October 04, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s hard to think of a star more loved, more respected, or more in demand than Tom Hanks…unless it happens to be John Travolta. Last week Travolta got a leg up not only on Hanks but also on Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, and every other $20 million actor by signing to do three movies for $20 million apiece.

Over the next two years, Travolta’s picture portfolio will include portraying Clintonesque politician Jack Stanton in Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors for Universal; starring as erudite cowboy Paladin in the big-screen version of Have Gun Will Travel (three studios are currently vying); and crusading for justice (and possibly an Oscar?) in the Robert Redford-produced A Civil Action, for Touchstone.

If you total the number of projects to which the actor is committed and add up his paychecks, Travolta is doing a lot more than stayin’ alive. He will star in eight films and earn more than $130 million — and that’s not counting the windfall he’ll receive for signing on to do a proposed Get Shorty sequel.

But it’s not just Pulp Fiction or the subsequent successes of Get Shorty and Broken Arrow that have made him Johnny on the spot. ”Phenomenon made $100 million despite the lukewarm reviews it got,” notes one studio vice president. ”Travolta still brought people in.”

With films slated until the millennium, does Travolta run the risk of overexposure? ”You can argue that as long as he delivers roles that people like to see him in, it’s not overexposure,” says the exec. ”What’s worked for John is his likability factor. As long as he’s likable, the film works.”

Which raises the question of how the smiley-faced Travolta, who replaced the role’s leading contender, Hanks, will fare playing a character as two-faced as Colors‘ Stanton? He’s already canvassing for votes. ”I saw John the day he decided to do Colors,” says Nora Ephron, who directs him in Michael, out this Christmas. ”He pumped my hand and gave me a presidential grin. He’s going to be hilarious.”

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