The Stunning Transformation Of John Travolta

John Travolta is a certified triple-threat: He can act, sing, and dance. All these talents have led him to incredible success, but he's probably best known for his acting chops. As he told NPR's Terry Gross in 2003, he found "a joy in acting." 

Perhaps you know him best from his iconic '70s breakout roles in "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever," which allowed him to show off his singing and dancing skills. Or maybe you recognize him from the '90s movies "Pulp Fiction," "Face/Off," or "Look Who's Talking," or perhaps you remember seeing him in his family-friendly movies from the 2000s, like "Bolt" and "Hairspray." Either way, everyone knows Travolta in some way or another; his career has spanned decades, and shows no signs of slowing down.

But before Travolta became Hollywood royalty, he was just a kid from New Jersey with a dream. Read on to find out how Travolta became the superstar he is today — and the transformations he's had along the way.

He grew up wanting to become an actor

John Travolta has been acting in one way or another since he was a little kid — which make sense, given that acting runs in his family. In an interview with Terry Gross, Travolta revealed that his mother was a drama teacher, and stated that he learned about stage presence and stage manners from her. As a child, he also got quite a bit of practice for his future career. He shared that he and his siblings — he was the youngest of six — would put on performances for their parents: "We had a theater in our basement ... that gave us the framework to perform in. ... Every day we were in that theater and we were either lip-syncing to records or we were creating plays ... of course, Mom and Dad were the ultimate audiences."

With the early knowledge that he wanted to go into show business, Travolta dropped out of high school to begin his performing career. "Not too many of my friends identified with what I was doing," he said in 1978 (via People). Since his parents witnessed his talent up-close for years, it's no wonder Travolta's decision to pursue acting was met with approval from his mom and dad, per Britannica.

He got his start on the Broadway stage

John Travolta got his start in show business in stage productions, per Britannica. His very first was an Off-Broadway show called "Rain," in 1972. He auditioned for "Grease," and was actually turned down the first time, but re-auditioned and eventually was cast in the first touring production of the show that would later become a defining part of his career — though Travolta didn't know it at the time. He played the supporting role of Doody in those early days. "It was, like, my favorite show, and I desperately wanted to be in it," he said in an interview in 1978. In a video for Yahoo! Entertainment, Travolta shared that the role he'd really wanted, of course, was Danny Zuko, but he would have to wait a few more years before that opportunity would come along.

He made his official Broadway debut in "Over Here!" in 1974. Concord Theatricals shows that Travolta was a member of the original cast of the show.

He got his big break in the '70s

In 1975, John Travolta made the transition from stage to screen in the sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." Travolta played Vinnie Barbarino, a troublemaking high school student. "I remember feeling like I had a whole new career," Travolta told Yahoo! Entertainment of the change. "I loved my time on 'Kotter.'" Things may have gone differently, though, had Travolta heeded the advice of his mother, who "didn't want people to think that I had a New York accent or that I behaved in that less-than-ideal IQ way." Luckily, he took the role anyway, and starred in the show for four years. 

While Travolta made several memorable movies in the '70s, including "Carrie" and "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," the two films that solidified his status as an icon of the decade were 1977's "Saturday Night Fever" and 1978's "Grease." The former had Travolta portray a dancer who ruled the disco nightclub scene in New York, and the latter allowed the actor to fulfill his longtime dream of playing Danny Zuko — finally. "Saturday Night Fever" was a hit — according to Forbes, the flick made $237.1 million globally, picked up some Oscar nominations, and officially put Travolta on the map. He was already a rising superstar when "Grease" premiered. The movie grossed over $394 million, and is still one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time. Even after all these years, fans remain hopelessly devoted to "Grease" — and with it, Travolta's portrayal of Danny.  

He's best known for his acting chops, but John Travolta also topped the pop charts

John Travolta is most famous for being a leading man in movies — but a few of those movies have been musicals. While he's a celebrated actor, he's also definitely found success in the music industry. Of course, we have to give props to the songs he did for "Grease" — according to Stereogum, "You're the One That I Want" was a No. 1 hit, and we still hear it getting radio play, even all these years later. (What? Some of us still listen to the radio.)

But Travolta actually released a single in 1976, well before he became Danny Zuko. It was called "Let Her In," and while it didn't hit the very top of the charts, it made it to No. 10 (although Stereogum didn't give it a very good review). He released some other songs too, including "Whenever I'm Away From You," which he performed on "American Bandstand."

While it's true that Travolta's acting career went on to overshadow his singing, it seems that music continued to be a passion of his: In 2012, Travolta and his "Grease" costar Olivia Newton-John released a Christmas album called "This Christmas."

He is a Scientologist and credits the institution with helping him through tough times

While John Travolta's name might be synonymous with acting chops and dancing skills, it's also associated with the controversial Church of Scientology. According to ABC News, Travolta joined the Church of Scientology in 1975. If you recall, "Welcome Back, Kotter," the show in which Travolta got his start, began airing in 1975. So for as long as Travolta's been a recognizable face in show business, he's also been a Scientologist — a vocal one, at that. Travolta's spoken out numerous times about his faith helping him through tough times.

In 2015, he told the Tampa Bay Times, "I've been so happy with my (Scientology) experience in the last 40 years." He went on to note that Scientology had helped him through many of the hardest moments in his life. He also told "Good Morning America" that Scientology had "saved [his] own life several times" (via ABC News).

Though there have been whispers that the star is distancing himself from the faith following the sale of his house in Clearwater, Florida, where Scientology's headquarters is located, it doesn't seem like there's any indication that Travolta's changed his mind about the church he's belonged to longer than he's been known as Danny Zuko.

The '90s saw him really come into his star power

After a lull in John Travolta's career in the 1980s following a few movies that flopped — he told the Los Angeles Times that it was "the first time I heard the words, 'Your career is over'" — he came back with a bang. His comeback started with 1989's comedy "Look Who's Talking," but really got into the swing of things with titles like "Get Shorty," "Face/Off," and "Primary Colors," to name a few — and of course, the cult-classic "Pulp Fiction."

Despite his less-than-stellar track record in the '80s, the '90s Travolta revival was more than enough to reinstate him as a member of Hollywood royalty. Travolta's "Face/Off" costar Margaret Cho had nothing but kind words for the actor, calling him a "modern day king." As she explained to Collider, "There's not really American monarchy, but there is in Hollywood ... he's sort of in the last era of the golden age of Hollywood. He's sort of the last movie star in a lot of ways." And to think he might have believed he'd peaked in the '70s!

He's been a licensed pilot for almost as long as he's been an actor

John Travolta is well-known for his accomplishments in show business, but there's another field in which his resume only continues to grow: flying! Travolta has been a licensed pilot since he was 22 years old, and began his aviation lessons at the young age of 15 — an age at which many of us couldn't even drive. According to People, he has licenses to fly 747 and 707 planes, and in March 2022 added a 737 license to the list.

In an interview with Florida's J104 radio in 2018, host Big Al asked Travolta whether it's expected that he'll fly his plane when he and his famous pals want to travel somewhere. Travolta answered in the affirmative, but only if said friends didn't already have planes of their own. And it doesn't seem like he minds piloting duty: "I like the joy of the flight," he told the radio station.

Simple Flying reports that Travolta owns seven jets, along with other, smaller types of planes. And where does the actor-slash-flight enthusiast keep his collection? Apparently, his home in Ocala, Florida features its own airstrip, meaning he can be sky-bound just about whenever he wants. Talk about convenience!

He married Kelly Preston in 1991 and they had 3 kids together

John Travolta met his wife, actress Kelly Preston, at a screen test in 1987 for the movie "The Experts," and Travolta claimed it was love at first sight. Though Preston was married to someone else at the time, she said, "I was not that happily married, let's put it that way." Once she was single again, she and Travolta began dating, got engaged on New Year's Eve 1991, and married later that year in Paris — though they held a second ceremony in the U.S.

Travolta and Preston had three kids together: Jett in 1992, Ella in 2000, and Benjamin in 2010. Though their lives were plagued by tragedy, Travolta and Preston had a happy marriage, by all accounts. Entertainment Tonight reported that Travolta's sister-in-law, Wendy, weighed in on the relationship back when it was in its earlier stages: "I've never seen Johnny happier."

Years later, the love was still going strong. In an Instagram post for the couple's 28th anniversary, Preston wrote, "To my dearest Johnny, the most wonderful man I know. ... I love you forever and completely."

He went through a drastic physical transformation for one of his roles

Perhaps the most stunning of transformations was John Travolta's turn as a woman in 2007's Hairspray. Travolta played Edna Turnblad, mother to main character Tracy Turnblad. According to Newsweek, the character has been historically played by a man in drag, though Travolta's casting marked the first time a straight man was chosen to fill Edna's shoes. Though it may have seemed to be an odd choice to some, producer Neil Meron explained to The New York Times that his thought process was, "Why not get the musical film star of our generation?"

Despite the producers' confidence in his ability to play the part, Travolta took 14 months to consider the offer before saying yes. He explained to The New York Times, "Playing a woman attracted me. Playing a drag queen did not. ... I didn't want any winking or camping ... It had to be something I could go all the way with, disappear in."

ABC News reported that achieving Edna's look required Travolta to sport a 30-pound fat suit and sit in hair and makeup for five hours each day — and apparently, "people forgot I was underneath it." Seems like he succeeded in his goal of disappearing into the character!

He was never the same after his son died in 2009

John Travolta and Kelly Preston's oldest son, Jett, died in 2009 after having a seizure and hitting his head on a bathtub while the family was on a vacation, according to Us Weekly. He was 16 years old at the time of his passing, and his death took a hard toll on the family. "It's the worst thing that's ever happened in my life," Travolta said. "The truth is, I didn't know if I was going to make it."

Jett had a history of seizures, and had also been diagnosed with autism and Kawasaki syndrome. Travolta honors his oldest son each year on his birthday. In 2021, the actor posted a picture of him and his son on what would have been the latter's 29th birthday, along with the caption, "Happy birthday my beautiful Jetty. I love you."

Travolta credits his faith in the Church of Scientology with helping him deal with his grief. "The church never left our sides," he told Us Weekly. "I don't know if I would have made it through without their support."

He's done movies with his wife and daughter

It's clear that family means a lot to John Travolta — so much that he often takes them to work with him. His wife, Kelly Preston, was also an actor, and the two appeared in a total of five films together, per CheatSheet

In addition, their daughter, Ella Bleu, decided to follow in her famous parents' footsteps. She appeared alongside her mom and dad in 2009's "Old Dogs" when she was a kid. More recently, she starred with her dad and Morgan Freeman in 2019's "The Poison Rose," in which she played a young widow. "It helped so much having my dad there," she told People. "It was so comforting and he's the best mentor ever."

In an interview with J104 radio in Florida, Travolta and Preston revealed that Ella had originally planned to join both her parents onscreen again in the 2018 film "Gotti," but ultimately decided to sit that one out. 

He suffered from the loss of his wife in 2020

About a decade after losing his firstborn son, Jett, John Travolta faced another heartbreaking loss when his wife, Kelly Preston, died from breast cancer in 2020. He spoke to Esquire Spain about grief, noting, "I learned that crying and mourning over someone is something personal. Mourning is individual and experiencing your own journey is what can lead to healing" (via "Good Morning America"). 

He also opened up in an interview with Kevin Hart for the comedian's show "Hart to Heart," and discussed some of the hard conversations he'd had to have with his son Benjamin, who was just about 10 years old when his mom passed away. Travolta revealed that his young son had been afraid that his dad would also pass away in the wake of the loss of his mother. "I said, 'Well it's a very different thing.' And then I went through the differences about my longevity and in her limited life," Travolta explained (via The Hollywood Reporter). 

He also added that Benjamin's worldview was helpful in processing his own grief — and anxiety about growing older himself. "I realized that it's about viewpoint in life," he said. "That's what allows you to settle down about something" (via SurvivorNet).      

He's had his fair share of scandals

There are probably people out there (very young people) who don't know John Travolta for any of his movies or musicals at all, and instead found out who he was when he mispronounced Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Dazeem" at the Oscars in 2014 (via Billboard). 

But before that, Travolta was no stranger to controversy. The Church of Scientology, of which he is an outspoken member, has faced its own slew of scandals and accusations, so we won't even get into that. But Travolta himself was accused of sexual battery and sued by two men in 2012, per CNN. Travolta's legal team rejected the claims. A pilot who worked for Travolta in the 1980s, Douglas Gotterba, also came forward with details of an alleged non-professional relationship between him and the celeb. The Hollywood Reporter says his story was met with a cease-and-desist from Travolta's camp, leading Gotterba to sue. 

Travolta spoke about the allegations with the Daily Beast, noting, "This is every celebrity's Achilles heel. It's just about people wanting money. That's all. It happens on many levels. ... I let all the media stuff go a long time ago because I can't control it." He also commented that rumors and accusations of a sexual nature are inevitable, but warned that he wouldn't let it go if someone tried to mess with his family. 

He debuted a new look in 2019 and continues to make movies

In 2019, John Travolta transformed yet again when he debuted his new bald look. According to People, fans responded well to his new hairstyle — or lack thereof — though it's definitely a deviation from the long hair he sported during the early days of his career. 

But not everything has changed. Travolta continues to put out movies, and most recently reunited with his "Pulp Fiction" and "Look Who's Talking" costar Bruce Willis to make "Paradise City," which wrapped filming in 2021, according to MauiNow. Though it's unclear when the movie will be released, fans of the two actors will likely relish the opportunity to witness the duo onscreen again for what could be the last time, given Willis' recent announcement that he will be stepping away from his career for health reasons.  

Travolta also continues to play perhaps his most important role: that of supportive dad. Earlier in 2022, the star shared his daughter Ella Bleu's single all over social media, noting how proud and excited he was. John Travolta having a musical daughter? Somehow, we're not surprised.