John Joseph Travolta shot to fame in the 1970s with leading roles in the blockbuster movies Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Since those heady days, moreover, he’s continued to enthral moviegoers with turns in the likes of Pulp Fiction and Hairspray. And, naturally, there have been some pivotal moments in Travolta’s personal and professional lives that have helped shape him. Indeed, the following 20 facts both reveal some of the Hollywood star’s fascinating backstory and explain how Travolta came to be the man he is today.
20. He was too cool for school
Travolta has admitted that he wasn’t a model student growing up, which may explain why he never completed high school. And perhaps that’s because the future Grease star preferred to act rather than study at Dwight Morrow High School in his home town of Englewood, New Jersey. This led to him being something of an oddity among his peers, as Travolta would explain in a 1978 interview with Rochester, New York, newspaper the Democrat and Chronicle. He 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.”
19. He has the luck of the Irish
It’s understandable that Travolta has been cast mostly as an Italian-American, as his father Salvatore was of Italian descent. However, the star is on record as saying that his family was more interested in their Irish roots – probably because his mom Helen was Irish-American. Travolta’s family also lived in a predominantly Irish-American area in New Jersey when he was growing up, too.
18. He joined the Scientologists in the ’70s
Despite his fairly conventional Catholic upbringing, Travolta eventually became devoted to a religion more on the fringes – Scientology. He began to follow the Church of Scientology’s teachings as early as 1975, in fact, while on the set of The Devil’s Rain in Mexico, and after trawling through a copy of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.
17. Welcome Back, Kotter welcomed him to the big time
While Travolta landed minor parts in television programs and stage shows in the early 1970s, it wasn’t until 1975 that he shot to real prominence by scooping a starring role in the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Playing the dumb but devastatingly good-looking Vinnie Barbarino, the fun-loving actor certainly got the ladies’ attention during the show’s four-year run. However, even bigger things were on the horizon…
16. He comes from a supportive family
Travolta’s sister, Ellen, had a small part on Welcome Back, Kotter, too, but she wasn’t the only member of his family to have also taken up a showbiz career. His mother, Helen, for one, was a dancer and actress in her own right and was one of the main influences in Travolta’s decision to pursue an acting career. In fact, she was the one who enrolled Travolta in his first drama class. Furthermore, both Helen and Ellen enjoyed minor roles in Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
15. He was talked out of making a big splash
For an actor, perhaps one of the most irritating and frustrating aspects of the job is when you turn down a part for a movie that then becomes a major hit. And Travolta may have felt this sting in 1984 when he auditioned for the starring role in Splash. His agent at the time persuaded Travolta that the movie wouldn’t be big, leaving Tom Hanks to fill the void in the box office smash.
14. He’s got dance moves to Di for
Travolta’s outstanding dancing skills were always evident in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and later in Pulp Fiction, but none other than Princess Diana wanted to see them up close in real life. And the two danced together at the Reagan White House in 1985, proving not only that the energetic performer could recreate his fictional moves on an actual dancefloor, but also that he could impress someone as graceful and elegant as Princess Di. Bravo!
13. He can sing for his supper
Travolta isn’t just a mere actor: he also has form as a crooner. And his first crack at singing in 1975 was a fruitful one, with his debut single “Let Her In” making it as high as number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But although acting took precedence as the years proceeded, Travolta still kept his hand in with music. In 2008, for instance, he performed a duet with Miley Cyrus on “I Thought I Lost You” for the Disney movie Bolt.
12. He suffered a heartbreaking goodbye
Although she played his mother in the 1976 film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, actress Diana Hyland was actually romantically involved with Travolta off set. They fell in love despite the 18-year age-gap between them, but the relationship came to a tragic end after Hyland succumbed to breast cancer. After a courageous year-long battle with the disease, the 41-year-old died in the arms of a heartbroken Travolta. He later accepted a posthumous Emmy Award on her behalf for her role in the film.
11. He’s a bona fide flying ace
Add aircraft pilot to the list of real-life roles Travolta can perform. Indeed, the actor took an interest in flight from an early age and attained his pilot license at just 22. Today, meanwhile, he owns and flies his own private jets and even has an aircraft company. Maybe he should have been chosen to star in Con Air rather than Nicolas Cage!
10. He’s been accused of not flying straight
However, Travolta’s aerodynamic endeavors have led to one interesting – if unproven – claim. Specifically, in 2014 Douglas Gotterba, a former pilot for Travolta’s aircraft company, Alto, alleged that he had been engaged in a sexual relationship with the star for six years during his tenure. This was quite the assertion, as the actor had only been known to be with women in the past and had been married to actress Kelly Preston since 1991…
9. He’s allegedly been put under “pressure” by the Church of Scientology
And Travolta has been accused of hiding his true sexuality since Gotterba made his allegations, too. Early in 2017, for instance, it was reported that the Church of Scientology was using details of Travolta’s private life to blackmail the star. A former church insider told scandal sheet The National Enquirer, “I was a witness to the pressure put on Travolta. He was afraid they were going to reveal his sex life… He came to me, desperate and afraid of their threat that everything he ever told them would be revealed publicly if he defected.” Given the source, though, it’s perhaps best to take the claims with a pinch of salt.
8. He’s in the Hasty Pudding club
Travolta may not yet have received an Oscar, but he can at least boast of another distinguished accolade. That’s because the prestigious Hasty Pudding Theatricals club at Harvard University – a student society known for staging cross-dressing burlesques and musicals – awarded Travolta its Man of the Year Award in 1981. The honor is given to those who have made a “lasting and impressive contribution to the world of entertainment.”
7. He nearly came to a sticky end in the cockpit
Spending time doing something he loves the most almost cost Travolta his life in 1992. It was while he was at the controls of one of his planes, in fact, when, alarmingly, the power began to fade. But though he rapidly lost control of the aircraft due to the electrical malfunction, the experienced pilot still managed to keep things on an even keel and landed manually.
6. He’s done the hard yards
Not every successful actor is fortunate enough to enjoy overnight success in their youth, and Travolta was certainly one who had to scratch and claw to get to where he is today. Before his meteoric rise in the 1970s, the Hairspray star had to make ends meet by taking on several jobs, ranging from luggage porter to supermarket check-out boy.
5. He claims that the Church of Scientology had a hand in his success
We’ve already seen how Travolta’s big break came when he landed a role in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, but the actor actually credits the Church of Scientology for getting that part. Apparently, the teacher of one of his Scientology course classes had the nascent star and about 150 other students point in the direction of ABC headquarters while telepathically transferring the message, “We want John Travolta for the part.”
4. He’s been involved in some rum business down in Brazil
It’s probably no surprise that John Travolta’s popular the world over; perhaps bizarrely, though, he’s a particularly big hit in Brazil. So much so, in fact, that in 2013 the makers of the Brazilian rum Ypióca Cachaça poached Travolta for the brand’s next television commercial. The ad features the actor playing some soccer on the beach in Rio as well as busting a few dance moves.
3. His single-minded dedication meant no stunt double was needed
He’s not in Jackie Chan’s league when it comes to performing his own stunts for a movie, but Travolta did do all of the dangerous work for 1980 romantic drama Urban Cowboy. So committed was he to the part, moreover, that he had producers find a way to get a real mechanical rodeo bull set up in his house while he practiced riding it for two months. Now that’s dedication!
2. His masseurs felt aggrieved
Weirdly, in 2012 two masseurs came forward to file lawsuits against Travolta, claiming that they were both sexually assaulted by the actor. However, the two male massage therapists were unsuccessful with their accusations in court, leaving the judge to dismiss the assertions in both cases. An angry press statement from the Travolta legal team said at the time, “This lawsuit is complete fiction and fabrication.”
1. He was in Grease seven years before the movie came out
There’s no denying just how much the phenomenal success of Grease played in transforming Travolta’s fortunes early in his acting career. It’s a little-known fact, though, that he was actually in the stage show cast of the musical years before it ever hit the big screen. Travolta was a part of the Broadway production in 1971, before emerging as the leading male star of the movie adaptation in 1978.
And while the 1978 movie that landed Travolta one of his break-out roles quickly became one of the most popular movie musicals ever, there are still some details you probably don’t know about the all-time classic that is Grease. The making of the infamous rom-com was a rollercoaster ride, you see, and it seems there was just as much drama and romance behind the camera as there was in front of it. So, here are 20 secrets from the set that may well leave you wondering how they ever finished the film in the first place.
20. Sandy wasn’t always an Aussie
Anyone who has ever watched even ten minutes of Grease will realise that the female lead is Australian. But did you know that Sandy was of a totally different nationality in the original musical? On Broadway, Sandy was actually an all-American sweetheart with the last name “Dumbrowski.” Olivia Newton-John’s casting put an end to that, though, and the character was also given the much simpler surname of “Olsen.”
19. Fonzie almost played Danny
Henry Winkler was famous for playing Fonzie in classic ’70s sitcom Happy Days, and he was also considered for the role of Danny in Grease. In fact, it seems that Winkler was actually Paramount’s top choice for the character, over John Travolta. Winkler said no to the movie, however, because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a young working-class cool guy in leathers for the rest of his career.
18. Stockard Channing was in her thirties during filming
Many of the actors cast to play high schoolers in the film were actually well out of their teens, but Stockard Channing was the oldest of them all at 33. The pretty actress even ended up having freckles painted on her face in an attempt to make her look younger.
17. Olivia Newton-John was stitched into her pants
Olivia Newton-John’s iconic transformation at the end of Grease is one of the most recognizable scenes in movie history, but have you ever thought that her tight-fitting leather outfit looked just a tad uncomfortable? Well, that’s because it was. The black pants belonged to Newton-John herself, and at the time of filming they were 25 years old. So when the zip on them inevitably broke, wardrobe literally had to take a needle and thread and stitch the actress back in.
16. The cast chomped through 100,000 pieces of gum during filming
Bubble gum features prominently in Grease, with practically every high school character chewing a mouthful of the sticky stuff at some point in the movie. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the cast got through no less than 100,000 pieces of bubble gum during production. And to make sure fans were chomping too, Grease bubble gum packs, complete with free photo cards, were also manufactured to promote the film!
15. “Greased Lightnin’” wasn’t originally meant to have been sung by Travolta
John Travolta’s involvement in the movie came with a few conditions: he wanted Elvis-style “blue-black hair” and he wanted to sing “Greased Lightnin’” – despite the fact that it was Kenickie who belted it out in the original stage production. Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie, was understandably not best pleased to have the iconic song taken away from him.
14. John Travolta’s sister is in the movie
Ellen Travolta, the big sister of John, made a cameo in Grease as a waitress. The actress went on to appear in the popular TV shows Happy Days, Joanie Loves Chachi and Charles in Charge throughout the ’80s. But in Grease she had just one line: “Oh, there’s Danny and Sandy!”
13. A Deep Throat star was almost in the film
Actor Harry Reems was originally picked to play Coach Calhoun, but there was just one problem: the movie Reem was best known for at the time was infamous porn flick Deep Throat. Paramount got worried that this unsavory association would turn some members of the public off the movie, and so it replaced the porn star with Sid Caesar.
12. There was romance on set
Jeff Conaway seduced many extras during filming: so many, in fact, that, in an interview with Vanity Fair almost 40 years later, Stockard Channing remembered, “His trailer at lunchtime was really rocking.” But the Kenickie actor also had a big crush on Olivia Newton-John – even though he would eventually end up marrying her sister Rona. They were together for five years, before divorcing in 1985.
11. Marty couldn’t dance
Dinah Manoff played Pink Lady Marty in the film, but there was a slight problem with the casting: Manoff could neither dance nor hold a tune! And so if you watch closely, you’ll see the actress is subtly absent from the biggest musical scenes. “They were hiding me. I couldn’t really keep up!” she admitted to the Seattle Times in 2010.
10. Annette Charles could have died on set
Annette Charles played sultry dancer Cha Cha, and she had some of the best moves in the film. But if you watch her closely during the drag racing scene, you’ll see the actress looks anything but fit and healthy. In fact, she has to use the vehicles as a support just to stay standing. That’s because Charles was actually in a lot of pain at the time – she was having a tubal pregnancy and was rushed to hospital right after the scene was finished.
9. Rizzo’s hickeys were the real deal
Jeff Conaway wanted Rizzo’s “Hickeys from Kenickie” to look authentic… and so he gave actress Stockard Channing actual love bites in between takes. Now that’s taking method acting to a whole new level!
8. Marie Osmond was nearly Sandy
Marie Osmond was offered the part of Sandy, but she said no because she disagreed with the script on a moral level. Speaking to Larry King in 2006 the singer explained: “I didn’t want my teenagers some day to say… ‘You have to go bad to get the boy.’ It was just a personal choice as a some-day mother.”
7. Grease could have been an animation
Can you imagine Grease being a cartoon? Well, it might have happened. Steve Krantz and Ralph Bakshi owned the rights to Grease first, and they thought it would work well as an animated musical. Thankfully the idea fell through, and the only cartoon jivers we see are in the opening credits.
6. Scientology had a presence on set
John Travolta joined the Church of Scientology in 1975, and he made no secret of his religious beliefs on the set of Grease. Indeed, when director Randal Kleiser’s foot became infected from all the dirty water at the drag racing scene, Travolta claimed he’d healed him with a Scientology “touch assist.” Yes, really.
5. Jamie Donnelly’s gray locks had to be recolored every day
Jamie Donnelly might only have been 30 when she played Pink Lady Jan in the movie, but she was already going gray. And so the actress had to continually dye over her roots, because let’s face it, a high school teen with gray hair would definitely have given the game away. Unfortunately, though, Donnelly’s hair grew extremely fast. So fast, in fact, that she had to use a black crayon to color over her roots every single day.
4. Grease was nearly a franchise
It’s little wonder that Paramount were very keen to capitalize on the huge success of Grease, and the studio originally had plans for three more films and a TV show. What would they have entailed? Unfortunately, Grease 2 was such a disaster that the rest of the franchise was canceled, and so we’ll never know.
3. The movie had a nod to Rebel Without a Cause
Many years before Grease, James Dean starred as the ultimate rebellious teenager in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause. And because Dean’s red wind-breaker is so iconic in that film, John Travolta’s Danny got his own blue breaker to wear in Grease.
2. All the Coca-Cola logos had to be removed
The filmmakers brokered a promotional deal with Pepsi just before Grease came out, which caused one slight problem: logos for their competitor Coca-Cola could be seen throughout the film. Reshooting the scenes would have cost far too much time and money, however, and so all the Coca-Cola logos had to be removed or disguised with optical mattes. Although if you look hard enough, you’ll see that one Coca-Cola sign was left in, by accident or design….
1. A particular word is never spoken in the film
The movie’s famous slogan is “Grease is the word”: pretty ironic, because the word “grease” isn’t spoken once in the whole film. Yes, while the word obviously appears in slightly different form in the the lyrics to the song “Greased Lightnin’”, the scriptwriters obviously decided that Grease wasn’t the word they were looking for after all.