John Travolta has had a long and varied career, though it has often been marked by extremely high highs and extremely low lows.
Travolta started his career in the musical theater on Broadway with appearances in two shows. He first appeared in the original production of “Grease” in the supporting role of “Doody.” (He would later go on to star in the lead role of Danny Zuko when the film version was made.) His second Broadway appearance would be in a show called “Over Here,” which starred the Andrews Sisters and featured Travolta alongside other newcomers Marilu Henner and Treat Williams.
Travolta then moved to Los Angeles and found work in guest appearances on television. He made his film debut in a low budget horror film called “The Devil’s Rain,” which starred such veteran actors as Eddie Albert, Ernest Borgnine, and Ida Lupino.
Stardom came to Travolta when he won the role of Vinny Barbarino on the hit sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He would gain a small part in the horror film “Carrie” during the show’s first season, but it would be his role in “Saturday Night Fever” that would launch his film career and earn him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination at the age of 24. He remains the fifth youngest person to ever by nominated in that category.
In the next few years Travolta’s career would be one of extremes. He had tremendous hits with “Grease” and “Urban Cowboy” but also a huge disaster in the film “Moment by Moment” which paired him with Lily Tomlin in an older woman/younger man romance.
In the mid-1980s he tried to recapture some of his early status with a sequel to “Saturday Night Fever” called “Staying Alive” and another film called “Two of a Kind” which re-teamed him with his “Grease” co-star Olivia Newton-John. Both films were poorly received and it would be a long time before Travolta got his career back on track with his role in “Pulp Fiction” for Quentin Tarantino which earned him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Tour our photo gallery of his 15 best greatest performances, ranked worst to best.
15. SHE’S SO LOVELY (1997)
Director: Nick Cassavetes. Writer: John Cassavetes. Starring Sean Penn, Robin Wright, James Gandolfini.
Travolta produced and co-starred in this drama which was written by John Cassavetes, who had passed away eight years before the film was made. His son, Nick Cassavetes, resurrected the material and directed it. (John’s wife and Nick’s mother, Gena Rowlands, also has a small role.) The movie stars Sean Penn as a man confined to a psychiatric hospital who returns home to find his wife (Robin Wright) remarried to Travolta. Penn won the Best Actor prize at Cannes and his then wife Wright earned a Best Actress SAG nomination for the film.
14. THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
Director and writer: Terrence Malick. Starring Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusack.
Director Terrence Malik became kind of a mythic figure when after directing two of the most acclaimed films of the 1970s (“Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”) he disappeared from the film industry for 20 years. “The Thin Red Line” marked his return to movie making. The film attracted a huge all star cast for its tale of the WWII battle of Guadalcanal. Travolta plays one of the chief military officers involved in the battle.
13. A CIVIL ACTION (1998)
Director and writer: Steven Zaillian. Starring Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan, Tony Shalhoub.
Travolta stars as a big time Boston attorney who takes on the case against a company accused of poisoning a local water supply and causing people to get cancer. The movie only received moderate acclaim and two years later the similarly themed “Erin Brockovich” would gather much more attention. The film did earn Oscar nominations for its Cinematography and for Robert Duvall as Best Supporting Actor. (Duvall won the award for Best Supporting Actor from SAG.)
12. LOOK WHO’S TALKING (1989)
Director and writer: Amy Heckerling. Starring Kirstie Alley, Olympia Dukakis, George Segal.
Travolta’s career was in a huge slump when he bounced back with this surprise comedy hit. The film features Kirstie Alley as a woman who becomes pregnant by a married man. She meets a taxi driver (Travolta) when he is the one to drive her to the hospital as she goes into labor. What would have been a standard romantic comedy became unique since Bruce Willis provided voice over as the voice of the baby.
11. HAIRSPRAY (2007)
Director: Adam Shankman. Writer: Leslie Dixon. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, James Marsden.
“Hairspray” started out as a John Waters film and was then turned into a Broadway musical. They then turned the musical back into a film starring Travolta. He plays Edna, the mother of a young girl who wants to dance on a local TV dance show and also integrate it from its current all white cast. Travolta earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for this gender-bending role.
10. MICHAEL (1996)
Director: Nora Ephron. Writers: Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, Peter Dexter, Jim Quinlan. Starring Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, Bob Hoskins.
Writer/director Nora Ephron was best known for her romantic comedies such as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “You’ve Got Mail.” This was a change of pace for her in which she cast Travolta as the Archangel Michael. Two tabloid reporters investigate what they think is a farfetched story that an angel is actually living with an elderly woman. Their lives are changed when they realize Michael is the real deal.
9. FACE/OFF (1997)
Director: John Woo. Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary. Starring Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola.
This innovative thriller from action maestro John Woo involves an FBI agent (Travolta) who undergoes a futuristic procedure that replaces his face with that of a terrorist (Nicolas Cage) he is trying to catch. The plot becomes more intricate when the terrorist assumes the face of the FBI agent, launching the film into a complicated plot where no one quite knows who is who.
8. GET SHORTY (1995)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Writer: Scott Frank. Starring Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito.
Travolta won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical Actor for this adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel about a mobster who gets involved in the movie business. Surprisingly, this was the only major acting award Travolta has won during his long career.
7. PRIMARY COLORS (1998)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Elaine May. Starring Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates.
The novel “Primary Colors” caused a bit of a sensation when it was published since the author was only credited as “Anonymous.” The story was obviously a thinly disguised depiction of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, so rumors ran rampant about who the writer with the inside information was. It was a bit anti-climatic when it was revealed to be Joe Klein of New York Magazine. The film version features on-point performances from Travolta as the ingratiating southern charmer of a candidate, Emma Thompson (doing an impeccable American accent) as his stressed wife and especially Kathy Bates as a self-destructive political aide. (Bates won the SAG award as Best Supporting Actress and also received an Oscar nomination for the film.)
6. CARRIE (1976)
Director: Brian De Palma. Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen. Starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen.
Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel became a surprise blockbuster in 1976 and is still considered a classic that changed the horror film genre. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie even earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, a rare occurrence for horror films. The film tells the story of a vulnerable teenager (Spacek) who is relentlessly picked on by her fellow classmates only to gain vengeance against them at the senior prom. Travolta plays the dim-witted boyfriend of Carrie’s chief tormenter (Nancy Allen).
5. URBAN COWBOY (1980)
Director: James Bridges. Writers: James Bridges, Aaron Latham. Starring Debra Winger, Scott Glenn, Madolyn Smith.
Travolta plays an oil refinery worker who spends his evenings at a country western bar. The film launched the career of Debra Winger and also made country western bars and mechanical bull riding a popular trend at the time. Winger and Travolta make for a fiery on-screen couple as they go through the ups and downs of their relationship.
4. BLOW OUT (1981)
Director and writer: Brian De Palma. Starring Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz.
Travolta teamed up again with Brian De Palma and Nancy Allen for this well-regarded suspense film about a movie sound man who accidentally records a car accident involving a political candidate. The film received mostly positive reviews but was a disappointment at the box office. This financial failure followed by a few more flops would severely cripple Travolta’s film career for a few years. The movie has gained popularity in recent years due in large part to Quentin Tarantino often proclaiming it one of his top three favorites of all time.
3. GREASE (1978)
Director: Randal Kleiser. Writer: Bronte Woodard. Starring Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway.
Travolta made his Broadway debut as a replacement for one of the supporting roles in the original production of “Grease” on Broadway. When the movie version came along, he graduated to the lead role of Danny Zuko. The film, which tells the story of a “good” girl who falls in love with a “bad” boy, also spawned a highly successful soundtrack album that produced a number of Top 10 singles.
2. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
Director: John Badham. Writer: Norman Wexler. Starring Karen Lynn Gorney, Barry Miller, Donna Pescow.
Travolta started another dance craze with this film that brought the disco era to mainstream audiences. He plays a 19-year-old Brooklyn youth who works in a hardware store by day but at night is the king of the dance floor at a local disco. The film spawned one of the most successful soundtrack albums of all time with its score dominated by songs from the Bee Gees. Once the disco era ended it lost a bit of its popularity but in its day the film garnered not only box office success but great acclaim for Travolta, earning him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor as well as recognition from a few critics organizations.
1. PULP FICTION (1994)
Director and writer: Quentin Tarantino. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman.
Travolta’s career had taken a huge dive in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. With the exception of “Look Who’s Talking” and its sequels he was barely working at all. Perhaps due to his love for “Blow Out” Quentin Tarantino cast him in the lead of his second film. Travolta earned a second Best Actor nomination for his role as a hitman and the success of the film gave his career a second chance at life.