By Lois Armstrong
November 29, 1976 12:00 PM

Forget the vaccination program. One strain of swine flu has already laid waste 27 million Americans. They are the country’s 8- to 14-year-olds, a population group feverishly infected by a band of scurvy incorrigibles known as the Sweathogs. Their leader is 22-year-old John Travolta—rather, Vinnie Barbarino, as he’s called in the classroom on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter. Gifted with telegenic blue eyes and a Kirk Douglas dimple, Travolta is leaving prepubescents catatonic and is seemingly on the cusp of the impossible: knocking off the Fonz as TV’s hottest pop icon. Travolta’s fan mail is up to 10,000 a week now, topping Henry Winkler’s. (But it lies unanswered because the return postage and handling would cost $32,500.) “If I wanted,” muses Travolta without the least self-doubt, “I could make $1 million this year.”

Instead, with a shrewdness that belies his lack of a high school diploma—but not his upbringing in a tightly knit theatrical family—Travolta will settle for half that amount. In doing so he has engineered a feat that has eluded Winkler—shucking his sitcom typecasting by quickly branching out from his base. Today, barely a year after his network debut, John has hit in the scareflick Carrie, had two going-gold records (Whenever I’m Away from You and Let Her In) and enjoyed both Nielsen and critical acclaim this month in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. The made-for-ABC movie starred Travolta as a youth born without natural biological immunities.

While filming Boy last summer, Travolta unexpectedly found something as important to his life as his professional sagacity—love. His co-star was Diana Hyland, an elegant blond actress who, John jokes, “usually plays sexy bitches.” She was once an alcoholic nymphomaniac in TV’s Peyton Place, but in Boy, intriguingly enough, portrayed Travolta’s mother. In fact, at 40, Hyland could be John’s mom. Yet she can easily appear half her age, as on a future Happy Days episode, when she plays an ex-flame of—oh, the irony—the Fonz.

“This is new for me,” John says. “I’ve had different girlfriends, but always on a casual level. That’s unsettling. I know now what I want and need.” Diana, a divorcee, speaks for herself. “John’s not like many people I’ve ever met,” she says. “He’s mature, sensitive and giving, very easy to be with.” Even Diana’s 3-year-old son, Zachary, “loves Johnny—and Johnny loves him.” Concludes Hyland, “John’s the antithesis of Barbarino.”

Travolta agrees. “I’m not a playboy, slick with the women, putting them in their place—all that number.” John is quick to add that he does not resent playing the loutish Barbarino, even if the result is being mobbed in restaurants and trailed by drivers “nearly killing themselves” running red lights behind him. At one time he took to hiding self-protectively behind glasses and a fake beard.

The real problem now is time, a commodity Travolta has lacked since last fall. Even after Kotter’s debut, John accepted a role in Carrie, “because it was wise to be doing a movie.” The part called for a raunchy sex scene which “wasn’t hard for me because it was an easy reality.” More difficult, he says, was the simulated bludgeoning of a pig, because “those things don’t mind taking a bite out of you.” Though John properly expected his name to be buried in the credits, Carrie’s hot launch has been partly due to his star billing immediately behind Sissy Spacek.

Travolta has also spent hours in the recording studio rushing together his album—albeit with a voice that even a Barbarino would have to be modest about. “I was at about one-quarter of my ability,” he shrugs. Though John takes his singing seriously, he is the first to admit that he’s not aiming for Blood, Sweathog and Tears. Last summer, he points out, “I said no to concerts where I could have opened for John Sebastian. So many people see you in a concert situation that you can’t afford not to be great.”

In fact, he turned down a potential fortune in personal appearances to spend six weeks in summer stock, performing more than creditably in Bus Stop in the Northeast. He wanted to return to the boards after a two-year layoff. What made it easier was signing a package deal—along with John, the producer cast his older sisters, Ellen, 37, and Anne, 25.

Looking out for his own comes naturally to Travolta, the youngest of six children born to the Catholic family of Sam and Helen Burke Travolta. His father is an ex-semipro athlete who now co-owns a tire shop in Hillsdale, N.J. His mother is a retired actress and drama coach. “The wonderful thing about my parents,” remembers John, “was they gave us confidence. We were the best. Whether we were or not, this energy came out of us as creative talent.” Indeed, all three sisters are now actresses, and his two brothers are aspiring singers. As a grade-schooler, John would tag along to his mother’s rehearsals. By 10 he was flying with sister Ellen to road shows in Chicago and Boston. At 12 he was in his first major amateur production. At 16 he played Bye Bye Birdie in summer stock.

The penalty of such domestic closeness was that “when my family wasn’t there I had nothing. My friends didn’t really understand me—they thought I was a bit off because I was interested in the theater. How could I share my kind of experience? I’d have such pain I’d be crying.”

Finally Travolta won parental permission to drop out of high school in tenth grade for a one-year try at acting. He was immediately cast in summer stock and, more important, commercials (of the 40 or so he made pre-Kotter, John still draws residuals from Band-Aids and MONY insurance). He played off-Broadway in Maugham’s Rain, studied dance with Gene Kelly’s brother and took voice lessons. (Barbarino’s Flatbushese is wholly faked.) Next stop was L.A. and bits in Emergency! and Owen Marshall. Travolta joined the road company of Grease, and spent eight months on Broadway in the Andrews Sisters’ Over Here! In 1974 he made his screen debut (which he’d rather forget) in a Grade C satanic flick, The Devil’s Rain. On the day after he finished shooting, he was asked to read for Kotter.

Today John is remarkably unaffected by Hollywood’s star-making machinery. To be sure, he’s splurged—on a Mercedes 450SL and a classic ’55 T-Bird, as well as on a used single-engine, two-seat Aircoupe. His bachelor pad in a Hollywood high-rise is a one-bedroom cell whose closet is full of model plane kits he still hopes to build someday. His limited social life revolves not around discos but Diana (“You make the time,” he says softly, but adds, “I don’t think I’ll be getting married in the near future”).

Travolta has three more years left on Kotter, a sentence he views ambivalently. “I love slipping into the role of Barbarino,” he reflects. “It’s just that I have to do it so often.” But he’s content “as long as I have the freedom to do movies.” In fact, he had vetoed his own spin-off series even before film producer Robert Stigwood offered him a $1 million, three-film deal. John’s already prepping for Saturday Night, a movie about the New York singles scene. It will be directed by John (Rocky) Avildsen, starting in February. Next comes the movie version of Grease.

About the only thing that nettles the placid Travolta these days is the suggestion that he’s had it too easy. “It’s bull that you have to suffer to be a creative artist,” he explodes. “All that having trouble with your career creates is hostility. Pain only gets in the way, suffering only makes you less creative.” As for those who see him as merely another pop phenom, Travolta has a clincher. “It’s hard to be a flash-in-the-pan when your career is booked for the next three years with records, movies and television—that’s an awfully long flash.”