John Travolta: One Heartbreaking Loss Permeated Two of His Most Iconic Movie Moments

Movie star John Travolta has starred in some of the most iconic movies of the 1970s, including Saturday Night Fever and Grease. These roles defined his career as a Hollywood leading man. However, one heartbreaking loss permeated both films and changed the trajectory of some of their most iconic scenes.

John Travolta in side by side photographs for both 'Saturday Night Fever' and 'Grease.'
John Travolta | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images/Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

John Travolta was a TV star before landing his first movie role

Travolta was a television star in the mid to late 1970s. He starred in the ABC series Welcome Back Kotter for three seasons alongside Gabe Kaplan, Marcia Strassman, John Sylvester White, Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Ron Palillo. ABC reportedly asked the actor to star in his own show, based on the Barbarino character, but Travolta turned it down, looking toward a future in the film industry.

In 1976, producer Robert Stigwood piggybacked on Travolta’s popularity, signing him to a three-picture motion picture deal.

These three pictures included Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy.

One heartbreaking loss permeated two of John Travolta’s most iconic movie moments

Vanity Fair reported that while starring in Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta had played the lead in a 1976 ABC TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, a true story of a teenage boy who had been born without an immune system. Travolta’s co-star was Diana Hyland, who played his mother. A romance developed between 22-year-old Travolta and 40-year-old Hyland.

Hyland encouraged Travolta to take the role of Saturday Night Fever‘s Tony Manero. However, while he prepared for the role, Hyland fought a battle against breast cancer. Two weeks after shooting began, per Vanity Fair, Travolta visited Hyland. On March 27, l977, Hyland died in his arms. This loss permeated his performance, giving his characterization of Tony Manero even more shades of sadness and darkness.

After filming for Saturday Night Fever wrapped, Travolta immediately segued the role of Danny Zuko in Grease.

The New York Post reported that during Travolta’s iconic “Greased Lightnin’,” scene, he couldn’t concentrate. The actor was upset about a story published about Hyland in People Magazine.

“People Magazine came out with a story about [Diana] that John didn’t like,” says Randal Kleiser, the film’s director. “He was distracted by it. It was hard for him to concentrate.”

“There’s a lyric where he sings, ‘heat lap trials,’ ” Kleiser says. “But on set, he kept lip-syncing ‘heap’ lap trials. I was beside the camera, yelling, ‘Heat! Heat!’ It didn’t work. If you look at the film, you can see his lips going ‘heap’ instead of ‘heat.’”

Travolta’s ‘Saturday Night Fever’ co-star said she could feel the presence of Travolta’s lost love on-set

Diana Hyland and John Travolta pose together at a Hollywood event in 1976.
Diana Hyland and John Travolta | Tom Wargacki/WireImage
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To Vanity Fair, Travolta’s co-star Karen Lynn Gorney spoke of how Travolta dealt with his loss during the remainder of filming.

Gorney shared she could feel Diana’s spirit on the set, “protecting him” in his grief.

“If he fell into the grief, he wouldn’t be able to pull himself out of it. But he was very professional and was right there on the money. I remember the scene at the Verrazano Bridge when I leaned over and kissed him. The poor thing was suffering so, and that kiss was totally spontaneous. That wasn’t Tony and Stephanie—I saw he was hurting,” Gorney said.