What the Hell Happened to John Travolta?

john travolta

John Travolta is the King of the Comeback.  Where most careers involve a rise and a fall, Travolta’s career is a roller coaster or peaks and valleys.  In the 70’s, he was a pop culture icon, in the 80’s he was a has-been and in the 90’s, he reinvented himself as an Oscar-nominated tough guy.  Today, you’re more likely to see him on tabloid covers than headlining a movie.  What the hell happened?

travolta - boy in the plastic bubble

Travolta started off on the stage in New York in the touring production of Grease.  Eventually, he moved to California where he started making TV appearances like The Boy in The Plastic Bubble.

travolta - welcome back kotter

We’ve got a lot to cover here, so we’re just going to skip to 1975 when Travolta was cast in Welcome Back Kotter.  Kotter was a sitcom developed around stand-up comedian, Gabe Kaplan.  Kaplan played a teacher at an inner-city school and Travolta played one of his delinquent students known as the “Sweathogs”.

Kotter was a big hit during its first couple of seasons.  This lead to lots of merchandising opportunities including a board game based around Travolta’s catch phrase, “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”

Interestingly enough (for me anyway), the actor standing-in for Travolta in that commercial was a young Steve Guttenberg.

travolta - carrie

While still appearing on Welcome Back Kotter, Travolta made the leap to film with Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Carrie.

By now, there have been umpteen adaptations of King’s novels.  Some have been adapted more than once.  A remake of Carrie is currently underway.  But De Palma’s Carrie was the first and it set the bar too high for most of the adaptations that would follow.

Travolta’s role was relatively small.  He played the boyfriend of Carrie’s primary tormentor, Chris, who was played by Nancy Allen.  But Travolta was involved in some of the movie’s more memorable scenes.  He was the one who slaughtered the pig for the bloody climax.  And when a blood-soaked Carrie left the flame-engulfed prom, Travolta’s character tried to run her over.

travolta - saturday night fever

The following year, Travolta entered pop culture history with Saturday Night Fever.  The image of Travolta in the white leisure suit dancing to the Bee Gees is bigger than any movie.  It has come to symbolize an entire decade.

But Saturday Night Fever is nothing like its image.  The soundtrack may make you want to dance, but the movie is actually a depressing melodrama about a guy who feels trapped in a meaningless existence he can only escape on the dance floor.

The movie was based on an article in New York magazine about the budding disco culture, Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.  Ironically, the writer of the article later admitted that he had made it all up.  As an Englishman, he was baffled by the American dance craze.  So he based his story on a “Mod” friend instead.

Saturday Night Fever got mostly positive reviews.  It was nominated for several awards including Best Actor for Travolta.  Film critic, Gene Siskel claimed Fever as a personal favorite.  He even went so far as to buy Travolta’s leisure suit at an auction.

saturday night fever soundtrack

Fever wasn’t just a hit.  It was a smash that dominated the pop culture landscape.  It ushered in the Disco Era.  The soundtrack was the best-selling soundtrack album of all times.  Eventually, the popularity of disco eclipsed the movie.  So when the disco backlash started, Saturday Night Fever was marginalized along with it.

Next: Grease and Urban Cowboy


Posted on September 2, 2012, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 249 Comments.

  1. Mr. X Blind Item #1

    So that long-in-gestation biopic that is starring and financed by that closeted former A-list actor and his B/C-list actress wife-beard is finally in production, but without a distributor

    Why? Very simple, they have no cash. The wife-beard has been taking money out of her husband’s bank account again to finance her coke and pill habit (nothing new there, it’s been happening throughout their faux marriage). Plus she’s donating money to that shady organization she is still very much a part of, whereas the husband only shows up for the organization’s events where he knows he will get paid. He knows something’s up, but he’s afraid to put his foot down. Something’s gotta give, and it won’t be pretty.


  2. For one reason or another, these actors seem to have lost their way. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Actors That Have Lost Their Mojo.


    • The evidence is overwhelming that I don’t even question the validity of this claim anymore. But what’s the deal with Kelly Preston? She isn’t some trophy wife nobody. She had plenty going for her. Why did she marry him?


      • She was engaged to Charlie Sheen, so maybe she just wanted to be with somebody she felt safe with?


      • That’s something I have wondered about too. I don’t know the specifics of Preston’s decision. That will probably have to wait until the day when/if I write about her. But I know that arranged marriages and relationships are fairly common in Scientology. Especially for celebrities like Travolta and Cruise. Preston was probably promised a lot of things to play along. Once you’re in, there are costs to getting out.


  3. John Travolta reveals the “glue” that’s rebonded his family since son Jett’s death:


  4. Donald Trump recalled hitting on Kelly Preston in a note about her son’s death


  5. Blind Items Revealed #2

    July 3, 2016

    This former A+ list movie and television actor who has a connection to Blind Item #1 (Tom Cruise) is so hard up for cash that he is doing paid meet and greets.

    John Travolta


  6. John Travolta has absolutely no interest in watching Leah Remini’s Scientology series


    • Yeah, if John Travolta is still in support of Scientology, then he isn’t that program’s intended audience.


    • I have been watching the show because I find Scientology fascinating. For my money, Remini is the least interesting part of the show. She tries to put herself in the spotlight as a do-gooder a little too frequently. On the other hand, she takes responsibility for having promoted Scientology for most of her life, so I guess she feels the needs to offset that.

      As for John Travolta, he’s been blackmailed by Scientology for decades. He couldn’t leave if he wanted to. I suspect if he could have left without repercussions, he would have done so a long time ago. Now he’s the famous person Scientology uses to take down their critics. They can’t risk using Tom Cruise for that sort of thing, but Travolta is famous enough to make headlines without actually being a movie star any more.


      • Yeah, I question John Travolta’s current devotion to Scientology as well, but no matter what his true feelings are, it looks like he’ll forever be affiliated with that organization, in their eyes and the public’s eyes. His seemingly sincere belief in “Battlefield Earth” though, is confounding to me (however, it isn’t like he hasn’t made questionable career decisions outside of that film).


        • If you have spent your entire adult life in a cult, lying to yourself becomes easy. Believing in the merits of Battlefield Earth is pretty simple when you have convinced yourself to believe in an alien warlord named Xenu.


        • I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over the look of Xenu since the first time I saw that; it’s like an elephant & a squid had a baby together. That’s one spoiled baby though, that needs lots of contributions.


        • I’m not sure if that’s the official look of Xenu. I have seen him drawn in all kinds of ways including some very Flash Gordon/Ming the Merciless looks. He’s actually the bad guy of the piece. LRH (L. Ron Hubbard) is the central hero figure in the mythology with his replacement (David Miscavige) as his heir. In reality, Miscavige is more of a tyrant than any intergalactic overlord could ever be. He’s the spoiled baby demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.

          I have to stop now before I get declared an SP.


        • It’s probably too late for that, since this is a John Travolta article:-). They probably have files on all of us now, and one day I’ll likely find myself waking up in the basement of the Downtown Buffalo Church of Scientology basement hog-tied and gagged. Oh well: as Moe Szyslak once said on “The Simpsons”, “Remember me…as a peacemaker!”.


        • They actually opened a center about 20 minutes from where I live. They take out ads on local buses. It’s scary to have them in my backyard!


        • Yeah, I find the presence of their buildings unsettling; I think I’d prefer Dracula’s castle.


  7. 10 Worst TV Performances Of 2016

    John Travolta – Robert Shapiro (American Crime Story)

    In recent years John Travolta has become something of joke within Hollywood. He’s been in a string of awful films like From Paris With Love, Savages and even Gummy Bear The Movie 3D. Ever since he mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name as “Adele Dazeem” at the 2014 Academy Awards, he’s been regarded as someone to laugh at rather than with. Oh, and the whole Scientology thing really doesn’t help.

    News that he’d be playing O. J. Simpson’s defense attorney in American Crime Story, then, was met with skepticism. And despite the show itself receiving critical praise, there’s been a permanent divide over Travolta’s performance.

    Some see it as a return to form for the veteran actor, while others think it’s goofy and erratic, impossible to regard with any actual seriousness. And it’s true: Travolta is not an unassuming-looking man. Given his position in modern Hollywood, he’s incredibly difficult to take sincerely, and his acting often comes across as more puzzling than anything else. It’s like watching an actor try to act, and that’s never a good thing.


  8. I really enjoyed this article but was disappointed that it only went up to 2012, when this post was published. Why not update it to include information on what he’s done in the last 4 years?


  9. Leebau wouldnt you agree that john michael co star william hurt would make an interesting article. He had a string of several hits in the 80s alot of them leading . He seemed poised to hit a list but for some reason in the 90s he became a charactor actor. Most actors start becoming charactor actor when they either get too old or there career is in trouble no studio will trust them with a lead role anymore. but he all of sudden switch to supporting roles when his career was getting bigger and he was close to superstardom. I think maybe he found supporting roles more interesting


  10. Flop House Classic – Old Dogs

    A fan-chosen repeat of a classic episode. Enjoy re-living the misery! * * * Is it possible John Travolta and director Walt Becker could top Wild Hogs? Well, when it comes to Old Dogs, it depends on what you mean by “top.” Meanwhile, Stuart reveals some exciting …


  11. John Travolta’s junk played a major role in Ricky Martin’s life


  12. Saturday Night Fever, Forty Years Later

    I got to see Saturday Night Fever — for only the second time ever — on the big screen last year. It really is a great film, filled with realistic, believable characters (they do not hesitate to use racist, homophobic and sexist language) that absolutely captures the milieu. And the music/dancing scenes are hypnotic.

    Personally, yes, I think Travolta deserved the Oscar that year, though Richard Dreyfuss is very entertaining in The Goodbye Girl. Although Saturday Night Fever was a big hit and an acclaimed film, the only Oscar nomination it got was for Best Actor (yes, as crazy as it sounds, NONE of those classic songs were nominated for Best Original Song, all 5 hits were eligible — “How Deep Is Your Love”; “Stayin’ Alive”; “Night Fever”; “If I Can’t Have You”; “More than a Woman”); I suspect Dreyfuss won because not only was The Goodbye Girl a hit, it was nominated for 5 Oscars in total (aside from Best Actor, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Actress [Marsha Mason], Supporting Actress [Quinn Cummings] and Original Screenplay) and Dreyfuss had starred in another big, Oscar-nominated hit that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


    reply 2 Last Saturday at 4:37 AM


  13. Watching Urban Cowboy on HBO Demand

    John Travolta (in his prime, obviously) just seems like he was one of the last real movie stars (someone you would consider a “real” movie star in the traditional sense).

    He had “Saturday Night Fever”, “Grease”, and “Urban Cowboy” pretty close together.

    It’s hard to think of a male “star”/famous young movie actor today that’s the same age as Travolta was during his most successful period and that has started in that many equally zeitgeisty movies that drove audiences crazy, changed the culture, and brought in tons of cash at the box office…

    (Not to even mention that at that time, Travolta also had charisma for days–something that a lot of current “stars” are sorely lacking in).

    —God, and he was so cute to look at it his prime; charming and good actor

    reply 4 04/15/2017

    Debra Winger OWNED that part as Sissy. One of the best castings ever in a film. It’s really incredible that Travolta really a run of three great films and the bottom fell out of his career until Look Who’s Talking and another Oscar nom for Pulp Fiction. He probably thought everything he touched would turn to gold after Urban Cowboy. Turned out one film was worse than the next for him in the 80s.


    reply 7 04/15/2017


  14. Good Bad Flicks: Swordfish (2001)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know, I kind of liked “Swordfish”, and it had nothing to do with Halle Berry showing her Halle Berry’s for the first time on screen. I mean, I suppose all those computer-internet related films are a little outlandish, but I like the other two computer related films mentioned in the video (“Hackers” & “The Net”). I see “Swordfish” as no better of worse than those two.


  15. Johnny Depp Passed on Face/Off Because He Was Disappointed to Learn It Was Not a Movie About Hockey


  16. 14 Actors Who Desperately Need A Hit Movie

    John Travolta

    Seriously, who did John Travola p*** off in Hollywood? Despite an impressive, Tarantino-fueled comeback in the mid-90s, the guy’s been in straight-to-video jail for quite some time now, starring in hilariously-titled movies such as I Am Wrath, Life on the Line and Killing Season.

    In fact, Travolta’s last bonafide box office hit was almost a decade ago with 2009’s Old Dogs, which ironically also led to him receiving a Worst Actor Razzie nomination.

    At least Travolta recently earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for playing lawyer Robert Shapiro on American Crime Story, but in terms of enticing upcoming movie projects, it’s hard to expect much from movies with titles like Speed Kills and Trading Paint, which will presumably go direct-to-streaming.


    • 15 Movies That Completely Ruined Actors’ Reputations


      Despite being the biggest icon of the 1970s with Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta started to become more and more obscure during the ’80s. Things took a turn for the better in 1994, however, when Quinten Tarantino made the brilliant decision to cast Travolta as a cheeseburger-eating gangster in Pulp Fiction. Just like that, Travolta was experiencing a second wind, and he was once again on top.

      That is, until Battlefield Earth hit theaters in 2003. Just when it looked like Travolta’s career had been saved, this misguided sci-fi flick, based on the works of scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, destroyed what credibility the actor had left. The movie was universally despised by both critics and moviegoers, becoming one of the biggest flops in cinema history.

      Sure, he’s been in Hairspray and American Crime Story, but Travolta was once one of the biggest stars on the planet, and playing second fiddle to Cuba Gooding Jr. just doesn’t cut it.


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