John Travolta, the 70-year-old semi-retired widower soaring over Hollywood

A pilot who’s more interested these days in his planes and children than in his acting career, the two-time Oscar nominee faced personal tragedies that shaped his life

John Travolta
John Travolta, at the Governor's Ball held after the 2022 Oscars, in Los Angeles, California.Variety (Penske Media via Getty Images)
María Porcel

John Travolta could have been Richard Gere. His career and life have had many ups and many downs that feel much like the lingering melancholy that follows moments of joy. Professional success has seemed more like the outcome of haphazard decisions than acting talent, perhaps due to misguided advice. In his personal life, the inevitable misfortunes that befall a person — famous or not — have crossed his path several times. Too many times.

Travolta could have been Gere, or anyone he wanted. The actor turns 70 on February 18, so he might pause to reflect on all his successes and mistakes. If so, Travolta will likely think about the four movie dance scenes that defined his career: Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Hairspray (2007). He may also reflect on his semi-retirement from acting and current focus on his two children and airplanes. Travolta recently busted out some dance moves at the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy, much to the surprise of half the country. His impromptu performance of the duck dance left everyone in hysterics, and videos quickly went viral. Travolta was reportedly furious about the mockery and prohibited Italian television from replaying it. Here today, gone tomorrow.

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John enjoyed a 40-year friendship.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton John enjoyed a 40-year friendship.Alberto E. Rodriguez (Getty Images)

That’s the kind of behavior that shaped the legend of a Hollywood star who has seen better days. Personal, romantic and religious matters have intertwined throughout Travolta’s career, making him frequent fodder for the tabloids. The peak of his career was in the 1970s, thanks to leading roles in two iconic movies. His success in Saturday Night Fever and three-movie deal with Paramount Studios led to Grease, where he had the opportunity to choose his co-star. Travolta insisted on 28-year-old Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John to play his love interest, the sweet, young high-schooler, Sandy Olsson.

Grease grossed over $350 million. “I couldn’t have made the movie if I hadn’t met John first. I wasn’t sure about doing it, but he convinced me,” Newton-John said at a gala event a few years back. The scriptwriters even changed the story for Newton-John when she couldn’t shed her Australian accent. Sandy became the new girl from Australia in a 1950s-era American high school. Newton-John was forever grateful to Travolta for the role that launched her to superstardom, and the two became family. “When you share that kind of meteoric success — and nothing has been able to exceed it — you share a bond,” said Travolta during one of the many Grease 40th anniversary celebrations. “I’ve been through her having a child, getting divorced, losing her sister. She’s been through my getting married, having children. It’s wonderful and full of shared memories.”

Travolta and Newton-John were close friends throughout their lives, until her death two years ago. They not only made Grease together, but shared in its decades-long global success. They traveled together to numerous Grease-related events and even screened the film for Newton-John’s second husband, who had never seen it, during a flight that Travolta piloted. Losing Newton-John to breast cancer was Travolta’s fourth and latest tragedy in life.

The first tragedy happened in the mid-1970s, when Travolta was in his early twenties. He was filming The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, a breakout role that led to Saturday Night Fever a year later (for which he garnered eternal fame and his first Oscar nomination). Travolta fell in love with the actress playing his mother in the film, 40-year-old Diana Hyland. A year earlier, Hyland had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a timely double mastectomy. Travolta and Hyland planned to move in together and marry, but the cancer came back in 1976 at Christmas. A few months later, Hyland died. Travolta had just turned 23.

Diana Hyland and John Travolta at a gala event in November 1976.
Diana Hyland and John Travolta at a gala event in November 1976.Rue des Archives (Credit ©Rue des Archives/AGIP / Cordon Press)

Travolta’s fame began to soar with hits like Fever and Grease. Although he missed out on roles in American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman that went to Richard Gere, he shifted to comedy in the late 1980s with Look Who’s Talking and its two sequels. Co-star Kirstie Alley often shared that she was madly in love with Travolta but didn’t pursue it because she was married. Soon after, Travolta and Kelly Preston met at a screen test for their 1989 comedy, The Experts. They married two years later.

Travolta was riding high on Pulp Fiction (1994), which earned him a second Oscar nomination, followed by Phenomenon, Face/Off, Primary Colors and more. Jett was born in 1992 and Ella in 2000. Jett was diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome at the age of two, a condition that causes arterial inflammation. He also suffered from seizures and was on the autism spectrum, a condition not acknowledged by Scientology, the religion Travolta has followed since 1975.

John Travolta and Kelly Preston, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.
John Travolta and Kelly Preston, at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2009, during a family vacation in the Bahamas, Jett suffered a seizure in the bathroom and hit his head on a bathtub. Paramedics tried to revive him, but he died in a hospital at the age of 16. “Scientology helped us through that. Our family and friends too,” Preston said nearly a decade later in an interview with EL PAÍS at Cannes. “And time also… When something like that happens, it either sinks a relationship or helps it move forward. I think we both tried to cope with the pain as best as we could. It was a very tough time to be together when one of us was feeling down... but the strength of our relationship helped us.” They decided to move past the grief of losing Jett by having another child. Nearly three years later, they welcomed Ben into the world. They also worked together again in Gotti playing a mob couple.

The couple’s strong marriage was Travolta’s mainstay for nearly 30 years until Preston died in July 2020 from breast cancer at the age of 57. Travolta continues to honor her memory on his Instagram page. Before she died, few people knew Preston had been ill for two years. Travolta asked for privacy in his grief and found solace in his children and old friends like Olivia Newton-John. After Preston’s death and her own battle with cancer, Newton-John established a foundation to combat the disease. John Travolta’s longtime friend passed away two years later at the age of 73.

The last five years have not been easy for Travolta, who says his children have been a constant source of comfort. He finds solace with his family and serenity in flying. Two years ago, he earned his license to fly Boeing 737 aircraft, which allows him to become a commercial pilot. But with $250 million in the bank and nearly 100 films under his belt (and more to come), Travolta will probably avoid that stress and choose a more peaceful life enjoying his children.

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