Writing: Non fiction – Travolta Fever

A brief look at the early career of John Travolta and how my seven year Love affair began.

Word count: 1519

By Rachel Jeffery

Before we delve into Travolta’s early career I would like to offer a little context as to why this is my chosen subject. I was thirteen when I discovered Travolta in the 2007 reboot of Hairspray where he played Tracy Turnblad’s mother Edna and I was simply transfixed, here was an actor who played a woman with deep sensitivity and realism (As the film deals with body image and racism) whilst being comical at the same time. It was like an itch, I simply needed to know everything about this actor. You may ask why and I’ll be honest it was at the time where my relationship with my biological father was at its lowest ebb and my stepfather was more like a big brother. Of course, I loved Grease and Saturday Night Fever in which he is most known for, but what about his early career and rise to fame? Surely that should be celebrated too? After all, it is the early life experiences that shape an actor and where he can use them for his emotional advantage in whatever role.

Well, that’s where this is where my article comes in. I know it is an unusual practice in articles analysing an actor’s early life and career but I cannot help but add my own personal opinions in the parenthesis below. I also cannot help but add an open note to my beloved heroin case he may read this. (Sue me, I don’t care if it’s not non-fiction writing etiquette I just have to much love and passion to pour out onto the page.)

John Joseph was born on February 18th 1954 to Salvatore Travolta, an ex-footballer and tyre salesman and his mother Helen, an actress and drama teacher. He is the youngest of his six siblings and despite being typecast as an Italian American he is actually Irish. Before he found he found Scientology during filming his small part in Devils Rain, 1975, was raised as a Catholic. Living over an airfield in New Jersey it’s no wonder his passion for aviation was ignited. In fact, in an interview, Travolta said ‘I was nine when I first flew, it was a birthday gift. What I didn’t know was that the plane had a bathroom and so I wet myself.’ (Don’t worry, even I’ve held my pee on a six-hour flight to New York I’m sure the majority of readers can relate.) He would later become a qualified pilot and representative for Qantas airlines. (My own father was a flight attendant so I can see the lure of travel.)

Travolta also was very dramatic as a child; ‘As the youngest, I got away with a lot. If I thought something was unfair, I’d run away for a half-hour to the end of the block. I would tiptoe back in and my dad would be singing ‘where has Johnny gone?’ and he’d open his arms to me and say ‘Johnny!’ It was a regular thing so my parents weren’t fazed’. (As the youngest, I too can relate to this and also because of my Disability I got away with what only can be described as blue murder)

In his teenage years, he dropped out of high school to pursue acting in his mother’s professional productions. (The experience of being what he described as an ‘average’ student at school would later provide inspiration for his Welcome Back Kotter character in what can only be described nowadays as the ‘special education’ unit for likely dropouts and the dimmest bulbs in the light bulb section at B and Q) Later on to earn his Equity card, he starred in many commercials for various things like trousers, deodorant and even motorbikes! Later on, he starred infomercials for the US He then landed his first professional stage show as Roger in Grease but as he was underage at 17 he had to tour chaperoned by his sisters. He also starred in the stage musical ‘Over here!’

Was the young actor destined to play one of the most iconic roles in cinematic history as Danny Zuko in the smash hit Grease in 1978 and steal our hearts? He then moved to Los Angeles and had small television roles such as fall victim in Emergency (The only connection I have with this is that I’m a regular visitor to my own accident and emergency department.)

But before that he found his big break in the 1975 Gabe Caplin sitcom Welcome Back Kotter as Vinnie Barbarino, the loveable, slick but dim-witted teen crush. (Travolta’s comedy was something I tried to emulate in my own plays/writing later on. In fact, I was so obsessed with Grease I began writing fan fiction which later developed into its own romantic novella with characters of my own imagination) His fame skyrocketed overnight – he even had a doll modelled after his character Vinnie and was on various other Welcome back Kotter merchandise. (Which I bid £200 on but was grossly outbid.) But sadly, all good things must come to end. Due to Travolta being in demand he left the show and procured roles in films such as Devils Rain as Danny after that he was cast as Billy the bully in an adaption of Stephen Kings Carrie, 1976. (Bad guy John Travolta is my favourite, as well as endearing John in films like Look Who’s Talking, 1987)

Travolta then had a hit single at no. 10 with let her in and then later on his debut album. Travolta has credited these songs as to why he won the converted role as Danny Zuko which Henry Wrinkler ‘The Fons’ turned down. (Thank the lord because Travolta and Newton-John of one of the pop cultures most iconic duos and if the role had gone to someone else I firmly believe that the movie would not become as much as beloved classic): ‘it’s because of those of records that the Grease producers knew I could sing’. (As I write, I am listening to both albums as we speak to help gain inspiration.) But before Grease, he gained attention notice for his lead role as Todd, a boy born with no immune system in The boy in the plastic bubble where he had his first serious relationship with Diana Hyland who played his on-screen mother in the film. She sadly past away of breast cancer, Travolta would use his grief as his driving force to succeed and use the experience in later films such as Face off in 1996 (my favourite of his 90’s resurgence) But, let’s get back to the matter at hand, The film where Travolta played his first serious lead role was awarded four Emmys and even starred Kelly Ward who Travolta would reunite with when they both filmed Grease. (As I wrote earlier, Grease was destined to be in Travolta’s life one way or another.)

Then, of course, came Grease and Saturday night fever where he was honoured to be the youngest academy award nominee that year at 24. He recalls his mother turning to him and saying ‘I hope you don’t win because then you’ll have something to look forward too.’ This is a dedication to one of the worlds most iconic actors, who went from small television cameos to the king of comedy and then a triple threat to a dramatic actor. Who have we got to thank for Travolta’s rise to fame? His own tenacity in a fickle world of show business and its because of this and his experiences early on in life that he has become one of the worlds greatest actors.

Unlike actors of my own generation Travolta did not rely on nepotism to get his foot in the door and neither did he have the benefit of a social media following, it was all pure hustling and dedication to his craft and learning from others around him and his own life experiences that would propel (pardon the aviation humour) to the top.

So, to end I shall say thank you to John who in 2007 ambled into my life and turned it upside down. Since then I have written you many letters and collected all your films. I even gave my own mother the silent treatment in 2014 when she couldn’t take me to see you at Drury Lane theatre and got my auntie to pay a ridiculous price for the first season of WBK. I hope one day that we may meet in person and I can say thank you in person for not only your films but the warm feeling I get when I see you on tv or Instagram. If anyone mentions you my back is immediately up and if they paint you in anything less than angelic light I instantly come to your defence.

Yes, it is true there is something called Travolta Fever and it gives me chills and with each interview or movie release, they multiply.

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