uma Thurman.
Travolta entered the most commercially successful phase of his career with a string of box office hits. He was terrific as Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty” (1995) based on Elmore Leonard’s black comedy novel about a cool and tough Miami hood in Hollywood. Chili returned in “Be Cool” (2005) which continued Travolta’s bad luck with sequels. “Broken Arrow” (1996) and “Face/Off” (1997) were John Woo directed action pictures. In the former, Travolta played his first true villain. The latter had Travolta literally trading faces with Nicolas Cage.
1996 was his biggest box office year with “Broken Arrow,” “Phenomenon” and “Michael.” In “Phenomenon,” he played everyman George transformed into a genius after being struck by lightning and life does not turn out so wonderful. His archangel “Michael” was not exactly too angelic and gave the opportunity for a brief spot of dance. Both stand among the most unusual characters of his career. Despite some more successful films, his characters have generally been routine in nature and not outstanding.
Travolta was enthusiastic about “A Love Song for Bobby Long” (2004) which was a small film set in New Orleans. It is an odd story ultimately not entirely succeeding but affording Travolta an interesting and complex role. He is effective in the title role as a former college professor turned alcoholic lost soul rambling around a crumbling old house.
Nearly three decades after “Grease,” Travolta made another Broadway musical. He had been top choice for “Chicago” but could not do it and the part fell to Richard Gere. “Hairspray” (2007) is the camp musical set in 1962 Baltimore and the gimmick has always been overweight mother Edna Turnblad is performed by an actor in drag. Divine did it in the 1988 John Waters original non-musical film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Travolta does the honors on film and obviously has great fun with the part. His duet with “husband” Christopher Walken is a highlight.