Travolta: Super Friar, Superstar
By Barry Dougherty
“My instinct is always for comedy, but I do get to do comedy even when I’m doing drama because I always look for the humor in the character,” says Friar John Travolta, lest anyone think he’s not worthy of sporting the Friar moniker. Admittedly, this super cool, super talented superstar may not seem the Friar type but he’s as proud of his Friar pin as Berle was of his. “There are various ways why you’re allowed in but I think that once you are there it’s a line you have broken,” says Travolta, of his Friarly status.
Who’d a thunk it that the guy who gave Italians from Brooklyn a whole new dimension as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter could rise to be honored with a Friars Club Testimonial Dinner? But Travolta indeed was saluted in 1997, along with his wife Kelly Preston. For Travolta, the invitation was not totally worry-free, “I didn’t know there were two kinds of evenings. There’s the kind where you actually get fried and the other kind where they honor you. I said, ‘Well, I’m really not up for being made fun of all night so what do you want to with me?’ They said, ‘No, no, no. This is another kind of night. This is an honor.’ So I said, ‘You mean no one makes fun of me? Wow, if I’m going to be honored and not made fun of, then I’ll come.’” Only at the Friars should such concern exist when asked to be honored.
Friar Larry King was the Master of Ceremonies and the dais included such personalities as Lauren Bacall, The Bee Gees, Friar Joy Behar, Friar Sid Caesar, Fyvush Finkel, Louis Gossett, Jr., Mariel Hemingway, Anthony Hopkins, Harvey Keitel, Shirley MacLaine, Ray Romano, Friar Jeffrey Ross, Sylvester Stallone, and Harvey Weinstein–an eclectic group to say the least. “I think that my life and the people that respond to me are varied,” says Travolta of the range of individuals who came to salute him. “The variety of people that I evoke an emotional response from–I think it’s always surprising. The diversity is kind of Fellini-esque in a way,” laughs Travolta.
If his dais was diverse, that is only second to his diversity in roles, a testament to his thespian skills. His big break on Kotter could have left him in typecasting hell. Vinnie Barbarino was a larger-than-life character that created enough buzz to make him stand out even more than the show’s star Gabe Kaplan. “I kind of knew that when I was doing it. I said, ‘I’m going to do this really well and people are going to think that this is it, but then I will have to show them in a new unit of time something else. The first thing that came up was a movie called Boy in a Plastic Bubble. I just flipped it over and just played the opposite of this young man; and then Carrie came along and Saturday Night Fever. I just thought my job is to convince them each time that that’s the only role I could ever play. If I do that then I’ve succeeded at convincing them correctly that I’m that part,” says Travolta.
But how does one go about letting agents and directors broaden their horizons in the casting game? “You had to perform right then, right in front of them and convince them that you were the part, that you were the character. To do anything short of that was not going to make it,” admits Travolta. One such role was playing the central character in the film version of a controversial book–so controversial, in fact, the author was “Anonymous.” While Travolta had moved well beyond his loveable thug roles, there was still work to be done to land such a juicy part, “Mike Nichols is casting Primary Colors. He’s first thinking of Tom Hanks for lots of reasons, but then Tom, I think for political reasons, doesn’t really want to do it. So Tom says, ‘Well, what about John Travolta?’ Nichols said, ‘Maybe I should meet with John.’ The first thing I did when he opened the door to my trailer on the set, I said, ‘Mr. Nichols, it’s so great to see you, and I loved everything from Virginia Woolf…’ I just went right into Clinton and blew him away for thirty minutes.”
He may have been playing the part of Governor Jack Stanton in the movie, but there was no mistaking the smooth southern drawl and charismatic smile of Bill Clinton. Travolta’s impression was dead on, “I thought, he’s already interested in my doing it but what he doesn’t know is that I can really nail this. I don’t want him to ever worry about it from the time he leaves this trailer, ever; that he’s kind of sort of cast it. He has cast it perfectly. An actor’s job is to convince the people that they are in good hands and that it will be a job well done and that it will be delivered.”
There was never a doubt that Travolta was destined to spend his career under the footlights of the stage or the bright lights of Hollywood, “Mom was a director, actress, a drama teacher, and a speech teacher and she inspired a lot of us. There’s six children, and my oldest sister started to make a living at it, then my second oldest sister started to make a living at it, then the youngest sister, and myself, being the youngest boy, collectively went and tried it together. We were a family, suddenly, that could actually make a living at acting, singing, and dancing,” explains Travolta.
That creative blood flowing through his veins helped Travolta carve a unique niche in films that have run the gamut from feel good flicks such as Michael and Phenomenon, to thrillers like Face Off and Blow Out, to intrigue like The General’s Daughter and Swordfish, to drama such as White Man’s Burden and A Civil Action, to pop culture Get Shorty and Pulp Fiction.
While it’s no secret that Travolta’s career has had its peaks and valleys, what is clear is that his talents know no boundaries. According to the versatile Friar, “Basically, if you can do character acting and you can do leading man and you can do comedy and you can do all of that, you have a better chance of making a living,” explains Travolta. “It was almost a practical thing at first along with the idea that I was just happier if I did different things each time. If I were to not restrict myself to just musicals, or just comedy, or just drama, but to vary it and express myself on various levels I would be more entertained by the idea and I would be more interested and I would purposely vary my performances. Even before I was famous, I would play off-Broadway, say way off-Broadway and do some experimental play; and then I’d do a regular off-Broadway play; and then do a musical; and then I’d do TV commercials; and then I’d do comedy or drama.
“I’d purposely change the characters as well. I never wanted anyone to think that there was a restriction on what they could cast me as. I’ve been very, very successful at making people comfortable at casting me in various types of roles and that’s because they sense the joy that I have in doing that. It’s beyond the obvious of just the making a living concept, it’s like I need it. I need to change in order to feel fresh.”
If you’re a big star, who do you look up to? “I think that the mentors are who you liked growing up,” acknowledges Travolta, sharing some of his influences, “If we broke down the categories of who I liked on stage and on film–as musical performer I always loved Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and mostly Jimmy Cagney. Jimmy had the humor, had the drama, the musicality, and the dance in him as well; he was kind of an icon for all performing. In other areas, I love Paul Newman, and I loved Brando and Dean, and I think that they were icons for dramatic work. Then there was another level of artist that I really appreciated in women–Geraldine Page, certain Elizabeth Taylor performances like Virginia Woolf, I liked Diana Hyland’s work.” You can also add Friar Barbra Streisand and Tom Hanks to Travolta’s list of contemporary artists whom he admires.
Ask Travolta if he looks at any of his roles more fondly than others he’ll tell you, “I’m proud of particular works. I’m proud of Get Shorty, I’m proud of Primary Colors, I’m proud of Pulp Fiction. Those are three examples that I’m proud of the craftsmanship in those particular works because it took some honing to do them; and they’re thought-provoking performances.”
To make a role work, one needs the talent–that’s a given–but there is also the character research and development factor, “You have resources in libraries and on the internet, so you gather all your data and then you study as much as you need to. Then, if there’s a parallel concept that’s going on, as in doing something, if you need to be a fireman, for instance, I go out and I train to be a fireman. Or train to be a ranger in the military. You have to parallel your study with doing it as well. And that one moment between this research, the study, and doing it comes together and you know the moment you’re in the zone of the character. Like in Pulp Fiction. He’s a heroin addict and if I didn’t interview all these heroin addicts then I wouldn’t get a feeling of what the variations of the highs and lows are when one takes it. So, although you don’t see the studies, you see the result of that study on-screen.”
Would this Friar want to take on what could be his toughest role–as guest of honor at a Friars Roast? “I’ve never been to a Roast. I’ve watched them and they’re very rough on each other. It’s like that one friend that everyone might have growing up that just has to tell you the truth and they tell you the truth that is really rough on you. But you kind of go, okay, that’s their nature. It’s only one in the group and they only do it on occasion–here, it’s like in front of millions.” We can take that as a no. But no matter, at least he enjoyed his Testimonial Dinner and who knows, one day if he’s in town he might stop by to see who’s hanging around the Monastery. To quote Friar Travolta, “That would be awesome.” It sure would be!