By Arthur Lubow
March 07, 1983 12:00 PM

As delighted as a teenage boy with his first car, John Travolta runs his hands over his gift from Sylvester Stallone. Sleek lines, trim feel—is this new body really his? “I’m in awe of it,” he confesses. Since September, every day but Sunday Travolta, 29, has trained like Rocky Balboa, pumping iron two hours a day, dancing for three. Every detail of his regimen was determined by Stallone. He eats fish, chicken or turkey with a green salad, followed by fresh fruit, washed down with juice, Perrier or Emergen-C vitamin drink. He pops daily multivitamins, mineral pills, zinc tablets, wheat germ capsules and a trayful of other nutritional supplements. He has waxed the hair off his arms and bronzed his skin with a tanning machine to highlight the lines of his muscles. Before Stallone, what did he know about abs, deltoids, vascularity? Now he knows. He’s into it.

Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, is filming in Hollywood for July release. Travolta, naturally, stars. Stallone, surprisingly, directs. When he was first approached for the job last August, Stallone, 36, was apprehensive. This was a movie about a dancer, and Stallone knew almost nothing about dance. It relied heavily on music (again with several songs by the Bee Gees), and he knew little about that. And then there was Travolta. In Saturday Night Fever, the Travolta character of Tony Manero was a Brooklyn kid who excelled on the disco floor. Staying Alive takes place about six years later, and Tony has become a professional dancer. Dancers are lean, muscular, hard. On his best days, Travolta has never been better than thin.

But if there’s anything Stallone knows about, it’s bodies. He immediately set out to remodel his star, examining photos of dancers with trainer Dan Isaacson to see which muscle groups to accentuate. “People like Sly can look at a body like clay and mold it,” says Travolta. “I never thought of designing a body. I just thought, ‘Diet, run, lose it and you’ll look good.’ I didn’t think of shaping the shoulder, the triceps, the waist.” Because Travolta wanted to begin training at his Santa Barbara ranch, which is almost a two-hour drive from Stallone’s home in Los Angeles, Isaacson supervised the day-to-day transformation. Once a week Travolta would pilot his $1.7 million Cessna Citation jet down to L.A. to discuss the movie project with Stallone and, by taking off his shirt, let him know how things were going.

Isaacson snapped weekly Polaroids to record the metamorphosis. In the first shot, that pale soft body in Fruit of the Looms could belong to a young stockbroker who gets his exercise by playing doubles tennis on weekends. A couple of months later he is the image of a dancer in the Stallone style of heightened realism. Playing Rocky, Stallone had bulges and definition that boxers have no reason to attain. And talk about vascularity—the veins snaked across his arms like freeways on a map of L.A. Explaining the Stallone training goal, Isaacson says, “We look at dancers and think, ‘If they had a little bit more, how awesome they would be.’ ” A little larger than life is what the director ordered.

“If John keeps it up, I’ll have to fight him in Rocky IV,” Stallone jokes. He talks as if he were John’s proud older brother, and Travolta, who has a tendency toward hero worship, plays along. “Sly is gorgeous,” he says. “To have Sly’s kind of body would be beautiful.” He is also “in awe of Sly as a writer.” Reciprocating, Stallone calls Travolta “a consummate actor who works at it harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.” They confer frequently on the set, studying the instant videotapes to sharpen John’s performance. Sly works with an efficiency that endears him to the studio’s budget watchers—the film is days ahead of schedule—and Travolta has adapted readily to his director’s punctuality. Rocky IV quips aside, Travolta and Stallone have discussed teaming up again. Stallone plans to direct Godfather III for Paramount, and Travolta is interested in co-starring with him in it.

Staying Alive is inconceivable without Travolta. Paramount and producer Robert Stigwood have wanted a sequel ever since Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977. At that time they offered Travolta a script, which he rejected. “I didn’t like it because the character was anti-dance,” he explains. “He wanted to go into block parties in Manhattan and social counseling, getting the neighborhoods together.” Then in August 1981 Stigwood invited Travolta to his yacht in southern France, where they developed a concept that appealed to Travolta. The idea is that Tony Manero, having moved into Manhattan, works as a dance teacher and part-time bartender while auditioning for Broadway shows. Saturday Night Fever screenwriter Norman Wexler then met with Travolta and Stigwood in New York. A few months later he delivered a script, and Travolta said he would be interested in doing the movie.

But when, and with whom, and for how much? That could have taken forever to determine, but Paramount had Travolta over a barrel. In 1978, three weeks before shooting was scheduled to start on American Gigolo, Travolta had backed out of the starring role. His mother had recently died, his film Moment to Moment had just opened to scathing notices, and he wasn’t seeing eye to eye with director Paul Schrader. In exchange for letting him out of the contract, Paramount made him commit to two future movies. After he did the first, Urban Cowboy, the studio had nothing for him and allowed him to make Blowout with Filmways. But Paramount very much wanted a sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and now that an acceptable script was in house, the studio wasn’t going to let Travolta do anything for anyone else until he had discharged his obligation.

Travolta wanted to work. He traveled for weeks to plug Blowout and then acted last year in Aspen, Colo. summer stock, but that was hardly all-consuming. There was no great romance his life: Debra Winger he has seen occasionally, but his old flame, Marilu Henner, was off limits until her marriage to actor Frederic Forrest ended recently. So John had taken violin, French, flying lessons, Scientology to the “upper levels”—enough was enough. “I don’t like to have this much time between projects,” he says. “It’s not good for your morale.”

During the two years that he waited to get back to work, Travolta streamlined his operation. Last winter he dissolved his production company, which was headed by his childhood friend Jerry Wurms, and he separated amicably from Bob Le Mond, his manager for 12 years. “Bob and I were in a rut,” John explains. “I just felt that I knew what to do if something came up. There were no more discoveries. It was time for independence.”

Vacationing in Hawaii last June, Travolta saw Rocky III and called his new agent, Michael Ovitz, to suggest Stallone for Staying Alive. It so happens that Ovitz also represents Stallone, and when the president of Paramount liked the idea, Ovitz set up a meeting. “I met with Sly and we got on; our viewpoint was similar about the movie,” Travolta recalls. “He said he would do a rewrite, and I trusted that it would turn out well. Boy, did it turn out well. If I had the ability to write and I was as gifted as Stallone is at it, this is what I’d have done.” All that remained was the deal. “The hardest thing to work out was how to cut up the pie,” says Stigwood. At Paramount’s insistence, Travolta agreed to do Staying Alive at the $2 million fee agreed upon when he backed out of American Gigolo. Stallone was hired for $1 million to direct and co-produce.

“When I read the first script, I didn’t know where to go,” Stallone says. In Wexler’s original screenplay, Tony Manero despises show business and disdains auditions, saving his true passion for the moments he dances in class. Stallone didn’t like that. In his rewrite, Tony wants desperately to make it on Broadway but refuses to scale down his oversize talent to win a place on the chorus line. “I feel this is somewhat biographical—Tony’s life, John’s life and my life all fused together,” Stallone explains. “I’ve seen the faces of rejection and I know what it’s like to be on the losing end. If I had been younger, I would like to have done this part. I probably don’t have John’s talent to pull it off. But in my fantasy it’s the kind of thing I would like to have done. I guess I just did it in boxing and he’s doing it in dance.”

As he has done in all his most successful work, Stallone nourished the script with material from his own life. In the central love triangle, Tony flips for a glamorous lead dancer (Finola Hughes), and his devoted girlfriend (Cynthia Rhodes) waits it out until he wises up. Stallone’s own affairs with actresses Joyce Ingalls and Susan Anton were followed by a reconciliation with Sasha, his wife of nine years. “I guess it was subliminal but it’s true,” he acknowledges. “I am drawing on past experiences.” Asked why he expanded the role of Tony’s father, who is a small-minded loser resentful of his son’s success, Stallone ruminates on his “respectful but distant” relationship with his father. “It’s a touchy subject with me,” he explains. “I think no matter how successful actors become, they’re not successful until their parents give them final knowledge that ‘Yes, you’re better than we are’ or ‘You did something that we’re really proud of you for.’ I finally came to terms with it myself, but in the beginnings of a man’s career, it preys very heavy on your mind.” In the end, Stallone scrapped the part of Tony’s father, refusing to accede to actor Val Bisoglio’s last-minute demand for better billing. Like so many of Stallone’s artistic decisions, it made perfect business sense and could also be interpreted psychologically. The father is now completely out of the picture.

Staying Alive wouldn’t be a brand-name Stallone movie if it didn’t end with a slam-bang fight victory. An old pro at choreographing boxing as dance, Stallone reverses himself by closing Staying Alive with a nine-minute, million-dollar dance sequence staged as a one-on-one bout. There’s even blood. Billed as “Dante’s Inferno,” this grand finale features Travolta dancing his way out of hell and ascending to heaven on a spaceship-like platform that resembles the one in Broadway’s Cats. Stallone originally planned to cap his movie with a musical rendition of The Odyssey, but he opted for heaven and hell “because more people know about it.”

Stallone’s talent is a strange one. A phenomenal track record on sequels, a flair for dramatic pacing, a first-hand understanding of the needs of male stars—those are the reasons given by Stigwood and Paramount for hiring a man whose directing success is limited to Rocky II and III. But Stallone’s real knack is for turning his life into an inspirational myth that audiences take to heart. “I work totally from an emotional point of view,” he says. “I know what feels good and what sounds good.” On the set of Staying Alive, Stallone’s pet catch phrase is “the razor’s edge,” echoing Rocky III’s keynote, “the eye of the tiger.”

In Rocky III, which so impressed Travolta, the world champion has gone soft with success, and he must train as hard as the hungriest contender to regain his desire, his edge, “the eye of the tiger.” At the suggestion that he identifies with Rocky, Travolta bristles. He doesn’t think he has slipped. Clearly, though, he hasn’t followed up the one-two punch of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the first two theatrical films he starred in. Urban Cowboy was a medium-size hit, but Blowout was a box office disappointment and Moment to Moment was a first-round knockout. Travolta’s explosion as a star in Saturday Night Fever was so high-voltage that it may be unrealistic to expect him—or anyone else—to generate that much excitement again soon. But Stallone is a professional mythmaker. On the set of Staying Alive, it’s possible to believe that John Travolta, like Rocky Balboa, will regain his crown.