Travolta on turning the Academy on to disco -- The actor looks back at his strutting turn in ''Saturday Night Fever,'' a performance that even made Oscar voters feel like dancing

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 21, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

At 49, John Travolta has seen his share of good days and bad. Some have been chronicled in the pages of this magazine. Others are a matter of public record. There’s Feb. 18, 1954, the day he was born in Englewood, N.J. — the youngest of six kids. There’s the day in September 1973, when the 19-year-old high school dropout made his Broadway debut in Grease in the role of Doody. Sept. 9, 1975, was the premiere of Welcome Back, Kotter. And let us not forget May 23, 1994 — when Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, slamming the door shut on a decade-long string of bad days and sparking one of the most Lazarus-like second acts in Hollywood history.

Still, it’s Dec. 7, 1977, that John Travolta will never forget. That’s the day his life changed forever.

On the page, the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Orange Drive may sound more glamorous than it actually was back then. Mann’s Chinese Theatre had become little more than a faded, cobwebby link to the ghosts of Tinseltown past. It was a fitting place for Paramount to hold the premiere of Saturday Night Fever — a movie it had no expectations for.

But then, as the house lights dimmed, something magical happened. As the slinky trampoline bass line of the Bee Gees’ ”Stayin’ Alive” kicked in, the audience watched a lean 23-year-old in a black leather jacket, snug black trousers, and a red vampire-collared shirt strut down 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. John Travolta preened like a polyester peacock. He may have carried a gallon of paint in one hand, but his expression implied that he had the world by the balls with the other.

The audience knew as sure as they were sitting there: Dec. 7, 1977, was the day a star was born. Two months later, Travolta would earn a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Brooklyn’s King of the Night, Tony Manero. And now, 25 years later, the man who brought him to life looks back at the making of Fever and another special date — March 29, 1978, his first trip to the Oscars.

Clint Eastwood’s first film was Revenge Of The Creature. Steve McQueen’s early resume included The Blob. John Travolta had The Devil’s Rain — a hunk of resume-padding schlock where he played what he now laughingly calls ”a glorified makeup dummy.” These days, Travolta still harbors mixed feelings about his 1975 movie debut. While his $800-a-week paycheck allowed him to leave a fledgling Broadway career behind and move into his first Los Angeles apartment, he’s also quick to point out that his debut actually should have been The Last Detail. Randy Quaid got the part instead. ”Interestingly enough,” says Travolta, ”that would have also earned an Oscar nomination because Randy got one.” As a consolation prize, Travolta landed on a set with William Shatner and Ernest Borgnine.

That same year, Travolta was cast as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. While the show was an immediate hit, turning Travolta into a teen-steam idol, he feared that his success on the small screen would jeopardize a career on the big one. ”I had become the sort of icon of the show,” he says, ”but then during the first season I went up for Carrie and I didn’t tell anyone I was on a series, thinking there would be a prejudice.” They found out, but he got the part anyway.