March 05, 1984 12:00 PM

With one hand stabbing at the sky and his white suit blazing, John Travolta flared onto the pop-culture horizon in 1977. The national pulse was thumping to the disco beat and, as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta embodied that phenomenon with sass and panache. Some thought neither disco nor Travolta would last longer than the frug. But disco and its New Wave crossbreeds still rule the airwaves. And Travolta, swapping outfits as smoothly as a Barbie doll, has gone on to become the totemic figure for ’50s nostalgia (Grease), Western gear (Urban Cowboy) and body building (Staying Alive). His asking price these days is $3 million a picture. Whatever his material—and sometimes it’s been dreadful—he has managed to remain a star.

Last month he turned 30. Looking back at his transformation from a teenybopper favorite on Welcome Back, Kotter into the sort of matinee idol that Hollywood assembly lines have stopped producing, Travolta is still astonished. “When I accepted the movie, I thought it would be a step to the next movie,” he says. “I thought I was the kind of talent who could get jobs but would not be formally recognized. All I wanted to know was whether I would be able to work. But it went beyond that.”

Way beyond. While riding the rapids, John couldn’t sit back and wonder where he was headed, but lately he has reconsidered his career by studying Michael Jackson’s rise. “It’s been the biggest lesson in my life to observe what’s happened with Michael,” he says. “The same thing happened with Saturday Night Fever and Grease—what was good turned into a mania. I remember saying to myself, ‘How do you top this?’ Even if you do, it can only happen to you once, because you’re only surprised once. You’re forced to compete with yourself, and you’re maxed out. So you just do good work and hope you can stay there.”

What happens when a youth hero starts to age? The early peaks can loom ominously in the background, belittling by comparison any later achievements. The juvenile roles, becoming legendary, can constrict the actor who played them. Aware of these traps, Travolta for a long time resisted a Fever sequel. When he finally acceded to Staying Alive, directed by Sylvester Stallone, he was apprehensive. But, unlike most of the critics, he was—and is—enthusiastic about the box-office hit. “Staying Alive is the movie I’m happiest with,” he says. “It’s sort of my song. I saw Broadway with stars in my eyes as a kid, and it’s the kind of dancing I grew up on. The character is in my ballpark. Also, I think Sly shot me like a movie star—with real care.” On the other hand, Two of a Kind, his rematch with Olivia Newton-John, his co-star in 1978’s Grease, was a disappointment to him. “It had good intentions, but it could have had more style and flair,” he admits.

Next time out Travolta will star in Perfect, directed by Urban Cowboy’s Jim Bridges. In it he plays a journalist troubled by an ethical conflict. “I’ve been one of the most interviewed people in modern times,” he says. “I think I know a lot about how it’s done.” Although his character researches a story on health clubs, John plans to keep his shirt on in Perfect (except for a few seconds at the end). But to maintain his Staying Alive physique, he still works out in his home gym. “It’s so much work to get there,” he says, “that you don’t want to lose it.”

That’s John’s credo. Delighted with his success, he has no nostalgia for his lost anonymity. “The last nine years of my life have been continuously happier and more content,” he says. “I didn’t like the struggle.” If he hasn’t yet found a part to match the excitement of his first starring role, that’s understandable. He rode on the crest of the biggest cultural wave of the decade. It’s a wonder he’s still standing.

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