On this day in 1977, Saturday Night Fever, a movie that ignites the disco dance craze across America, along with the movie career of its star, John Travolta, opens in theaters. Travolta earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his performance as 19-year-old Tony Manero, who during the week toils in a Brooklyn, New York hardware store and on the weekend dons a white suit and becomes king of a discotheque called 2001 Odyssey. Tony takes great care in his appearance, at one point during the film uttering the now-famous line: “Would ya just watch the hair. Ya know, I work on my hair a long time and you hit it. He hits my hair.” Music played an essential role in Saturday Night Fever, and the film’s soundtrack, which featured a number of songs by the Bee Gees, including “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “How Deep is Your Love” and “Jive Talkin,” became one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. Saturday Night Fever was one of Gene Siskel’s favorite films. The prominent film critic (who died in 1999) reportedly watched the movie at least 17 times and even purchased the now-iconic white polyester suit Travolta wore while strutting across the lighted dance floor.
Prior to Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta, who was born on February 18, 1954, in Englewood, New Jersey, appeared in the 1976 horror film Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek, and the 1976 made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. He was best known, however, for his role as Vinnie Barbarino, a remedial high school student who employs the catchphrase “Up your nose with a rubber hose” on the TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, which originally aired from 1975 to 1979. After Saturday Night Fever propelled him to international stardom, Travolta followed up with another huge box-office hit, the 1978 big-screen adaptation of the musical Grease. In his role as 1950s-era bad boy Danny to co-star Olivia Newton-John’s good girl Sandy, Travolta charmed audiences with his singing and dancing. Grease was the highest-grossing film of 1978 as well as the highest-grossing movie musical of all time. Following Grease, Travolta helped spark another craze–this time for country music–with the 1980 box-office hit Urban Cowboy, co-starring Debra Winger.
During the 1980s, Travolta starred in a string of mediocre movies, including Staying Alive (1983), a sequel to Saturday Night Fever that was directed and co-written by Sylvester Stallone, Two of a Kind (1983), a romantic comedy that reteamed the actor with Newton-John, and Perfect (1985), about the health-club scene in Los Angeles. In 1994, Travolta staged a comeback when he appeared as the pony-tailed hitman Vincent Vega in writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s crime drama Pulp Fiction. The film, which included a now-famous scene in which Travolta’s character enters a dance contest and does the twist with his boss’s wife (played by Uma Thurman) earned Travolta his second Best Actor Oscar nomination and put him back on Hollywood’s A-list. Following Pulp Fiction, Travolta starred in such movies as Get Shorty (1995), Face/Off (1997), Primary Colors (1998), A Civil Action (1998), Swordfish (2001) and the movie musical Hairspray (2007), in which he dressed in drag to play Edna Turnblad.
Off screen, Travolta, who has been married to the actress Kelly Preston since 1991, is also a certified pilot and owns a fleet of planes.