John Travolta – Playgirl Magazine

The overnight sensation of Welcome Back Kotter is determined to be more than just an overnight sensation

It happens every few years. The long arm of teen worship reaches out for an unsuspecting, sensual young actor and hurtles him into absolute superstardom. Huge sacks of fan letters pour in daily. Hysterical mob scenes materialize. Record contracts are offered, regardless of any particular ability. And then, as quickly as the fever had hit, the hunger moves on to someone else.

Twenty-two-year-old John Travolta, who plays Vinnie Barbarino – the sexy heart-of-gold gang leader with the pretty choir boy face – on ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter, is the current heir to the Teen Throne. The series was hardly a few weeks old when the overwhelming volume of mail demanded that Travolta – by then the hottest item since tight jeans – all but commandeer the series away from its titled star, Gabriel Kaplan. Like Davy Jones (of the Monkees), Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy found out before him, the breathless adulation of millions of pubescent girls is an act that’s hard to sustain. If Travolta emerges unscarred by the alternating passion and cruel fickleness of his audience, he will be lucky – and the first to do so.

John Travolta has not yet rebelled against female adulation. Still giving cheerful interviews to the fanzines, he tries not to swear and – why not? – does his best to be all things to all people. He’s even accepted a record contract with RCA-distributed Midland International and with “Let Her In,” has feebly warbled his way to a Top Ten hit. Even today, halfway through his second album, Travolta sheepishly admits he can’t sing. But Travolta’s hot – and it’s cool to play the game. It’s all in the name of “box office,” as he puts it. And box office means he can be – at least temporarily – what he really wants to be. A respected film star. Travolta’s recently-released first film, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, seems to prove he has a chance, a major parting-of-company with the Bobby Shermans of this world. He has talent.

It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that John Travolta is a gifted actor. He’s been at it for ten years, bouncing around Broadway and television walk-ons since he was an ugly duckling of a twelve-year-old. His credits include starring roles in Grease and Over Here, as well as Bye Bye Birdie and Metaphors.

Not long ago, Travolta got his biggest wish – a million dollar-plus film deal with Robert Stigwood, guaranteeing him three major motion pictures to star in. The first of the triad will be Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night, then the screen adaptation of Grease. The third is undecided.

When we talked at his Beverly Hills apartment, Travolta was obviously still spinning from his coup with Stigwood. He bumped around his memorabilia-strewn surroundings like he barely knew the place, which is probably close to the truth. A huge model airplane, a reminder of his piloting hobby hangs on the wall, but aside from a few Broadway posters, a feeling of sterility pervades. His huge apartment building, in fact, is little more than a triple-security Holiday Inn for workaholic actors. “I just sleep here,” Travolta shrugs.

Only rarely in the interview did Travolta appear particularly revealing or confessional. A friend of his told me something later than seemed to make sense. “He’s a nice kid, but he’s a robot. He’s also an actor. Be glad you got the robot…”

But to say Travolta is not at all like vibrant, punk-hero Vinnie Barbarino might well be an untruth. Both use their charm, flashing brilliantly disarming “Shucks, I don’t know” grins whenever smiling is the easiest way out. Both tend to swagger in and out of rooms, and neither have a razor-sharp wit. But, there is, alas, one gaping difference. Barbarino is a punk. John Travolta, on the other hand, is a dedicated young Scientologist. Two different ways, possibly, of being passionately out for number one.

Cameron Crowe: Did you used to dream about being a teen idol?

Well, sure I dreamed about it, but I never really thought I’d be one, no. Never thought I’d be this big. I always hoped I’d be a big film star, which I’m going to be shortly. But I mean, I didn’t think it would happen quite in this fashion.

Are you sorry it did?

No. No. I love it. I just…I don’t know. See, I wasn’t quite sure how the business worked. As a kid I always knew it was pretty classy to be a film star, right? I also knew it was pretty okay to be a television star. I thought that I’d probably end up both, which I am, I guess. But it’s just that you never know whether it will be film first, then television, then singing – or the other way around. I didn’t know how it would all be; I was just hoping it would be.

So you always knew you’d make it.

Not really. I just had a manager who reminded me of it every day. At sixteen, when I became a professional actor, all I thought was, Wouldn’t it be nice to always have a little job doing summer stock or off-Broadway. That was the big time to me. Then my manager said “I think you can be a very big star, and if you’re not a big star, you will be a very important actor.” Meaning that I’d always work a lot. I said “Great!” and every time I doubted it, he reinforced it.

Do you really believe it now?

Oh sure. I think very highly of my talents.

Does the fact that you aren’t more seriously accepted bother you?

You can’t expect the teeny-bop thing not to be there. It would be there no matter which way I’d go. If I started in movies, at my age, I would still be a teenage idol. James Dean was, Marlon Brando was – it doesn’t matter what media you’re in. If I just did records, it would happen. I’m young, I’m going to appeal to teenagers. I cannot not expect that. Look, that’s what makes you box office, what makes you sellable. And if you have talent to go along with it, then you’re a terrific package. Do you know? Already, I’ve created box office – whether I’m on television or albums or whatever. So it’s always to your advantage to be admired, no matter what age category. It’s only some journalists – that’s what you’re called, right? – that makes less of it. Plus, I know I appeal to more than just teenagers and the kids, whereas maybe someone like Cassidy and Sherman only appealed to the kids. But for some reason, I project a quality that appeals to older men and women too.

Are you prepared for the day when you won’t be quite this hot?

You don’t die if you don’t want to die. Do you know what I’m saying? I have a feeling Cassidy and Sherman, for some reason, were fed up with it. They just didn’t want anymore and withdrew. You cannot withdraw. You can play a game of “I’ll be on this show, I won’t be on that show.” You can withdraw from within, but if you withdraw from the business totally, you break your communication with people. If you keep refusing jobs, you will no longer be a star. It’s a chess game. Play the right movie. I give all to each thing, but strategically I have to stay in demand – and always keep working on my talent.

How do you keep up your talent?

I always expand and chance the new project. I always try that different role and then take a little rest to bring in new colors. I did a television movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which is a total reversal of Barbarino. In Carrie, I was along the lines of Barbarino, but I’m a hood from the midwest. I also did a play this summer where I was a cowboy inBus Stop. So I always keep my fingers in different pies.

How do you feel about being merchandised so heavily – all those T-shirts and dolls?

That you can’t control. At first, we thought there should be no merchandising, but if you don’t do it, people will just bootleg it anyway. Like I okayed some of it just so I can get some of the money from it. It’s like the fan magazines. If you don’t talk to them, they make up an interview.

What about overexposure?

That’s the only thing I worry about. I get scared that sometimes there might be so much out there that everyone gets fed up.

Well, then you’re in a pretty dangerous position aren’t you?

Yeah. I have to be very choosy about what I do. I’ve had offers that were incredible, financially phenomenal. But, it would have just wiped me out.

How did the Kotter series come about for you?

I had a feeling it was huge hit from the very beginning. It felt right when I did the pilot. It was ABC, it was young, hip and I knew those were the three qualities it needed to go and it did.

It also needed a star.

That’s right. They were very smart in the way they played me up. The pilot script went to Gabe, me and then the rest. I was the leader of the Sweathogs, very clearly. Originally, the pilot was structured to how my success is now. What happened was, in order to play it safe, they wrote the first six episodes so that everyone was equal. They wanted to let the people decide who were the favorites. Well, the structure was inevitable that I would rise out of it. I was Vinnie. I was covertly the leader. It was inevitable. I feel like no one gave me Vinnie Barbarino. I did a watered down version of Vinnie until it was obvious who the people liked. By about December, I started doing all the Elvis shit. I added all that. That’s what the people picked up on.

Where do you want to take Vinnie?

I don’t know. He’s been such a natural progression for me. I have no limits for him. The new season will be totally unlike what you’d expect from him. In the past, I’ve kept him thick. Not real dumb, but street-wise. I love to surprise the audience. You never quite know what’s gonna come out of Vinnie next.

Who is the character based on – how authentic is it?

A little of everyone. Imagination. You bring people in from your past.

Think you’d get along with Vinnie?

I’d enjoy him, but I don’t know if I’d get along with him. He’s someone I’ve made up, but I don’t think he’s as intelligent as someone I’d get along with. I like to be around people who are a little more stimulating and intelligent.

Do you figure on leaving the series soon?

Well, I’m contracted for a while yet, but I think we’re gonna be a little too old to be that classroom soon. I know I’m gonna be too old soon.

How much of Vinnie’s cockiness with women do you share?

None. My attitude towards women is an attitude towards people in general. I am not a sexist. If I like girls, I like them for who they are. Do you know? Not because of anything. Women that I’ve known have had very different qualities and you can never tell with me. If there was a common denominator, though, it would be a basic goodness and warmth. I like that.

Your attitude towards women must have changed a lot. Surely women are much more aggressive with you these days.

Well, I’m finding more now than ever before that I haven’t decided what I like in women. I could say there are five girls in my life that I would love to have a heavier relationship with, but yet I can’t commit myself to any one because I don’t know yet what I’d like forever. I would like to be around what makes me feel the best for most of the time. That’s what you have to look for.

Who could you find that could cope with your life at this point?

My tendency is to go with people who are of common magnitude, like someone else in the business who’s just as successful. Or my instinct is to go with someone I already know.

Has any girl that you’ve been with tried to sell her story?

Not one I’ve been with, no. There’s a couple who could have, easily, but haven’t. As a matter of fact, they shy away from it.

Do you have someone around you know that could, hypothetically, tell you if your head was getting too big?

I don’t need that. No one’s ever had to do it because it’s not a truth. If anything, it’s gone the other way. I know what power television has and what a hit record does but sometimes I don’t feel worthy of success. Not because I’m not talented – I feel like I’m more than talented enough to be here – but sometimes press and television coverage makes it bigger than what it is.

Were you a good-looking kid in school?

(Travolta laughs and goes to get a picture of himself at fourteen.) It’s always the ones that were gawky at school. Here’s me at fourteen. See now, I always had pretty eyes. I was an adorable child, from the day I was born until ten. Then from about ten on, my face was real small and I had a big nose and big lips. My eyes were always blue, very pretty, but it didn’t seem to co-ordinate till about twenty years old.

You’re into Scientology. Do you spend a lot of money on Scientology training?

No more than anybody else would on any other self-help program – like analysis or medical help or the equivalent.

Do you not like to talk about being a Scientologist?

I talk about it when it’s appropriate. I just find so many people hedge on it. So many people get upset. Only if they ask me, do I talk about it. I think that it’s an amazing thing, that it has so much to say. It’s so logical. For some reason, it got a lot of bad publicity early on, in the late sixties. All I know is that it helps me.

Why is it good for you?

It teaches me to know how to know. It’s a technology about people, what they do and why they do it. Everyone’s got common denominators, everyone does certain things under certain situations. When you spot it, it’s cool – you know it. There are wonderful, basic things that help me deal so much better with life. Like equal exchange. You don’t really feel good until you’ve exchanged fairly with a person. I do something for you, you do something for me. If I clean your floor, you pay me. That’s a basic logic thing. Another thing is the communication law. I talk to you. I say, “How are you?” You say, “Fine.” That’s one cycle of communication. If you wanted to repeat, you say, “How are you?” And I say, “All right.” When anyone interrupts that, it’s called cutting communication, and you usually get upset when someone does it.

Then there’s the Withhold thing. Like when a person is supercritical of you – and sometimes it may be someone very close – they usually have a Withhold. There’s something they’re not telling you. So for your own test, when someone close to you is criticizing the way you look, the way you act and the way you are, you just ask them “Is there something that you’re not telling me?” They say “What do you mean?” real defensively. They probably have a Withhold on you.

What if the person told you he had no Withhold.

That’s called a Mis-Withhold, meaning that if I really know that there’s something you haven’t told me, it’s worse. The other person is lying. First you see if they’re going to tell you, then if you really want to keep the communication clean, say there is a Withhold. You see?

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve heard nothing but negative things about Scientology. Unless it’s been from other Scientologists.

Most of that bad stuff, it’s like, totally fabricated. That’s what I mean by bad press. Karen Black, myself, Chick Corea, the whole Rockin’ Horse group are Scientologist.

Have you ever tried est ?

Est is 75 percent Scientology. It’s someone who was from Scientology who left.

You’re not supposed to leave Scientology, are you?

Not to start something else. That’s ripping it off. You see, the founder of Scientology feels it’s dangerous to do it, to try to alter it in any way. That’s what est has been doing, combining several things to alter it. L. Ron Hubbard discovered it and he knew the technology. It’s very hard when a person alters it.

Tell me, is success too difficult for someone to maneuver without having something like Scientology?

Success is tough. You always have the fear, “It’s terrific now, but will it last forever?” That kind of thing. You know, when you hit is so quickly, you don’t know where to go. What you want to do is keep consistent and always work, but never let yourself be a flash in the pan. Scientology makes it all a lot saner. If you’re out there by yourself, not knowing why a person reacted a certain way, you could go crazy. That gives me a knowledge, a system to go on. What time is it?

I’ll let you go. Thanks a lot.

Did you want to know what I do, like I fly an airplane and all that? Do you have all that information?


Great. Thanks a lot.

Courtesy of Playgirl Magazine – Cameron Crowe –  March, 1977