Fame & Fortune: John Travolta

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From TV’s “Welcome Back Kotter,” to his overnight fame as Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever” and then Danny Zuko in the biggest money-making musical, “Grease,” John Travolta has been entertaining us for decades.

After falling out of favor with Hollywood, the New Jersey kid hit it big again with the success of “Pulp Fiction” where he showed off his good-natured personality in a gritty, low budget film. That career move resurrected an otherwise flailing career and put Travolta in legend status. Being able to command upward of $20 million per picture, it’s a far cry from what Quentin Tarantino offered the then-struggling actor for “Pulp Fiction.”

“Quentin cornered me at a photo shoot and said, ‘You won’t get paid anything for this, but you shouldn’t be denied good material just because there isn’t a budget,'” he laughs. Now the father of two — son, Jett and daughter Ella Bleu — and married to actress Kelly Preston since 1991, Travolta revels in his success as an actor. It’s not too shabby what financial success brings in the way of “toys,” either. 

Bankrate: I know you’re a licensed pilot — what crafts do you fly?

John Travolta: Well, I’m rated in a (Boeing) 747 and a 707 — I own one of those. I also have a Gulfstream, Hawker, Lear Jet, Vampire Jet and two bomb jets. So I have quite a few jet licenses and quite a few planes.

Bankrate: Describe the thrills you get from flying a plane?

John Travolta: Oh, wow, there are many, but it’s a very extroverting experience. It’s sensational; it’s movement. There’s an art to it. There’s a beauty to aircraft, and I like the perspective of being in the sky. Everything is very proportioned, I’d say and I feel a certain relief when I’m in the air. I can’t explain why I get relief other than maybe those other aspects. 

Bankrate: Do you feel the machinery under you?

John Travolta: I do. I sense the machine and I estimate its abilities. I’ve flown it for 27 years so I’ve really grown to know that scene quite well. I also have a few motorcycles, too. It’s nice to be able to fly my family because we live in different places in the country at different times (Travolta has homes in California, Florida and Maine). 

Bankrate: You once took a two-month around-the-world flight that you piloted along with your wife, Kelly, as a passenger.

John Travolta: Yeah, that was fun. I wanted to do my part to get people traveling on planes again after 9/11. 

Bankrate: Who were your heroes growing up?

John Travolta: Well, airline pilots were my heros. I like airplanes. Firefighters were my heroes as well. I grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood so firefighters were a natural, but it was a little more romantic to see those planes go across the sky and think about where they were going and who was on board. In acting I loved Jimmy Cagney; he was a hero of mine. Because firefighters are innately humble and modest, they don’t demand any attention at all so it’s kind of like that kid in the family who is the best student but doesn’t want the attention. They don’t like being considered heroes. But they are. 

Bankrate: Besides being financially richer, do you think you’ve changed since your New Jersey days?

John Travolta: You know, I really haven’t changed all that radically since my childhood days. I think I’m a bigger human being than I was but I always had potential. I’ve used everything I’ve learned over the years, and that’s part of the maturing process. As a child, I felt a lot of hopes and possibilities. I remember sitting in my living room and watching the jet age come to fruition. I watched the Kennedy regime and I saw a man walk on the moon. Yes, I can go and buy expensive things — toys, clothes, things for my family — that I couldn’t do before, but inside, I think I’m basically the same person. I’ve always looked at the glass as half-full. 

Bankrate: I spoke to a former dance teacher and partner back in New Jersey and she said you gave her a $10 check; she said she thought it would come in handy someday because her family didn’t have much money, but it bounced.

John Travolta: (Laughs) Yes — and I remember I told her to put it through again and it would be good. But I don’t think she ever cashed that check. She told me I was going to be a star someday and the check would be a reminder.

Bankrate: You play a plus-sized woman in the new “Hairspray” film. Did playing a woman change your perspective on women, in general?

John Travolta: Yes, because I realized the power a woman has. I wasn’t a woman, yet I had the illusion of being a woman and I was treated differently. I was treated with a lot of flirtation. People would go get me coffee and talk to me like I was a woman. And people would want to touch my butt or my breasts like men do to real women. But it was an empowering feeling too — dangerous, but empowering. The women in my family in the early 1970s were very powerful and strong — they worked and had babies. Nobody was following the rules in my family back then. I had to learn from other women that there was a fight on for women’s equality. But the women in my family were already doing it — they were ahead of the game. 

Bankrate: How great is it to be in iconic work with positive messages like “Hairspray” and “Welcome Back Kotter?”

John Travolta: It’s great. I have to agree with you because I witnessed with my own eyes the ’60s and the ’70s and all the decades since, and I’ve seen the progress. I think you can’t take your eyes off it because there’s always more progress to be made, but I am proud of the fact that I can be part of several movies that have messages deeper than just entertainment value. And yet, some of them are more light-hearted movies, where you gracefully allow an audience to interpret the message. You don’t want to hit someone over the head with a message, but you do want to get the message out. You want to do it with some grace, and I think “Hairspray” does that without being preachy. 

Bankrate: Ice Cube is doing the “Kotter” remake. How do you feel about taking maybe a cameo in the movie?

John Travolta: I can’t wait to see it. I think it will be fun. I think it’s a good idea and I think it’s so much smarter that he do it with another perspective than what we did — so it’s new. As for a cameo, I don’t know, I’ve been approached on it but I’d have to see what it was and what the real thing was about. It’s not about the money aspect of it — it’s what the new film is about.

Bankrate: The movie business has been very good to you. What if one of your kids wanted to follow in your footsteps?

John Travolta: Well, actually, my daughter, who is beautiful, wants to act. Kelly and I are going to do a movie called “Old Dogs” with Robin Williams and Ella is going to be in it. Jett doesn’t care at all about acting. But I think maybe acting can be a family business. I hope I’m acting for a long time to come. I come from blue collar roots, so I think it’s something inside of me that I should work. I love to entertain, so it’s not all about the money.