Every guy and gal that grew up in the 70s has admired John Travolta at some point — whether that was by continuously listening to the heartthrob’s voice on the Grease (1978) soundtrack or boogeying to the disco grooves from Saturday Night Fever (1977).
If it hadn’t been for the amazing vocals, acting and dance moves of John Travolta, the decade of disco — and Danny Zuko — may not have been what it was. Through his legendary career and a life of love and loss, John Travolta has filled our hearts with his incredible acting and charming demeanor.
Take a deep dive into the life of John Travolta young and learn all about the early career of the legendary Greaser.
Early life of John Travolta young
Born in Englewood, New Jersey in 1954 to parents Helen and Salvatore Travolta, John was a part of the acting community from a young age. Though his father owned a tire repair shop, his mother was an actress and dancer. When he was young, Travolta appeared in the local production of Who’ll Save the Plowboy. Soon after, his mother enrolled him in a New York drama school.
Travolta studied acting, dancing, and singing while at the school, which certainly paid off for his future roles. At age 16, he landed his first professional role in the musical Bye Bye Birdie and soon after made the decision to move to New York City.
But work in New York became hard to come by, so Travolta packed up and relocated to Hollywood. There, he booked some small roles in a few TV series.
John Travolta was born to star in Grease because not only did he have the lead role in the hit blockbuster, but he also starred in the musical on Broadway. When Travolta was 18, a part in the show opened for the character of Doody, so Travolta auditioned. In the book Grease, Tell Me More, Tell Me More (2022), Tom Moore, director of the original Broadway production, talks about Travolta’s “disastrous” Broadway audition for Danny Zuko.
“His audition was completely unfocused,” recalls Tom Moore. “It was all over the place. But he had a terrific voice. He was immensely charming. And he was very attractive.” Just a few years later, though, Travolta would score the role of Danny.
Travolta then worked on the Broadway show, Over Here! for just under a year and then decided to head back to Hollywood.
John Travolta young on the small screen
After his stint on Broadway, Travolta found some luck on the small screen. He booked minor roles on the series Emergency! (1972), The Rookies (1973), and Medical Center (1974).
In 1975, Travolta scored a lead role in the TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter as Vinnie Barbarino. The flirtatious, charming, and somewhat dim character starred on the show for the entirety of its run, with witty remarks like “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” and “What? Where?”
Something you may not know about his time on the series is that his mother was less than thrilled about the role. Travolta recalled to Yahoo! Entertainment, “She was saving my reputation, because she didn’t think I’d ever become famous playing a dumb New York character!” It’s a good thing she didn’t win that battle, otherwise we may never have been blessed with the lovable Vinnie.
John Travolta young on the big screen
Throughout the run of Welcome Back, Kotter (1975), Travolta had a lot of success in the movie industry as well. He booked the role of Billy Nolan in the film adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Carrie (1976). Acting as a bully towards the main character, Travolta’s role was a major one for him. In a 2018 Instagram post, Travolta wrote, “On the set of #Carrie over 40 years ago. I don’t think any of us could have known the life the movie would take on for decades…”
A year later, Travolta got his disco on in Saturday Night Fever (1977) opposite Karen Lynn Gorney. Travolta plays the self-proclaimed “dance king”, Tony Manero, a 19-year-old who chooses to dance his problems away at the local club.
As for the iconic opening scene where Travolta walks down the street to the classic “Stayin’ Alive” (1977)? That was all his idea! Travolta recalled to Yahoo! Entertainment, “He [Producer Robert Stigwood] wanted me to dance my big solo dance to ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ I said, ‘Robert, it doesn’t have a fast enough rhythm [to dance to]. But I could walk down the street to ‘Stayin’ Alive.'”
Grease is the word
Saturday Night Fever was such a wild success, that Travolta finally booked the role of Danny Zuko in Grease (1978) the movie. With his slicked-back hair, charming attitude and a black leather jacket, Travolta perfectly encapsulates a greaser as the leader of the T-Birds.
After falling in love over the summer with good girl, Sandy (Oliva Newton-John), Danny struggles with continuing the relationship when he finds out they are attending the same high school. With hits like “You’re the One That I Want” and “Summer Nights”, Grease was an immediate box office success, making it the highest grossing movie of 1978.
Life after Danny Zuko
After Grease, Travolta remained a series regular on Welcome Back, Kotter, despite the success of his recent films. During the filming of the series and afterwards, he continued to snag movie leads. He starred in the film Moment by Moment (1978), where his character embarks on a May-Decemeber romance with an older married woman.
In 1980, Travolta goes down to Texas in the film Urban Cowboy, where he falls in love. But in 1981, he ditched the cowboy boots for his lead role in the slasher flick, Blow Out (1981).
In 1983, he reprised his role of Tony Manero in Staying Alive, which was directed by Sylvester Stallone. In this sequel, Travolta’s character works as a dance teacher in New York City with the dream of making it as a dancer on Broadway.
That same year, the film Two of a Kind (1983) reunited on-screen flames Travolta and Oliva Newton-John. The pair play Zack, a struggling inventor, and Debbie, a bank teller, who are tasked with saving the world when God decides to destroy it.
In 1985, Travolta teamed up with Jamie Lee Curtis in the film Perfect. He plays a news reporter writing a story about the 80s fitness craze where he meets an attractive fitness instructor. Travolta and Curtis even landed on the cover of Rolling Stone that year.
A few years later, the comedy Look Who’s Talking (1989) brought together Travolta and Cheers (1982) star, Kirstie Alley. He plays cab driver, James, to Alley’s Mollie, who is having the baby of another married man. The adorable romantic comedy was even made into a trilogy with sequels Look Who’s Talking Too (1990) and Look Who’s Talking Now (1993).
John Travolta’s later career
The 90s were a whirlwind for Travolta, as he starred in dozens of blockbusters like Pulp Fiction (1994), Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997) (among many others!)
In the late 2000s, Travolta became Edna Turnblad for the movie/musical, Hairspray (2007). Acting his first musical since Grease, Travolta said in an interview with CBS, “Even though it took 30 years to decide to do another one, I didn’t want to ruin that cache.”
The next year, Travolta voiced the lead in Disney’s Bolt (2008) alongside Miley Cyrus. Interestingly enough, Travolta’s late wife, Kelly Preston, would star in The Last Song (2010) with Miley Cyrus two years later.
Present day and personal life
John Travolta met his late wife, Kelly Preston, on the film The Experts in 1989, and the two tied the knot in 1991. The couple had three children together — Jett, Ella and Benjamin —but unfortunately lost their eldest son, Jett, in 2009 while on vacation.
In 2020, Kelly Preston lost her two-year battle with breast cancer. She was 57 years old.
Travolta and Preston were very involved in their charity work and even started one in their late son’s name. The Jett Travolta Foundation raises money for children with physical/learning impairments or other special needs.
Most recently, Travolta has worked on the action/thriller, Mob Land (2023) and the comedy Die Hart (2023) with Kevin Hart. He even recently reprised his role from Saturday Night Fever in a Capital One commercial, but as Santa Claus.
Some of his upcoming projects, which are all still in post-production, include the films Cash Out, Cash Out 2: High Rollers, and That’s Amore!.
John Travolta young was an ace on the screen and his incredible film work shows that. Whether dancing away in Grease or playing the dim Vinnie on Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta never fails to capture our hearts!
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