By Martha Smilgis
June 13, 1977 12:00 PM

I got fat on success,” observes John Travolta, who’s the seventh-billed Vinnie Barbarino on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter, but would likely rank No. 1 ahead of even the Fonz if Nielsen could measure the tune-in of teenage fantasies. Now John has shorn off 25 lbs. (not to mention half a head of hair) in search of still greater success—but also in the wake of the profoundest sorrow of his 23 years. He’s just finished playing a disco kingpin in Saturday Night Fever, the first of a million-dollar three-movie deal. But mid-production, Travolta achingly saw the only love of his life, Diana Hyland, die in his arms of cancer at 41.

A blond Grace Kelly type, she had been cast with Paul Newman in Broadway’s Sweet Bird of Youth, was the minister’s alcoholic wife on TV’s Peyton Place and, most recently, the resilient mom of the boisterous brood in ABC’s Eight Is Enough. Although Diana had a mastectomy two years ago, “she didn’t know she was going to die for sure until two weeks before,” John reveals. “And when I first knew her [she played his mom on the ABC movie Boy in the Plastic Bubble last year] there was a possibility it would never happen.”

So when he went east on Kotter hiatus to shoot Saturday Night, Diana remained in L.A., courageously finishing four of the first eight episodes of Eight Is Enough. Every evening they would talk for hours on the phone. Then, with her death imminent, he flew back. The day before she died they walked in the garden together. On Sunday, March 27, he says quietly, “I felt the breath go out of her.” At the memorial service John wore the white suit they had bought together for their planned trip to Rio after Saturday Night was finished.

What kept Travolta together during these last “hardest 10 weeks of my life” were the ministrations of an “auditor” of Scientology, John’s para-psychiatric faith; Diana’s words (“I’m going now, but you are going to have this work”); and the work itself. With a mere 10-day break, he will be back in the studio starring in the movie version of Grease. (Ironically, just three years ago he was a minor character understudying the lead in a road company of the musical.)

Next fall, after he’s got the fourth season of Kotter in the can, John will be back in movies, co-producing yet, and starring opposite Lily Tomlin. According to John, Lily “flipped” over his Saturday Night “dailies,” and is nothing less than “the most talented actress we have, the most important lady of the century.”

Travolta’s ambition for himself is only slightly more modest: to be the De Niro or Pacino of his generation. He thinks he has a rather better shot than, say, Henry Winkler. John, though always speaking respectfully of his friend, notes his own several advantages: he can also sing and dance, is eight years younger and certainly physically (if not intellectually) more powerful. (For Saturday Night, which sometimes had him dancing from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., he trained with Jimmy Gambina, the ex-boxer who shaped up Sly Stallone for Rocky.) John further analyzes that he is less likely to be typed by his series—unlike Fonzie, who has to carry his show, Vinnie is rarely on more than five minutes an episode.

This is not to say that Travolta wouldn’t be just as happy to see his “first and last TV series” canceled before his five-year contract is up. He feels that the scripts have deteriorated since the “brilliant” first year—Barbarino has become a “hypersexual” caricature—but he insists he will honor his commitment. “I never knock Vinnie,” he says. “He broke me through the sound barrier.”

That’s a rather painful metaphor for John, whose only hobby was flying the single-engine Aircoupe he bought himself (for $2,500) as soon as he got his first $5,000 in the bank. Now, since his breakthrough, neither Lloyd’s nor any other insurance company serving Hollywood will insure a production if Travolta flies. He’s become such a superstar, in fact, that he’s even been grounded from using his Honda 350 motorcycle. John still maintains that if his showbiz career bombs he’ll go into aviation.

Travolta comes by his daredevil interest from both sides of the family. His mom, an actress and drama teacher, established a 1931 record for swimming the Hudson. His dad was once a semipro quarterback. He now owns the Travolta Tire Exchange in Hillsdale, N.J., not far from Englewood, where John was born, the youngest of six. All of his siblings have been involved in showbiz (his mom and sister Ann appear in Saturday Night), and he remembers telling some pals about flying all the way to Chicago to see his sister in a nightclub routine. “I flushed red and my eyes started to tear and the kids were laughing,” he recalls. “My friends thought I was a bit off because I was interested in the theater.”

At 9 he played in a local professional production of Who’ll Save the Ploughboy? Bye, Bye, Birdie followed, and at 16 he quit high school (“Perhaps a bigger gamble than I realized at the time,” he says) to devote himself to acting. First came a barrage of commercials, then the feature film Devil’s Rain and, finally, Kotter. Since the series, he’s played a mean high school hood in Carrie. He attributes “a lot” of the success of the movie to himself. Director Brian de Palma and star Sissy Spacek might argue that he’s unduly Sweathogging the credit, but possibly he was right. There could be no esthetic explanation why he had a No. 5 record single last year with Let Her In. Carly Simon, he says, has offered to contribute a song and help produce his next album, but Travolta is holding off, explaining, “I have a good voice and want it to be a class act.” Last summer he headlined in a touring production of Bus Stop. (Necessarily, there was a contingency plan for evacuating John into the scaffolding should the squealing fans storm the stage.)

For all the box office furor, Travolta has remained level-headed. He doesn’t do drugs or booze and had to teach himself to smoke for Saturday Night. Home is a $450-a-month West Hollywood high-rise apartment with a Mercedes 450 SL and ’55 T-bird tucked in the garage below. Sadly, he reports, “I picked out a house, and Diana and I were planning on moving in right after this movie. If she was alive, it is very possible I would have married her.

“I have never been more in love with anyone in my life,” he confides. “I thought I was in love before, but I wasn’t. From the moment I met her I was attracted. We were like two maniacs talking all the time on the set of Bubble. After a month it became romantic.” Every weekend during their seven months together they took off—to Palm Springs, Big Bear, New York (often with Diana’s boy, Zachary, 4, from a previous marriage. The boy is now back with his father). “I had more fun with Diana than I ever had in my life,” he says. “And the odd thing is just before we met I thought I would never have a successful relationship. She told me that she too had thought the same thing. Then, bam.”

Travolta finds that he has always been a one-woman man, and there’s been no one since Hyland. He’s surviving now, he says, on his work and reveries of the past. “I gave her great joy the last months of her life,” John reflects. “I always feel she is with me—I mean her intentions are. Diana always wanted the world for me in every possible way.”