At a sweltering Houston movie premiere, it was high noon for John Travolta. After his monster success in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, he had slipped into disappointment and depression. Critics had viciously panned his last film, Moment by Moment with Lily Tomlin, and sniffed when he abruptly dropped out of American Gigolo after his mother’s death. Now in Urban Cowboy, a saga of oil workers who trade their hard hats for Stetsons at night to test their macho, he had to prove that he was not, after all, too small for his britches. Was he, as hype had it and a whole industry hoped, the next king of Hollywood?
To prepare for this crucial (and his first real adult) role, the rigorously serious Travolta, 26, hung out at Gilley’s, the brawling, sprawling Houston honky-tonk that is the setting for much of the movie. He visited the homes of habitués of the club (which is co-owned by C&W star Mickey Gilley), spent days studying local accents on tape (his mom had been a voice and drama teacher) and learned to ride a replica of Gilley’s 800-pound mechanical bucking bull, which John installed in the corral of his Santa Barbara ranch. It all paid off. In a powerful dramatic performance, Travolta ingratiatingly captures the shyness, bravado, pain and compassion of his blue-collar character. Says his director, James Bridges (whose last credit was China Syndrome, no less): “Travolta can do anything. He’s our only major star, and he’s just growing into his talent.”
Travolta is maturing in other ways as well. After bravely suffering the terminal cancer of his lover, actress Diana Hyland, 41, in 1977, and that of his mother in late 1978, Travolta has displayed a new depth of understanding, not only of mortality but also of the magnitude of his stardom and the potholes of life in the fast lane. “For four years John was on a skyrocket,” explains his manager, Bob LeMond, who discovered Travolta performing at 16 in a New Jersey dinner theater. “He had no time to deal with the deaths, to adjust to his change in financial status or to accept the criticism of Moment. He was physically exhausted.” Yet despite a vulnerability that seems to mist out of his Pacific blue eyes, Travolta emerged from it with new strength and insight. His continuing practice of Scientology helped, he says, and so did his own basic values. “There is a goodness and humanity that comes through,” says director Tom Moore, whose show Grease launched the careers of Barry Bostwick, Jeff Conaway and Richard Gere, along with Travolta. “Of all the people who have become famous out of Grease,” Moore believes, “John has changed the least.”
Certainly his new super-sophisticated world has not cost Travolta his boyish enthusiasm. “Coming from L.A. to Houston with Johnny on his jet, seeing him so dressed up and handsome in an expensive cowboy suit, I thought he looked like a 4-year-old oil man, like the richest 4-year-old in the world,” laughs his eldest sister, Ellen, 40. Like Marilyn Monroe, whose comic sense let her seem sexy without being vulgar, Travolta also has a puppyish need to be loved. Yet, insists manager LeMond, “He has a great advantage over the stars of the past—he’s not neurotic and he’s not self-destructive.” Travolta has a realistic acceptance of the fact that the greater his following, the less his freedom. “Sure, there are things I can’t do now and places I would like to go that I can’t,” he says. “But I like everything that’s happened to me. I wouldn’t give up my stardom just to get to go to Disneyland.”
In some ways, Travolta’s celebrity has demanded a tougher adjustment for those dear to him than for the star himself. Always close to his five brothers and sisters (all of whom are actors), he realized that his very presence at two of their recent weddings stole the show from the bride and groom. “My brother Joey got married, and it was like I got married,” John recalls. “It’s not fair to me or to him.”
Travolta is ambivalent about the whole institution. “I think I was more ready to get married at 14 than I am now,” he says. “But those feelings are coming back. Now that I’ve accomplished what I have, it’s time to perhaps share it with someone, and the main purpose of a marriage is kids.”
Travolta almost wed his Englewood, N.J. high school sweetheart, Denise Wurms, when he was 19. (Her brother, Jerry Wurms, is still John’s oldest friend and the head of production of his film company.) John often has dated his movie leading ladies, including—”a few times”—both Olivia Newton-John of Grease and Debra Winger of Cowboy. But Diana Hyland remains the woman with whom John felt “the most committed emotionally.” (He still keeps in touch with her son Zachary, now 7.) Travolta’s longest relationship has been with Taxi’s Marilu Henner, 28, whom he met when they both toured in Grease. “Marilu and I have always been friends. We’ve been able either to sleep with each other or not, depending on what is going on. Most of the time when we’re hanging out we are, but there have been times when we’ve been involved with other people,” he reports. “We’re people who will get back together between other relationships.” At the moment Marilu is dating actor Frederic (The Rose) Forrest, but that doesn’t mean John is necessarily lonely. “I like sex too much not to share it,” he says with a grin. He does not worry much about possible revelations to the tabloids. “I only sleep with people I know and trust,” he explains.
His other main passion is airplanes. “Johnny was into planes from the time he was a 5-year-old, and my acting career symbolized travel to him,” recalls his sister Ellen, who saved her flight ticket holders for him. A licensed pilot of prop craft for six years, John just bought a remodeled 10-seat Jet Commander and is training to fly it. Although studios and their quaking insurance companies would prefer him to hire a pilot, John says simply, “I like flying too much not to do it.” His friends, too, had initial doubts. “The first time I got into an airplane with Johnny, I thought, ‘This sweet gorgeous baby—what am I doing here?’ ” recalls actress Ellen March, another close pal since Grease days. “But then he switched on a new personality, very efficient and businesslike. He is very serious when he flies.”
When his Saturday Night Fever and Grease proceeds began to cascade in, John decided to go for his other big childhood fantasy: a home with a private landing strip. “But what happened is I found a place that was so beautiful that it upstaged the idea of having a runway on the property,” he explains. Now he flies to a local Santa Barbara airport and drives (a Jaguar, Thunderbird or Mercedes) to his spectacular 17-acre ranch in the hills outside town. One section of the five-bedroom house is one of the oldest dwellings in California. “It was built in 1800 by a Spanish nobleman,” Travolta claims proudly. “It would be a museum if I were not living in it.” (Because of a rash of break-ins, the place is now protected by a 24-hour security force.) There are two guesthouses on the property, and John likes to invite friends up for the weekend. “I’m more social up there than I ever dreamed of being in L.A.,” he says. His recent guests have ranged from Tom Hayden to Muhammad AN to James Cagney. “Cagney has always been an idol of mine,” says John. “He was supposed to stay two days, but stayed almost four. And he said to me, which really touched me, that it was four of the nicest days of his life.”
Friends can play tennis, watch movies in the screening room or swim in Travolta’s pool. They could play with the dogs until an English setter bit John on the upper lip, covering his face with blood and terrifying the guests. It took 10 stitches to close the wound, and now the dogs are gone. Travolta swims and takes dance lessons to keep his six-foot frame at 165 pounds and recently subjected himself to a five-day “juice fast” (mainly apple and grape) to shed some unwanted weight.
John also has a pied-à-terre in Studio City. (His former tire-dealer father and four siblings have wound up in L.A.) As for his next movie vehicle, Travolta denies the rumors about a collaboration with Jane Fonda or doing the adaptation of A Chorus Line. He is committed to an ABC variety special—which he agreed to in exchange for a reduction in his appearances in Welcome Back, Kotter during its farewell season.
Although Travolta professes interest in returning to Broadway (he was last seen in 1974 with the Andrews Sisters in Over Here!), he is wary. “Suddenly it’s very hard for me to do just any play or any movie,” he explains. “Moment by Moment proved that. I thought I was going to get away with doing a little art film that wouldn’t cost very much, that no one would pay much attention to,” he continues. “Then I slowly realized, ‘God, if I get this much focus on a film, I couldn’t get away with doing a play somewhere.’ It’s taken the fun out of being able to get up and do anything you want.” But asked if he’s satisfied with the rewards of his high-dollar, high-pressure lifestyle, Travolta gives an answer that applies to more than just his house and jet. “I think I’ve pretty much gotten what I wanted,” he says softly. “Now it’s a matter of upkeep.”