Born February 18, 1954, in Englewood, John Travolta was the youngest of six children in a family of entertainers; all but one of his siblings pursued showbusiness careers as well. By the age of 12 Travolta himself had already joined an area actors' group, and soon began appearing in local musicals and dinner-theater performances. By age 16, he dropped out of high school to take up acting full-time, relocating to Manhattan to make his off-Broadway debut in 1972 in Rain, and a minor role in the touring company of the hit musical Grease followed.
In 1975, Travolta was cast in an ABC sitcom entitled Welcome Back, Kotter. As Vinnie Barbarino, a dim-witted high school Lothario, he shot to overnight superstardom, and his face instantly adorned T-shirts and lunch boxes. Before the first episode of the series even aired, he also won a small role in Brian De Palma's 1976 horror picture Carrie, and at the early peak of his Kotter success he even recorded a series of pop music LPs -- Can't Let Go, John Travolta, and Travolta Fever -- scoring a major hit with the single "Let Her In." Approached with a role in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, he was forced to reject the project in the face of a busy Kotter schedule, but in 1976 he was able to shoot a TV feature, director Randal Kleiser's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which won considerable critical acclaim. Diana Hyland, the actress who played Travolta's mother in the picture, also became his offscreen lover until her death from cancer in 1977.
In the wake of Hyland's death, Travolta's first major feature film, John Badham's Saturday Night Fever (1977), emerged in the fall of that year. A latter-day Rebel Without a Cause set against the backdrop of the New York City disco nightlife, it positioned Travolta as the most talked-about young star in Hollywood. In addition to earning his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, he also became an icon of the era, his white-suited visage and cocky, rhythmic strut enduring as defining images of late-'70s American culture. In 1978, he starred in Kleiser's film adaptation of Grease, this time essaying the lead role of 1950s greaser Danny Zuko. Its box-office success was even greater than Saturday Night Fever's, becoming a perennial fan favorite and, like its predecessor, spawning a massively popular soundtrack LP. In the light of his back-to-back successes, as well as the continued popularity of Welcome Back, Kotter -- on which he still occasionally appeared -- it seemed Travolta could do no wrong - but things wouldn't always be so rosy for the performer.
Travolta's first misstep was 1978's Moment By Moment, a laughable May-December romance with Lily Tomlin. He then reprised the role of Tony Manero in the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. Directed by Sylvester Stallone as a kind of Rocky retread, the film was released in 1983 to embarrassing returns and horrendous reviews. It would prove to be just one in a string of '80s stinkers for the actor, followed by disappointments like Two of a Kind, Perfect, and The Experts. He made a minor comeback with 1989's Look Who's Talking, which fared well at the box office, but the movie did little for Travolta's reputation, and the performer was all but completely washed up by the beginning of the '90s.
Then, in 1994, Travolta made one of the most stunning comebacks in entertainment history by starring in Pulp Fiction, a lavishly acclaimed crime film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a longtime Travolta fan who wrote the role of Vincent Vega specifically with the actor in mind; Travolta reportedly waived his salary to play the role. A critical as well as commercial smash, Pulp Fiction introduced Travolta to a new generation of moviegoers, and suddenly he was again a major star who could command a massive salary, with a second Academy Award nomination to prove it.
In the wake of Pulp Fiction, the resurrected Travolta became one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood, and on Tarantino's advice he accepted the starring role in director Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty. Acclaimed by many critics as his finest performance to date, it was another major hit, and he followed it by appearing in the 1996 John Woo action tale Broken Arrow. Phenomenon was another smash that same summer, and by Christmas Travolta was back in theaters as a disreputable angel in Michael. The following year he reunited with Woo in the highly successful thriller Face/Off, which he trailed with a supporting turn in Nick Cassavetes' She's So Lovely. After 1997's Mad City, Travolta began work on Primary Colors, Mike Nichols' political satire, portraying a charismatic, Bill Clinton-like U.S. President. An adaptation of the acclaimed book A Civil Action followed, as did the 1999 thriller The General's Daughter, in which Travolta co-starred with Madeline Stowe.
Travolta did suffer an embarrassment in 2000, when he produced and starred in the sci-fi thriller Battlefield Earth, based on the novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (whose teachings Travolta publicly admired and advocated). The film was universally panned as so bad it was funny, but Travolta bounced back, shedding some pounds to play the baddie in 2001 action thriller Swordfish. A complex tale of mixed loyalties, computer hacking, and espionage, Swordfish teamed Travolta with X-Men star Hugh Jackman in hopes of dominating the summer box office. This put Travolta in good shape to weather another disappointment, when his dramatic Oscar contender A Love Song for Bobby Long, was not well received by audiences or critics. While he received more praise for his performance in Ladder 49, a film about the lives of firefighters, his career took another hit in 2004 when he reprised the role of Chili Palmer in Be Cool, a sequel to Get Shorty that proved to have none of the magic that made its predecessor so successful.
Unfazed, Travolta signed on to star in the 2007 Baby Boomer comedy Wild Hogs, alongside a dream cast of Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy, who played four listless suburbanites who decide to "live on the edge" by grabbing their sawed-off choppers and hitting the open road as would-be Hell's Angels. Later that year, Travolta took another comedic turn in Hairspray, Adam Shankman's screen adaptation of the stage musical (which, in turn, is an adaptation of John Waters's 1988 feature), which put Travolta in drag to play the heavy set, bouffant hair-do'd mother once played by drag queen Divine. He would follow this up with some middling action fare, with The Taking of Pelham 13 and From Paris with Love, as well as a sequel to Wild Hogs, 2009's Old Dogs. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi