Role Recall: John Travolta on his 'Saturday Night Fever' breakthrough, 'Grease' dream come true, 'Pulp Fiction' pride and more

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Forty-two years ago, moviegoers watched John Travolta strut down a Brooklyn sidewalk — and into movie history — to the tune of “Staying Alive.” The disco blockbuster Saturday Night Fever premiered in theaters on Dec. 12, 1977 and that now-iconic opening sequence immediately got the audience in a dancing mood. But if the film’s producer, Robert Stigwood, had had his way, Travolta wouldn’t have been walking in time to that Bee Gees anthem. Instead, Stigwood’s plan was to save “Staying Alive” for later in the movie, when Travolta’s alter ego, Tony Manero, takes his solo spin around the disco floor. “He wanted me to dance my big solo dance to ‘Staying Alive,’” the actor reveals to Yahoo Entertainment in our latest Role Recall. (Watch our video interview above.)

Even though he was still at “rising star” instead of “superstar” status while filming Saturday Night Fever, Travolta felt that he had to challenge his producer if it meant a better movie. “I said, ‘Robert, it doesn’t have a fast enough rhythm [to dance to],’” he remembers now, adding that he proposed moving it to opening sequence instead. “It was a negotiation, but I needed something to walk to.” Stigwood eventually acquiesced, and Travolta hit the pavement with “Staying Alive” literally accompanying his every step. “They played it on a boombox underneath the camera,” he says of how the film’s director, John Badham, approached the scene.

History ultimately proved Travolta right: Saturday Night Fever just wouldn’t be Saturday Night Fever without Tony’s “Staying Alive”-scored power walk. “Switching ‘Staying Alive’ to the front of the movie was the best thing that could have been done,” the actor says, happily. Read on for Travolta’s memories about some of the most memorable roles he’s played over the course of his career as one of Hollywood’s best entertainers.

Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79)

Born in New Jersey, Travolta found his breakout role as New York sweathog Vinnie Barbarino on one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s. His overnight success thrilled everyone... except his mother, Helen Cecilia Burke Travolta. “My mother was an acting teacher, and she didn’t want people to think that I had a New York accent or that I behaved in that less than ideal IQ way. She was saving my reputation, because she didn’t think I’d ever become famous playing a dumb New York character!” Interestingly, Travolta had the opportunity to leave Kotter after Carrie and Saturday Night Fever made him a big-screen idol, but he opted to stick around until the last season. (Though he left before the series finale.) “What really happened was that Farrah Fawcett was on Charlie’s Angels, and she left after one year of superstardom and got in trouble for it,” he remembers. “I got the memo pretty quickly that if you become big from a TV series, don’t leave it, because your movie career might get hurt.”

Carrie (1976)

These days, Stephen King adaptations are almost prestige productions. When Travolta was cast in the 1976 movie version of the author’s first novel — directed by Brian De Palma — even he expected it to be quickly forgotten. That changed during production, as he watched De Palma execute such soon-to-be-classic sequences as the Bloody Prom. “It was a far more well-made movie than I had anticipated it would be,” he admits. “It became an instant classic!”

Grease (1978)

One of Travolta’s first big gigs as an actor came when he landed the supporting role of Doody in the touring company version of the Broadway hit Grease. Every performance gave him the chance to study the role he really wanted: lead greaser Danny Zuko. That never happened onstage, but Travolta nabbed his dream part for the beloved film version. And after watching other actors play Danny for so long, he had an innate understanding of what to do, and what not to do, in the role. “I knew that character like the back of my hand. I knew what worked, what didn’t work, what was funny, what wasn’t funny. All I could do as [Doody] was watch the coolest character for over a year, plus all the other times I’d seen people do it onstage.”

Look Who’s Talking (1989)

Travolta and Bruce Willis became buddies in the process of making Amy Heckerling’s talking-baby comedy, even though they never appeared onscreen together. “We became friends and went on a couple of vacations together, Bruce and Demi and Kelly and I at his house in Idaho and in the Caribbean on a boat.” Five years later, they did share the screen in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with far more tragic results. Midway through the movie, Willis’s boxer shoots Travolta’s hitman coming out of the bathroom. “That baby grew up and killed me,” Travolta says with a laugh.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Travolta was famously Tarantino’s first and only choice to play the part of fast-food-obsessed assassin, Vincent Vega. And Tarantino put his nascent career on the line to ensure that the actor would be his leading man. That earned him Travolta’s eternal admiration and love. “I could cry thinking about it, but Quentin loved me so much, and I could feel the love, admiration and trust. He always said, ‘You’re an unpredictable actor, and I really love that about you.’ Every day that I did good work, he was so utterly proud that he chose me.”

Face/Off (1997)

Travolta may be the only actor in history who can boast to flummoxing Nic Cage. When they were both cast in John Woo’s delightfully demented action movie, the duo knew they’d have to work closely together to accomplish the central conceit: that Travolta would be playing Cage and Cage would be playing Travolta thanks to a bit of face-switching. “[Nic] is so specific,” Travolta says, breaking into his still-great Cage impression. “He talks like this, and he walks like this. He was very easy for me to grasp. It was much harder for Nic to find me. He said, ‘Who are you? I’ve been watching all your movies, but you’re always different characters.’ I said ‘Mostly Nic, I play characters. I’m not very busy being myself onscreen.’”

Primary Colors (1998)

Like the original book, Mike Nichols’s movie version of Joe Klein’s roman à clef account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign tried to play it coy about whether Travolta’s politician, Jack Stanton, is a Clinton surrogate. There was never any doubt in the actor’s mind about who he was playing, though. “It was always Bill Clinton,” he says. “I never pretended. I was [using] his voice, his cadence, his look, his everything. Once I understood that I could improvise in character, then I felt like I had arrived at Bill Clinton.”

The Fanatic (2019)

Travolta’s most recent film partnered him with musician-turned-director Fred Durst, who based the screenplay on his own encounter with an odd super-fan. The actor committed so fully to his alter ego — horror movie lover Moose — that he even stayed in character between shots. “I came on set in character and everybody had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going with this guy. I loved the collaborative effort with Fred. He allowed me to create a character who was full-bodied.”

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