John Travolta has been in a lot of movies since he first hit screens in the ’70s. But one picture tends to get brought up more than any other: the 1978 mega-hit Grease. And come 2018 Grease was the word all over again, as it was the movie’s 40th anniversary. What’s more, Travolta found himself celebrating that milestone in a delightful way when he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
As a young actor, Travolta had quite a bit of success. In 1976, for instance, he played the villain in still-iconic Stephen King horror movie Carrie; he also portrayed Vinnie Barbarino in the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter for four years from 1975. But by the turn of the decade, Travolta was a massive movie star. Why? Well, it was all thanks to two movies in particular: Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
But Travolta very nearly didn’t get the star-making role of Danny Zuko in Grease. Initially, the producers had wanted Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame to play him; Winkler turned down the job, however, as he feared being typecast as a ’50s teen. Travolta eventually came on board, then, with two conditions: he would have Elvis-style black hair, and he would get to sing “Greased Lightnin’.”
In the original musical version of Grease, Kenickie sang “Greased Lightnin’.” But Travolta was adamant that he got to do the number instead, and producers were happy to oblige. Furthermore, while the decision caused no end of tension on set, it did still result in one of the most iconic movie musical moments of all time.
In fact, most of the musical numbers in Grease have since become renowned. The famous final Sandy-Danny duet, “You’re The One That I Want,” for example, has been covered and parodied endless times in the last four decades, despite – or perhaps because of – the debate on how gender roles are portrayed in the scene.
Meanwhile, Grease’s soundtrack became the second-best selling US album of 1978; the first was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, making Travolta king of the charts as well as the movies. And Grease was so popular that there were even plans to make it into a franchise. Unfortunately, though, 1982’s Grease 2 ended up being a huge flop.
Yet the original Grease was never forgotten, even as Travolta’s career suffered some major downturns. By the ’80s, he had been in several failed films, including Two of a Kind, where he appeared again with his Grease co-star Olivia Newton-John. It wasn’t until the ’90s, in fact, that the actor really got back on track.
Travolta’s renaissance began with his portrayal of Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction – a role for which he received an Oscar nomination. And that movie also involved a dance scene which has since gone on to become iconic. It seemed, then, that Travolta would never escape the world of dance even if he wanted to.
Then, in 2007 Travolta appeared in his first musical film since Grease – a re-imagining of the 1988 John Waters movie Hairspray. More song and dance was forthcoming, even though Travolta spent the whole movie in a fat suit and dressed as a woman. Despite those limitations, the actor danced his way to victory, as Hairspray became the fourth highest-grossing movie musical ever.
But after Hairspray, Travolta seemed to hang up his dancing shoes. He took to doing action films instead, such as 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123. And in 2016 the superstar gave one of his most critically acclaimed performances as lawyer Robert Shapiro in the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson – which has a distinct lack of musical numbers.
But when Grease’s 40th anniversary rolled around in 2018, Travolta was more than willing to prove that he still had the moves. Appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on June 13, he sat down with the host and discussed the film’s classic “You’re The One That I Want” scene.
The Oscar-nominated actor explained how he had contributed to the dance moves in that particular scene. “Like with Pulp Fiction, I grew up with all these kind of novelty dances,” he said. “With Grease, they needed a step for ‘You’re the One that I Want’ at the end. So I said, ‘We used to do the four corners, why don’t we do that?’ And the choreographer was like, ‘Show it to me,’ and I did.”
Travolta then pulled Fallon to his feet to show him the dance. To do the four corners, you have to hook your fingers through your belt loops and make four steps in a box formation. It sounds easy, but it’s all about rhythm and poise. Luckily, though, Fallon seemed to pick the steps up pretty quickly, and so he and Travolta did the dance together.
And Travolta’s retained dancing skills were pretty impressive – all the more so considering that the actor is now 64 years old. On The Tonight Show’s YouTube channel, where the video of Travolta gained nearly two million views, fans rushed to talk about the star in the comments. “Such amazing moves, bringing back memories!” one person wrote.
A number of people also commented on how good Travolta was looking. Over the years, the star’s weight had fluctuated dramatically; in 2018, however, he seemed to have found a healthy body shape. The Hollywood legend had also changed his hair to appear more natural. “John has aged exceptionally well. Still as handsome as when he was back in the Welcome Back, Kotter days!” wrote a commenter.
The Tonight Show dance wasn’t the only tribute Travolta paid to Grease for its 40th birthday, however. When the actor went to the 71st Cannes Film Festival in 2018 to promote his new movie Gotti, for instance, he also attended a special beach-side screening of the iconic musical and gave a short speech about its importance.
“This is a film that’s so timeless, that keeps on giving to each new generation,” the Danny Zuko actor told the audience. “When people watch this, they just get happy. They want to become the characters that they’re watching. They want to sing along with it, they want to dance, they want to be part of this film.” Just like Jimmy Fallon!
“When mutual enthusiasm comes together and creates an environment, you can create almost anything – and we created Grease,” Travolta finished. The movie’s director, Randal Kleiser, was also present for the event, and he revealed, “It’s very exciting to have a screening on the beach here at Cannes after 40 years. John Travolta coming back for it is a big thrill too.”
Unfortunately for Travolta, Gotti itself has proved somewhat of a catastrophe. Critics absolutely mauled the film, with the flick ultimately going on to receive a rating of zero on Rotten Tomatoes. Few releases debut to such a disastrous reception.
But the criticism afforded to Gotti will most likely prove to be but a blip in Travolta’s lengthy career, and he’s already weathered a lot of those. Maybe, then, he just needs to focus his attention on creating more musicals – perhaps even a Grease 3…