EVEN THE SWIVEL-HIPPED JOHN Travolta himself, then just a lowly sweathog from TV’s Welcome Back, Kotter, had no idea he was about to touch off a national craze. “I thought Saturday Night Fever was just going to be a stepping-stone,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Instead, the tale of Tony Manero, a nowhere-bound Brooklyn teen who moonlighted as lord of the local disco, has raked in an estimated $350 million, while its Bee Gees soundtrack became one of the biggest sellers ever. And Travolta? Then-Paramount Pictures head Michael Eisner boasted that the Oscar-nominated actor, only 23 at the film’s December 1977 release, was “the biggest star in the world, bar none.” Adds Travolta’s dance coach, Deney Terrio: “Guys wanted to be like John, look like John. He was the king of disco!”
Most of SNF’s supporting cast, however, saw fame fade even before polyester fell out of fashion. Travolta’s own triumph was bittersweet. His girlfriend, actress Diana Hyland, died of cancer during SNF’s filming, and his mother soon after. “I blinked and missed my own coronation,” he told Vogue. After the hits Grease and Urban Cowboy, Travolta was savaged for his role in the 1983 SNF sequel Staying Alive and didn’t recover his A-list status until 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
At 43, Travolta, now married to actress Kelly Preston and appearing in Mad City, rarely does the hustle anymore. “At 200 pounds, you know, doing those knee dips is a little tough,” he recently told Rolling Stone. In the following pages, stars of Saturday Night Fever recall the glory and reveal what they’ve been doing for an encore.
KAREN LYNN GORNEY
HEY, I’VE NEVAH SEEN YA HERE befoah!” Gorney exclaims to a waiter in her favorite coffee stop on Manhattan’s West Side. A classically trained actress now performing in Measure for Measure off-Broadway, Gorney, 52, falls quickly into the voice of Stephanie, Tony Manero’s lavender-leotarded love. “I go into her character whenever I talk about Saturday Night Fever,” says Gorney. “I can’t help it.”
SNF was hard work for the former All My Children star. Travolta’s “strength scared me,” says Gorney, who got some pampering—”a tush girl to attend to pulling my leotard down over my tush.” After waiting in vain for juicy film roles, Gorney, who lives in New York City with husband Mark Toback, a pianist, returned to theater. “Stephanie was ahead of her time,” she muses. “Now we have so many Stephanie clones, like Marisa Tomei, and lots of TV stuff where everyone’s from Brooklyn. Now it’s really hip.”
IN SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, DILLON plays a desperate groupie thrilled to wipe the sweat from Tony Manero’s brow. Dillon could relate. “Dancing with John and listening to the Bee Gees, I felt like I was in heaven,” says Dillon, now best known as the shrill secretary on the 1990-96 HBO series Dream On. “I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for it.”
SNF was the 5-foot Broadway vet’s first film role. She then spent a year on Saturday Night Live and a season on Night Court (as the mouthy-mite girlfriend of 6’8″ Richard Moll’s Bull) before becoming Dream On’s “bionic yenta.” The single New Yorker still runs into SNF fans who greet her with her best-remembered line: “I loveta watchya dance, Tony!” Says Dillon: “There’s a woman in my building who just saw [SNF] for the first time, and every time I go by, she calls [it] out.”
MOMENTS BEFORE TRAVOLTA’S DAZZLING dance solo, Drescher delivers her first-ever screen line: “Are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?” Leave it to the woman who would become TV’s brazen Nanny to juice up an already racy bit. “I decided to grab his tushy, which wasn’t in the script,” she later told reporters. “He could have fired me on the spot, but John just smiled.” After years of portraying supporting Noo Yawkers, Drescher, now 40, found a home for her fine whine in 1993 as CBS’s outer-borough Mary Poppins. Still, she recalls making SNF as if it were yesterday—especially the time she bucked up a flagging Travolta. “I expect you to act like the star that you are and finish the scene,” she said to him, according to her 1996 autobiography. “He looked at me, oy. He stood up, double oy, and finally he spoke. ‘Thanks, I needed that. Come on, let’s dance.’ ”
PLAYING TONY MANERO’S PAL JOEY, a Brooklyn tough, almost had Cali sleeping with the fishes. “After the film came out, people thought I was a wiseguy,” he says. Then, one night in a Manhattan bar, a real-life mobster’s moll took a shine to him. “I remember hearing a few nights later that it was a good thing I didn’t go back into the bar,” recalls Cali, “because this goon was ready to kill me because his girlfriend liked me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I nearly got killed because of this movie.’ ” Now 47 and the father of five (he recently split with third wife Patty), Cali has hung on in Hollywood with guest turns on Melrose Place and Bay watch and a film role in next year’s Suicide Kings. But his passion is Cello Music and Film Systems, an outfit he cofounded six years ago that sells high-end home-theater equipment. He got sick of being typecast, he says, “People thought I was that street guy. I had to be Joey.”
A GREENHORN ACTOR WITH ONLY 65 off-Broadway performances of The Cherry Orchard under his belt, Pape was a bit wary when his agent sent him to his first film audition—for the role of Double J, Tony Manero’s Brooklyn buddy. But while the young cast made a pact to work as a team (once meeting over dinner at James Taylor and Carly Simon’s Central Park West pad, where Travolta was staying), the film’s success left Pape feeling “like a deer caught in headlights.” He has since made his way doing voice-overs for more than 300 television shows and films, he says, including Dances with Wolves and Independence Day. An L.A. resident, the unwed Pape dreams of buying a ranch in Wyoming, where he and other members of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fan club converge annually to ride the open range. “Yep,” says Pape, “I’ve gone cowboy all the way.”
OF SALVATORE AND HELEN TRAVOLTA’S six children, Ann and baby brother John were by far the most theatrical. As teenagers “we used to dress up as Bonnie and Clyde,” recalls Ann, now 48. The inseparable duo from Englewood, N.J., headed to New York City to pursue acting careers, but it soon became clear which sibling was destined for stardom. For SNF, John helped Ann land a bit part as a pizza-parlor girl. “All the meaty roles were love interests for Johnny,” says Ann. “I certainly couldn’t do that.”
Travolta’s later movies yielded tiny gigs for his struggling sis: a wedding guest in Urban Cowboy; a bank teller in Two of a Kind. “I even got to dance in Staying Alive,” she says. Ann now lives in L.A. with husband Craig Respol and daughter Megan, 7, and works for Travolta’s production company. “Whenever I talk to him, I forget how all the masses adore him, and he’s just my brother,” she says. “My funny, cute, adorable, handsome, talented brother.”