Disco’s homeboy turns hitman

The Seventies smash hit Saturday Night Fever first shot John Travolta to stardom. Now he’s made his comeback, receiving an Oscar nomination for his role in Pulp Fiction. Nik Cohn, the creator of Fever, met him in New York

THE first time that I didn’t meet John Travolta was in Brooklyn. It was 1976, and a short story I’d written was being filmed as Saturday Night Fever. The producers sent a limo to drive me out to the set one night, and I found myself back in 2001 Odyssey, the disco where most of my story’s action took place.

As usual on film sets, not a lot was happening. While the technicians were laboriously setting up the next scene, I watched Travolta cross the floor, practising his moves. In his white suit, his stack heels, he looked unbelievably flash and self-assured. Too self-assured for me — when a gofer appeared to lead me to him, I turned tail and ran.

The problem was that my story was a fraud. I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of the Goldhawk Road.

Travolta, I felt sure, would have spotted the imposture on sight. Apart from a small role in Carrie, Saturday Night Fever was his first major film, but he’d already established a persona on TV that was Brooklyn incarnate. He was Vinnie Barbarino, the dim-witted swearhog on Welcome Back Cotter; even more definitive, he was the sad-eyed kid on the Mutual of New York ads, forever doomed to dead-end jobs because his father had neglected to take out the life insurance policy that would have put him through college. In short, he seemed as real as I myself seemed bogus.

As it turned out, I’d panicked for nothing. Instead of the Bay Ridge streets, where Fever was set, Travolta came from a genteel suburb in New Jersey; just like me, he’d had to learn disco from scratch. By the time I learned that though, the moment to meet had passed.

Once the film came out, our paths diverged completely. While filming had lasted, the three identities — the Vincent of my story, the Tony Manero of the movie and Travolta himself — had seemed one. Now they went their separate ways. Travolta headed for Hollywood, an icon, according to Rolling Stone, who would be “revered forever in the manner of Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe”; Tony Manero emigrated to Manhattan and Broadway. And Vincent? He stayed right where he’s always been, stuck working in a paint shop, living only for the weekend.

For myself, I stayed with Vincent. Spurred in part by retroactive conscience, I began to put in hard time in Brooklyn, steeping myself in Bay Ridge lore. Gradually, my invention became real to me; my hero came to life. In my imagination, I kept a detailed log of his progress, tracking him as he changed jobs, moved away from home, grew out of disco, left the neighbourhood and then returned. This spring, when he seemed due to turn 40, I started to write his updated story.

All this while, I also kept track of Travolta. I felt that we were somehow connected, that he was my surrogate, my man in Hollywood. So it came as a jolt when the press turned on him. According to the supermarket tabloids, he’d run to fat, he was a Scientologist, he was bisexual. And the critics were not kind to his new films. In the aftermath of Fever, the president of paramount Pictures had called him “the biggest star in the world, bar none”. His potential had seemed limitless. So what was he doing in dross like Two of a Kind and Look Who’s Talking, Too?

Not that any of these reverses made him less than heroic. Something had happened with Fever that put him out of fashion’s reach. All that I’d intended in my story was a study of teenage style. Even its fakery had been based on the belief that all dance fevers, at root, were interchangeable. Memphis in 1955, the Goldhawk Road in 1965, Bay Ridge in 1977 — only the names, clothes and accents changed.

But Travolta had proved me wrong. By the power of his film presence, he had defined a time and place; a generation, and its world. It was an achievement that no number of snide exposes or unworthy sequels could ever diminish.

In any case, the tabloid rumours of his demise seemed grossly exaggerated. As I started work on Another Saturday Night, I noticed that Travolta’s name was suddenly news again. The New York Times carried stories about his triumph in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; how both he and the film had taken the Cannes Festival by storm, winning the Palme d’Or; and how, almost 20 years on, he was once again a hot new kid on the Hollywood block.

There seemed some kind of fate at work. The same week that I finished work on Vincent’s saga, American Vogue called me up and asked me if I’d like to meet John Travolta. This time around, I saw no reason why not.

Flown out from New York to Hollywood, I was plunged again into the world of limos and free lunch. A private screening of Pulp Fiction revealed a film of visceral force, brilliantly shot and acted, often hilarious, and so violent that I sat through most of the crucial scenes with my head between my knees. Beneath the hail of body parts, however, I managed to see enough to grasp that Travolta himself — who played a down-at-heel hitman named, by odd coincidence, Vincent — was quite superb.

After the film, I traipsed off to The Manor, a mock- Loire chateau built in the Twenties, now run as a hotel by the church of Scientology. There were crystal chandeliers in the lobby, old master reproductions in the corridors, a roof-top view of far hills seen across a clogged freeway. Alone in the restaurant with his wife, a willowy blonde actress called Kelly, Travolta was working his way through a health-food salad.

He looked in fine shape. Not lean and hungry, the way he’d looked in Fever, but not remotely the psychotic shambles of Pulp Fiction, long-haired, paunchy and heroin-glazed. If he was, by movie star standards, a trifle on the plump side, the dimpled chin was still intact, and so was the glitter in the ice-blue eyes.

I’d been told that he was charming; that was a gross understatement. In my life I’d never met a man more flattering, more considerate, more eager to please and be pleased. Snowed under by sweetness, I searched in vain for any trace of the toughness and danger that he’d brought to his screen characters. The only hint lay in the way he attacked his salad.

Or salads, to be exact. He loved to eat, he confessed. In a perfect world, he would spend his days eating chocolate desserts without limit. Unfortunately, that was not permitted him. So he compensated by wolfing down greenery by the plateload.

His eating style was combative — forward leaning, elbows cocked. His jaws did not receive the mouthfuls passively, but pounced, took prisoners, so that ingestion became an exercise in Seek And Destroy.

Except that one bite eluded him. A leaf of lettuce slipped off the edge of his plate, dummied the despairing stab of his fork, and fell to the floor. For a moment, he looked devastated. Then he skimmed a glance at me, to see if I’d noticed. When he saw that I had, he flashed his patented shit-eating grin.

It was a conspirator’s smirk; a look that made me his partner in crime. The world was not fair, it said. People lied, and cities burned, and lettuce leaves made scenes in restaurants. But we were above such stuff. We two, of all humanity, were exempt.

Vincent of Bay Ridge could not have put it better.

Nik Cohn, the author of Saturday Night Fever, has just completed its sequel, Another Saturday Night. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction opens on circuit next Friday

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