December 25, 1978 12:00 PM

He flashed onto the screen in a white suit and a sullen, sensual, proud look that’s become a role model for a generation. The movie was Saturday Night Fever, in which John Travolta danced and acted with an electrifying raw energy and presence that invited comparisons to Astaire and Brando. It would have been the biggest-drawing movie of 1978 if not for Travolta’s own follow-up: Grease, the ’50s farce that has raked in $125 million and is still counting. Meanwhile the sound track LPs from both movies have sold an astounding 30 million apiece worldwide—the two biggest albums in record history. Yet Travolta is loyally playing out his contract on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter. At all of 24, he has more than proved that a TV star can make it in movies, not to mention to dinner at the White House. So persuasive is his influence that even the Communist government of East Germany felt compelled this month to denounce Travolta Fever as an insidious capitalistic threat to world youth.

While he recognizes that “I seem to be some sort of hero” to the young, Travolta stays oddly aloof and removed, almost as isolated as the lead role he played on ABC two years ago in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. His mother in that TV movie was Diana Hyland, who tragically died at 41 during their May-December romance. Since then, aside from friendly escorts like old pal Marilu (Taxi) Henner, Travolta has rarely gone out. When he does, two male bodyguards usually accompany him—with reason, since he was almost crushed by a London mob during a Grease promo tour. “For the first time in his career,” says his big sister Ellen, “Johnny is looking for time to be alone.”

That excludes almost everyone but family. “When I first saw my name up on a billboard, I felt it was really glamorous,” he allows. “But then I remembered the Travolta Tire Exchange sign my father had in New Jersey.” Now, in devoted Italian-American fashion, the whole clan has shared Johnny’s success. He moved his parents to L.A. to be near the 14-acre, $1.5 million avocado ranch Travolta bought this fall to supplement his Beverly Hills high-rise. And now all five of Travolta’s siblings are entering showbiz careers.

John’s own career problem is to prove that he can play roles other than hoods-with-a-heart. “I’m not afraid of typecasting,” he insists. “Although most of the characters I’ve played have been basically street kids, I’m trying to show new facets of that type.” In the just-released Moment by Moment, Travolta makes the switch in scenes of touching intimacy with Lily Tomlin. “He’s a sensitive actor,” she says, “and closer to himself in this movie than to the street characters he’s been playing.”

In January Travolta careens nonstop into his next film, American Gigolo, with Lauren Hutton. To prepare for it he’s not taking disco lessons but smoothing his rough edges with an elegant wardrobe and reportedly $500-a-day instruction in urbane graces from oldtime Hollywood sophisticate Francis Lederer, 72. “There’s a lot of tension and strain,” admits one close friend. “There’s always that uncertainty about whether the next one will be a success like the others.” In Gigolo, and two others John’s signed to make with his own production company, he is guaranteed a final cut—an all-but-unprecedented concession to an actor of his limited experience. Clearly, he has the levers to feel out a shower of other offers—everything from a movie biography of Elvis Presley to Godfather III and a proposed pairing with Liza Minnelli. Gloats his manager, Bob LeMond: “Is there any film with a male lead between 14 and 60 where they are not discussing John Travolta?” Barnacles of accountants and lawyers have also latched onto Travolta—he’s legally a corporation—but haven’t diminished his mystique. Says Lily Tomlin wonderingly: “He’s glamorous, secret, menacing, but his whole vulnerability is there.” In short, she sums up: “He inspires love.”

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