In Hollywood, where just about everything is in a name, Joey Travolta, 28, has a problem. His kid brother, now 25, is emerging as the biggest marquee moniker since (and maybe including) Brando, and by those lights the name before the title looks suspiciously opportunistic when it’s Joey, not John. So it’s no surprise that the older Travolta reacts with annoyed defensiveness to inevitable comparisons. “Nobody can confuse Johnny and me,’ pleads Joey. “We’re as different as night and day.” Of course, the producers of the just-released Sunnyside, Joey’s first movie, are banking on the hope that he’s kidding himself.
“I think I came off natural—me as I am,” assesses Joey, who is cast in Sunnyside as a gang leader who is opposed to violence and dreams of escaping with his girlfriend, co-star Stacey Pickren (Jon Voight’s real-life lady). The modest-budget production’s similarity to Saturday Night Fever ends there. Despite Joey’s own sexy charm, one reviewer dismissed him as “a human prop.” But Joey maintains: “I think I kept getting better and better every day. The whole game is to have confidence. You have to be assertive.”
He has abounded in those qualities since accepting brother John’s $5,000 stake to move to L.A. last September. Previously a teacher of emotionally disturbed kids and a part-time singer, he has since appeared on TV specials, cut his second album (due out next month) and, despite a $50,000 development deal from Paramount, steadfastly refused a sequel to Saturday Night Fever and a Kotter-esque sitcom called Flatbush Fungos. “People will take a look at you—that’s the advantage,” says Joey. “But a record won’t sell just because your name is Travolta. You can’t put out a piece of crap. I have to make it on my own.”
“John doesn’t get involved,” says their older (38) sister Ellen, whose own mid-season disco sitcom, Makin’ It, didn’t live up to its title. “Joey is very athletic and outgoing, while John is more introspective.” The brothers, though fiercely loyal, haven’t been close for years. “We used to confide in each other,” says Joey, “but not so much now. I don’t like to talk business with him.”
The Travoltas’ unity was recently tested tragically when the family matriarch, Helen, died in December shortly after she and husband Sam moved to California to be near their children. (Depressed by the loss and overwork following his first flop, Moment by Moment, John dropped out of American Gigolo for several semi-reclusive months at his Santa Barbara estate.) Joey delivered their mother’s eulogy. “At first I cried, but then the words began to flow,” he says. “My mother hated funerals, so I talked about the funny things that had happened in our lives.”
The family was always tight-knit. Joey worked with his dad in the Travolta Tire Exchange back in Englewood, N.J. Mom, a drama teacher, lured her children into acting. Ellen used to pay young John and Joey two bits to act out West Side Story for family and friends. But while John left school for showbiz at 16, Joey got a B.A. in special education at William Patterson College and studied postgrad. He worked at an orphanage, then taught “emotionally disturbed kids who’d been in trouble all their lives. They all respected junkies and pimps and I could make those people look like asses,” he boasts. “It worked.”
Joey used his teaching experiences in writing Steal Away, a film script sold to Paramount with himself as star, and predicts “a family special in the future.” By then the clan may include his lover of four years, Wendy Shawn, 23, an aspiring actress and daughter of comedian Dick Shawn. They share a rented duplex in a modest Beverly Hills neighborhood. “We’ll probably get married someday,” Joey jokes, “as soon as the kids grow up.”
For now their only dependent is golden retriever Dashiell, but party-loving Joey always has a houseful of friends, both showbiz and back-home types. He jogs and plays tennis and basketball—still anonymously. But on location and promo trips (he plans to tour with a band this summer), fans gather to scream. “He loves it,” informs Wendy. “He’s not shy.” Nor, he insists, an envious sibling rival. “God, no! I don’t feel that competitive thing. Jealousy is a nasty animal. What’s happened to John is great.”