Skip to main contentSkip to footer

John Travolta at 70: the three deaths that marked his life, legal issues and ties to Scientology

The Golden Globe winner is internationally recognized for his roles in Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Pulp Fiction

John Travolta posing on the red carpet at the Rome Film Festival in 2022
Megan Bull
TV Writer
Share this:

A cinematic icon, John Travolta's career is defined by dichotomy. After starting out on Broadway, the actor danced his way into our hearts with breakout roles in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), before turning his attention to adrenaline-pumping crime thrillers. 

Accustomed to the highs and lows of Hollywood, John's taken it all in his stride. Beginning with a meteoric rise to fame in the '70s, he was hit with a string of box office flops in the '80s, before rising from the ashes with a critically acclaimed performance in Pulp Fiction (1994). 

And now, after decades on our screens, the Hollywood heavyweight has officially turned 70! To mark his milestone birthday, we're taking a look at John's life and career, from his early life in New Jersey to his legal issues, Scientology journey, and family tragedies, here's what you need to know…

Early life 

Born in New Jersey on February 18, 1954, John grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. The youngest of six children, John's father, Salvatore Travolta, was a second-generation Italian American, who became a semi-professional American football player and tire salesman. Meanwhile, his mother, Helen Cecilia, had been an actress and singer. She later became a teacher.  

John Travolta with his parents, Salvatore and Helen Travolta© Getty
John Travolta with his parents, Salvatore and Helen Travolta

A family of creatives, John wasn't the only one to inherit his mother's love of acting. All five of his siblings – Joey, Ellen, Ann, Margaret, and Sam Travolta – followed in her footsteps. 

John with his sister, actress Ellen Travolta© Getty
John with his sister, actress Ellen Travolta

"I grew up in a family of actors. I remember we always challenged ourselves to be different characters in different scenarios as kids," John told Youth Time magazine in 2014. "As in Broadway, you act, you sing, you dance. In the film industry, sometimes you do a musical, sometimes you do a drama, sometimes you do a comedy. This transition was not difficult for me, as I'm used to it from childhood." 

Explaining that he grew up in a "working class family," John added that they never had "an overabundance of money." 

Rise to Fame 

With his parents' permission, 16-year-old John decided to drop out of high school and pursue an acting career in New York. "Not too many of my friends identified with what I was doing," the star recalled in 1978. "I participated in football and basketball, and did what they were doing, but not many kids understood my going to acting studios at night."

John Travolta as Vinnie in Welcome Back, Kotter© Getty
At the age of 16 John dropped out of high school to pursue a career in acting

After moving to the Big Apple, John secured small roles on Broadway. But, in a bid to establish himself, he eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where there were opportunities in television. 

Among his earliest screen roles, the actor would appear in episodes of Emergency! (1972), The Rookies (1973), and Medical Center (1974). A turning point for the fledgling actor, John was eventually cast as Vinnie Barbarino in the 1975 sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter – a role which he'd embrace for the next four years. 

John Travolta on set filming Carrie© Getty
The actor landed his breakout film role in Carrie

With credits in theatre and TV, John went on to secure his breakout film role in the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie. Delivering a memorable performance as prankster and bully, Billy Nolan, the actor was thrust onto the world stage. Following its release, the supernatural horror, directed by Brian De Palma, became a box office success, and it also received universal acclaim. But, in the case of John, the best was yet to come. 

John bagged an Academy Award nomination after starring as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever© Getty
John bagged an Academy Award nomination after starring as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever

During the late 1970s, the burgeoning star secured some of his most iconic roles to date. In 1977, he was celebrated for his performance as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever – a role which would bag him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. And by 1978, John had won over audiences as Danny Zuko in Grease

olivia newton john john travolta grease© Photo: Getty Images
John as Danny Zuko in Grease (1978)

Hollywood stardom 

By 1978, John had become an international star. With roles coming in thick and fast, the actor went on to appear in Staying Alive (1983), Two of a Kind (1983), and Perfect (1985), all of which received negative reviews. 

John Travolta at a film screening in 1987© Getty
During the '80s, John appeared in a number of box office flops

After a few flops at the box office, John made something of a comeback with his role as James Ubriacco in Look Who's Talking (1989). The romantic comedy grossed $297 million, becoming the star's most successful film since Grease

Determined to keep the momentum going, John signed on to Look Who's Talking Too (1990) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), the latter of which garnered him Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG Award nominations. His career had officially been resuscitated. 

pulp fiction© Photo: Sky
John made a career comeback after starring in Pulp Fiction

Bringing in further film offers, John rounded out the 1990s with roles in Get Shorty (1995), Broken Arrow (1996), Face/Off (1997) and The General's Daughter (1999). Having strayed from his musical roots – with the exception of Hairspray (2007) – John has since become associated with crime dramas. 

Swordfish (2001), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), From Paris with Love (2010) and Gotti (2018) are among his biggest hits in the genre. As for his most recent projects, John has wrapped filming on Cash Out and That's Amore!, both of which are yet to receive a release date. 

Dancing with Diana 

In 1985, John became a part of British royal history after asking Diana, the Princess of Wales to dance. The culture-defining moment occurred at a state dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan at the White House. 

In this handout image provided by The White House, Princess Diana dances with John Travolta in Cross Hall at the White House in 1985© Handout
Princess Diana danced with John in Cross Hall at the White House in 1985

"About 10 o'clock at night, Nancy Reagan tapped on my shoulder and said, 'The princess, her fantasy is to dance with you. Would you like to dance with her tonight?'" John recalled to People magazine. "And I said, 'Well of course.'"

"My heart starts to race, you know, and I tap her on the shoulder and she turns around and looks at me, and she had that kind of bashful dip [of her chin] that she did, and she looked up at me, and I said, 'Would you care to dance with me?' The whole room cleared. We danced for what felt like 15 minutes."

Princess Diana's 'Travolta' dress© Getty
Diana's gown was dubbed the 'Travolta' dress and sold for £264,000 in 2019

The late Princess Diana – who sadly passed away in 1997 – had worn a velvet Victor Edelstein creation that night. Dubbed the 'Travolta' dress, it's now revered as one of the royal's most iconic gowns. In 2019, Historic Royal Palaces acquired it at auction for £264,000. 

MORE: John Travolta references 1985 dance with Princess Diana as he presents Prince Harry with aviation honor

READ: How John Travolta and children Ella and Ben's surprisingly down-to-earth home acts as a 'sanctuary' following family tragedy

The three deaths that marked his life

John's life has been marred by tragedy. After meeting Diana Hyland on the set of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), the actor was instantly smitten. The actress – who was 18 years older – had played his mother in the television drama film. 

John Travolta with late girlfriend Diana Hyland© Getty
John was smitten with the late actress Diana Hyland

"I thought I was in love before — but I wasn't," he told People magazine in 1977. "From the moment I met her, I was attracted. We were like two maniacs talking all the time on the set of 'Bubble.' After a month it became romantic."

Unfortunately, after two years of dating, Diana was diagnosed with breast cancer. Prior to their relationship, the actress had undergone a mastectomy, and was confident her cancer would not return. But, while John was filming Saturday Night Fever, her health declined drastically, forcing the actor to fly home to Los Angeles. 

Diana Hyland and John Travolta in LA in 1976© Getty
Diana passed away in 1977 after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis

He was with Diana until the very end and "felt the breath go out of her." She was 41 years old. 

"I gave her great joy the last months of her life," John recalled to People. "I always feel she is with me — I mean, her intentions are. Diana always wanted the world for me in every possible way."

John Travolta and Kelly Preston in 1990© Getty
John eventually found love with actress Kelly Preston in 1988 and they went on to welcome three children

Ten years later, the New Jersey native would find love with actress Kelly Preston, and after tying the knot in Paris in 1991, the couple went on to welcome three children: Jett (born in 1992), Ella Bleu (born in 2000), and Benjamin (born in 2010). 

Unfortunately, the film star would suffer another major loss on January 2, 2009, with his oldest son Jett, passing away at the age of 16. The family had been on vacation in The Bahamas at the time. 

Tragically, John also lost firstborn son Jett in 2009© Tim Boyles
Tragically, John lost his firstborn son Jett in 2009

The teen – who was autistic and regularly had seizures – died after hitting his head on a bathtub mid-seizure. John and Kelly confirmed their son's passing in a statement. "Jett was the most wonderful son that two parents could ever ask for and lit up the lives of everyone he encountered," said the couple. 

"We are heartbroken that our time with him was so brief. We will cherish the time we had with him for the rest of our lives."

In honor of his beloved son, John founded the Jett Travolta Foundation, which aims to "assist and provide relief to children with vision, hearing, mobility, communication, behavior learning impairments or other special medical, environmental, health or educational needs."

John Travolta lost his beloved wife Kelly Preston to cancer in 2020© ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT
John's beloved wife Kelly passed away in 2020 after a battle with cancer

By 2020, the actor had suffered another tragedy. On July 12, John confirmed that his wife Kelly had died at the age of 57, following a secret battle with breast cancer. 

Announcing the news on Instagram, he wrote: "It is with a very heavy heart that I inform you that my beautiful wife Kelly has lost her two-year battle with breast cancer. She fought a courageous fight with the love and support of so many.  

View post on Instagram

"My family and I will forever be grateful to her doctors and nurses at MD Anderson Cancer Center, all the medical centers that have helped, as well as her many friends and loved ones who have been by her side. Kelly's love and life will always be remembered. 

"I will be taking some time to be there for my children who have lost their mother, so forgive me in advance if you don't hear from us for a while. But please know that I will feel your outpouring of love in the weeks and months ahead as we heal."

WATCH: John Travolta commemorates Mother's Day with clip of late wife Kelly Preston

John has continued to honor his wife on social media over the past three years, penning heartfelt tributes to Kelly on her birthday and Mother's Day. 

Ties to Scientology 

John became a member of the Church of Scientology in 1975. "I was 21 when I first heard about [Scientology]," he told ABC News in 1998. 

John Travolta G'Day USA, Arrivals, Los Angeles© AFF-USA/Shutterstock
John joined the Church of Scientology in 1975

"And someone introduced it to me and they were so certain and happy, and I wasn't used to people being certain and happy. I was used to people being insecure and unhappy. I took a course and my life has never been the same."

According to the official Chruch of Scientology website, the faith "offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one's true spiritual nature and one's relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being." 

john travolta oscars 2023© Getty Images
The A-lister has credited Scientology with helping him deal with the loss of his late girlfriend Diana, as well as his son Jett

John, who lost his girlfriend Diana Holden, to breast cancer in 1977, leaned on Scientology after her death. "Life is overwhelming. Life is not easy. Life is tough," he told CNN's Larry King in 2001. 

"And you need something that really works and helps you actually, not promises to help you, then fail. And that's why I've always loved Scientology, because it offers help, and it works."

Following the loss of John's son, Jett, in 2009, the Pulp Fiction alum turned to Scientology once more. "I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't had the support of Scientology. I don't think I could have got through it," he recalled to The Telegraph

John Travolta attends a screening of Disney + Original Short Film "The Shepherd" at W London on November 23, 2023 in London, England.© Getty Images
In 2023, it was reported that John had begun to edge away from Scientology – the actor has neither confirmed nor denied the rumors

"They [members of the Church] were with me every day after Jett died. They even travelled with me when I needed to get away. And for a solid two years it was like that. It was only in the second year that I started to take a break of a day or two just to see how I was doing on my own."

In 2023, it was rumored that John had begun to edge away from Scientology, however, the 70-year-old has refrained silent on the matter. 

Legal battle 

It's safe to say that John's had his fair share of legal battles, but 2012 saw the star embroiled in his biggest and most publicised lawsuit yet. In a headline-hitting case, the actor was hit with a sexual battery and harassment suit by two male masseurs, with each seeking $2million. 

John Travolta wearing a navy suit and talking on stage in 2019© Getty
In 2012, John was accused of sexual battery and harassment

The pair – referred to as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 in court papers – accused the A-lister of making unwelcome sexual advances. Marty Singer, who served as John's lawyer, stated that the second claim was "just as absurd and ridiculous as the first one," and vehemently denied all charges. 

Marty also explained that the first claim, which alleged that John had assaulted the plaintiff in LA, was "totally false and fabricated," evidenced by the fact that the star had been on the East Coast and working on a movie at the time of the alleged incident.  

John Travolta wearing a black suit jacket and white shirt © Getty
By May of that year both lawsuits had been dismissed

Following the time discrepancy, John Doe withdrew from the lawsuit and by May 2012 both lawsuits had been dismissed.