"I think what you have to do is have a box office success in every genre, and then you're set for life." he once said. Yet John Travolta, who became a '70s icon when he played a 19-year-old disco dancer in "Saturday Night Fever," has never been one to rest on his laurels. Here, as the consummate actor turns 64, are 20 of his most noteworthy roles.
"The Boy in the Plastic Bubble" (1976)
A year before breaking through in "Saturday Night Fever"—and decades before the classic "Bubble Boy" episode of "Seinfeld"—Travolta starred in this made-for-TV weeper about a teen with a life-threatening auto-immune deficiency. Though received at the time as typical "disease-of-the-week" television fare, it features the 22-year-old Travolta with his acting chops already on display.
Travolta was already well-known as Vinnie Barbarino on TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter," but "Carrie" marked his big-screen debut. All feathery hair and male pulchritude, he plays Billy Nolan, a dim high school bully, in a memorable supporting role.
"Saturday Night Fever" (1977)
The part of Tony Manero made John Travolta a superstar as moviegoers and critics alike fell in love with the strutting but vulnerable disco king. And Travolta's acting was as impressive as his dance moves, As New Yorker critic Pauline Kael put it, "Travolta gets so far inside the role he seems incapable of a false note."
After defining the 1970s in "Saturday Night Fever," Travolta redefined the '50s with his second blockbuster in a row. Playing high school bad boy Danny Zuko, he not only dances but also sings this time, and a single from the soundtrack—"You're the One That I Want," a duet with Olivia Newton-John—reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100. As charismatic as Brando or Dean, Travolta steals the movie from his stellar classmates.
"Urban Cowboy" (1980)
Travolta was still a cultural trendsetter when he took on the role of Bud Davis, with seemingly every bar installing a mechanical bucking bull and every downtown suit topped off with a Stetson hat. While some had difficulty accepting Travolta as a Texas honky tonk denizen, the actor was praised for taking on a more adult role. Though not the box office smash "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" had been, "Urban Cowboy" was just the star turn Travolta needed after his 1978 flop "Moment By Moment."
"Blow Out" (1981)
The still-young Travolta had one of his best dramatic roles in this nearly forgotten Brian De Palma thriller. As a movie sound man who stumbles into a Hitchockian conspiracy and follows it down the rabbit hole, Travolta proves once and for all that he wasn't just a song and dance man. Though "Blow Out" failed at the box office, it has since become a cult classic recognized as a highlight of Travolta's acting career.
"Look Who's Talking" (1989)
After three consecutive box office disasters ("Staying Alive," "Two of a Kind," "Perfect"), Travolta's days as a major star seemed to be over. And it didn't help that he then disappeared from movie screens for a few years. But Travolta's return in "Look Who's Talking"—as a New York cab driver suddenly thrust into the role of fatherhood—briefly revived his status as a box office draw. But the real comeback would come five years later.
"Pulp Fiction" (1994)
After years of misfires and flops, Travolta emerged triumphant from the Hollywood wilderness with his Oscar-nominated, career-resurrecting role as hitman Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 sucker punch of a movie. Flawlessly executing "Royale With Cheese" monologues and Twist/Watusi/Batusi dance moves—as thrilling as any '70s disco strut—Travolta was once again the A-list movie star of yore.
"Get Shorty" (1995)
Riding high off "Pulp Fiction," Travolta scored again as a small-time mob associate and loan shark in this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's comic crime novel. Exuding cool charm, Travolta stands out among the film's stellar cast, which includes Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito. As critic Roger Ebert wrote, Travolta's Chili Palmer is a "magnetic performance" of "laid-back confidence."
"Broken Arrow" (1996)
Travolta is in great badass form as an Air Force pilot gone rogue with not one but two nuclear bombs in this John Woo action flick. It's all Travolta's show, and as Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers wrote, "Travolta is a pleasure to watch. Teeth flashing, blue eyes twinkling and cigarette elegantly poised, he exudes flyboy charm. Director Woo knows movie-star glamour when he sees it, and he just lets Travolta rip."
Travolta plays it sweet and understated in this romantic fantasy-drama about an ordinary small town mechanic who turns into telekinetic genius after witnessing a bright flash of light in the night sky. It's an uplifting Travolta star turn that shines with a Capra-esque humanity.
An angel vacationing on earth, Travolta's "Michael" is a pot-bellied, chain-smoking, sugar freak slob with dirty wings and a sense of fun. It's not a great movie, but, as a New York Times critic wrote, "It is Mr. Travolta who gives it a heart that it probably wouldn't have were any other actor to play the role." And Travolta's angel is a heavenly dancer, too, as evidenced by his barroom footwork to Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools."
"She's So Lovely" (1997)
In a supporting role, Travolta plays Robin Wright's grounded second husband opposite Sean Penn's psychologically challenged first. Aa a New York Times critic wrote, "Continuing on one of the great second-act rolls in screen history, Mr. Travolta turns in yet another show-stopping performance."
Travolta's mid-career revival stays on track with this John Woo sci-fi action film in which, midway through, his F.B.I. agent Sean Archer literally switches faces with Nicholas Cage's homicidal sociopath Castor Troy. It's a treat to watch Travolta having the time of his life while parroting both Cage's criminally insane character and—even more fun—his sometimes over-the-top acting style.
"A Civil Action" (1998)
As a slick Boston lawyer turned compassionate crusader, Travolta gives one of his most heartfelt, un-Hollywood performances. The role is a long way from Tony Manero. Still, it's interesting to note that, whether he's playing a young disco dancer or a middle-aged attorney, Travolta does much of his best acting with his eyes. The waistline and hairline might change, but his actor's eyes are as revealing as Paul Newman's were blue.
"Primary Colors" (1998)
He seemed an odd choice to portray the candidate in Mike Nichols' big-screen adaptation of the best-selling novel about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. But Travolta is impeccable in the role, mirroring Clinton's physicality and his charm while bringing depth to the character of this gifted but deeply flawed politician.
Travolta is simply, well, Divine in this musical adaptation of John Waters' 1988 comedy classic. Dressed in drag as teen Tracy Turnblad's plus-sized agoraphobic mom, Travolta appears onscreen in a fat suit and four hour's worth of makeup. And when he sings "Hey, Tracy/Hey, baby/Look at me/I'm the cutest chickie/That you ever did see," moviegoers agreed.
"Wild Hogs" (2007)
Yes, this broad middle-age-crazy biker comedy teaming Travolta with Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy landed on many critics' year-end "worst films" list. But Travolta is clearly having fun with his male menopausal Brando character and moviegoers responded, turning "Wild Hogs" into a box office hit.
"Taking of Pelham 123" (2009)
Not his best performance, but it's always a pleasure to watch the eminently likable Travolta take on the role of a really bad dude—in this case a maniacal subway hijacker. He seems like he's having a blast.
"The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" (2016)
Travolta's portrayal of real-life O.J. defense attorney Robert Shapiro as a limelight-loving egocentric who deals from the bottom of the deck is such that you can't take your eyes off him. It earned the actor Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, signaling yet another possible big comeback in Travolta's long and varied career
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