The Life & Career of John Travolta

Celebs August 31, 2017 By Vincent

John Travolta is arguably one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood after a long spanning career that has seen him star in hits such as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Pulp Fiction that has seen him gain acclaim and untold riches but it hasn't all been plain sailing for the actor.

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Here we take a look at the life and career of John Travolta


Born in New Jersey in 1954, Travolta was the youngest of five siblings who were all into singing, acting and performing which came from their mother's side as she was an actress whilst their father owned and worked in a tire repair shop. Never a particularly good student, John was focussed more on acting than getting great grades and would often try to use his charm to get out of any trouble.


But it was at 16 that he decided to drop out of high school and pursue his acting career full time. “Not too many of my friends identified with what I was doing,” Travolta said. “I participated in football and basketball, and did what they were doing, but not many kids understood my going to acting studios at night.”

Stage Career

Pretty soon after he had dropped out of school in New Jersey, Travolta made the short trip to New York City to live and try and find work. It didn't immediately go to plan as Travolta had to pick up other jobs outside of acting but did land a few TV commercials before eventually deciding that maybe Los Angeles would offer up more opportunities.


Strangely enough, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, Travolta was lured back to NYC to play a character called Donny in a Broadway musical set in the 1950s called Grease, which became a bit of a hit.

First TV Appearance

A breakthrough came for John in the 70s when he made his first credited TV appearance in the show EMergency! , a show about paramedics and firefighters in LA where he played a 16-year-old boy who fell down a canyon.

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Other stars like Nick Nolte and Marion Ross also had small parts on the show which they used to kickstart their careers.


Much has been made of Travolta's connection with his religion over the years and it was in 1975 that he was introduced to Scientology whilst filming one of his first films, The Devil's Rain, in Mexico as an actress on set gave him a book that outlined the core beliefs of the controversial religion.

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Raised a Catholic, Travolta found greater solace in Scientology. Travolta has credited the religion for his success and for helping him through some tough times. Before his audition for Welcome Back Kotter, he told his Scientology class that he was worried about getting the part and then the teacher asked the class to send a telepathic message to the producers asking to give John the role. A few days later he was cast.

Welcome Back Kotter

John would land a role in ABC's sitcom Welcome Back Kotter as Vinnie Barbarino and would quickly come to the nation's attention as the good looking bad boy of the show which ran from 1979-1975.

It was a massive break for Travolta who would go on to land some of his most iconic film rolls off the back of his work on the show.

Saturday Night Fever

In 1977, Travolta landed the lead role in Hollywood blockbuster Saturday Night Fever which sees his character hit the dance floor of discos and is widely credited with popularizing disco culture in the 1970s. 

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Travolta undertook 9 months of dancing lessons to prepare for the role and his performance helped launch him to becoming a 70s icon as well as landing him a nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.


The following year, Travolta was putting his dancing skills to more use as he landed the lead role in Grease, the film adaptation of the Broadway musical he started his career in. The film was a massive global hit and cemented John as a superstar and become his most recognized and enduring roles.

It was here he also met Olivia Newton-John who he played opposite. The pair shared feelings for each other and dated for a while and to this day remain close friends. Travolta said they meet twice a year and usually talk on the phone every couple of weeks.

The 1980s

The 1970s had been incredibly kind to John as he had launched his career and cemented himself as a star and things started well for him in the 1980s as he appeared in the drama Urban Cowboy which did for country music what Saturday Night Fever did for disco.

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Things started to take a downward turn after that as Travolta turned down roles in films that went on to become massive hits whilst accepting ones that floundered a bit. In 1985, he was still a big enough star to be invited to  President Reagan’s White House gala where he famously danced with Princess Diana who wished to dance with him after seeing him in his dancing roles of previous years. After that though, it was thought that Travolta had rather disappeared off the scene during the 80s due to his poor luck picking films although he was still working.

Meeting Kelly Preston

The 80s weren't all bad for John though as in 1989, whilst on the set of the film The Experts, John met Kelly Preston and the pair began dating for 3 years before eventually getting married in a Scientologist ceremony in Paris, France. At the time, the marriage was not recognized in the US so they underwent another in Florida just two weeks after the first.

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The pair has three children together and remain a close and strong couple to this very day despite rumor to the contrary that the pair has fiercely and vehemently denied.

Working With Tarantino and Landing Pulp Fiction

By the early 90s, Travolta had become box-office poison due to his poor decisions in accepting role but up and coming director Quentin Tarantino, who had recently made his mark in Hollywood with indie flick Reservoir Dogs, contacted Travolta about a possible future collaboration saying that he had been disappointed with some of Travolta's career choices and offered him a role in his vampire film From Dusk Til Dawn.

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Travolta turned it down and said he would be more interested in appearing in Tarantino's nonlinear gangster flick Pulp Fiction that was released in 1994. Tarantino agreed to cast Travolta but had to fight movie studios all the way to get him the role. Playing Vincent Vega moved Travolta away from his usual role of a pretty boy and gave him a meatier role to sink his teeth into alongside megastars like Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman. The film won many plaudits including the Palm D'or at Cannes and Travolta was, again, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Battlefield Earth

After the success of Pulp Fiction, Travolta's career was back on track and he was inundated with decent roles and working regularly on high profile projects and by the end of the decade, he was at the height of his powers.

In 1999 he set about appearing in a role for the sci-fi film Battlefield Earth, which was a particular passion project for Travolta as it was an adaptation of a book written by Scientology founder L.Ron Hubbard. However, the film was severely panned by critics with many considering it the worst film ever made. It bombed at the box office as well and yet Travolta had no regrets on making the picture. “If we had to do it over again, I would still do it. It was a moment where I could say ‘I had all the power in the world and could do whatever I wanted’. Not a lot of people get that opportunity, and I did what I wanted to do.”, he said. Fortunately for Travolta, he followed this up with 2001's Swordfish which saw him appear in another mega hit.

A Qualified Pilot

With all this Hollywood money at his disposal, John has been able to indulge his other passion which was aeronautics. Training to become a pilot, Travolta is now a fully licensed pilot and has his own fleet of jet liners and planes, many of which he keeps at his own specially built home that has its own runway, and is even an ambassador for Australian airline Quantas, even wanting to name one of his children Quantas (his wife disapproved) and one Jett (she was okay with that one).

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Despite being a skilled pilot, in 1992 Travolta nearly died when the plane he was flying had a complete electrical failure but he managed to stabilize the situation and land without too much issue. 

The Loss of His Son and Considered Retirement

Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston have three children together, Ella Bleu, his daughter has set out to pursue a career in acting like her parents and appeared in the film Old Dogs with the two of them. Sadly, in 2009, Travolta's son Jett died at age 16 while on a Christmas vacation in the Bahamas. Suffering from Kawasaki disease since the age of two, Jett suffered a seizure, slipped and hit his head on the bath.


Devastated, Travolta considered retiring from acting and admitted he didn't know if he would survive after his son's death but he credited his family and religion for helping him to move forward. Travolta’s youngest son, Benjamin Travolta, was born on November 23, 2010, and helped the family overcome the loss of Jett. “Certainly having little Benjamin has been a beautiful kind of glue for us to re-bond after a tremendous loss”.

Continued Work

Travolta continues to appear in massive Hollywood hits and is set to appear in The Life and Death of John Gotti as the lead character that will be released this year and Trading Paint due to be released next year.

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He also occasionally appears on TV still and in 2016 was nominated for a Critics Choice Award, Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe for his role as Robert Shapiro in the miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story

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