NEW YORK – F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared that there were no second acts in American lives. One wonders what he would have made of one former Sweathog.
In more than 25 years, John Travolta has gone from disco cool to seriously uncool, from hit-man chic to sci-fi cheese. He's had more booms and busts than a week on the Nasdaq.
"The Fitzgerald line is so negated by our time," says film producer Joel Silver, whose credits include the Lethal Weapon, Predator, The Matrix and Die Hard series. "We're looking at people with fifth and sixth acts. John is one of those."
And that's fine by John.
"Look, if I'm one of the few people that are ever looked at as having a career with acts or various comebacks, it denotes a more exciting career. I really wouldn't trade mine for anybody's," Travolta says. "I'm healthy enough and aware enough to appreciate that it's unusual."
Last year, he lost with Lucky Numbers and then crashed with Battlefield Earth, which tied the record for the most Golden Raspberry Awards. (It got seven Razzies — for worst movie, actor, screen couple, supporting actor, supporting actress, director and screenplay.)
This month, he returns with Swordfish, a high-tech thriller in which he stars as a cool megalomanic who enlists a computer hacker to steal massive amounts of federal money.
Travolta, who despite last year's flops is still getting about $20 million for this film, was offered either the bad-guy or the good-guy role. He chose the bad. (The good went to Hugh Jackman.)
Does Travolta need Swordfish to score big? And if it's a success, will it be spun into another comeback tale?
No. And yes, maybe, he says.
"There's never a time out that I don't feel that there's some potential spin."
Travolta's been dealing with it ever since Act I, when he strutted though the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter and films Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy.
With his cleft chin and machismo, he became the It Boy of the early 1980s. As if to cap his accession, Britain's Princess Diana requested a dance during a visit to the United States.
Act II brought Staying Alive, Perfect, The Dumb Waiter and finally the lucrative but humiliating Look Who's Talking trilogy.
Then maverick director Quentin Tarantino, who had long idolized Travolta, offered him the role of the hip, hamburger-munching killer in Pulp Fiction. The film won the actor an Academy Award nomination — and a media characterization of a comeback.
"I didn't welcome the spin at first and then Quentin Tarantino said, 'They're excited, John! They want you to have this as a comeback. So go with it. Stop fighting it,"' says Travolta. "And I dropped it."
When Act III got into high gear, it seemed Travolta could do no wrong: Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Phenomenon and Michael were all greeted warmly by fans.
"It has something to do with growing up on the screen and it's also about losing and getting it back. I think people are moved by that — they wanted to see him again,'" Silver says.
A gradual descent seemed to begin in 1998 with Mad City, Primary Colors, The Thin Red Line, A Civil Action and The General's Daughter all getting mixed reviews.
Then came Battlefield Earth.
Travolta produced and starred as a leather-clad giant alien with dreadlocks and huge hands in the screen adaptation of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's novel.
Big stars have always delivered at least one colossal turkey. Sylvester Stallone's was Judge Dredd and Kevin Costner gave us Waterworld. But Travolta won't back down.
Though even Silver calls it "goofy," "ludicrous" and "a giant error in judgment," Travolta insists the film is "nearing the $100 million mark'' thanks to its ancillary deals — video, overseas sales, merchandizing.
"Look, to this day he doesn't know how silly the movie is," Silver says.
Part of Travolta's desire to make Battlefield Earth was his allegiance to Scientology, the church he credits with keeping him sane at the pinnacle of Act I.
"I became what was so-called the biggest star in the world during the height of the cocaine era. The height! I didn't know anybody who wasn't on it,'' he says. "OK, maybe I knew one other person ..."
Scientology, he says, stopped him from snorting his way through Act II. "To survive that was extraordinary — to watch every single person you knew just go down the (bleeping) tubes.''
Travolta now finds irony in the sympathy extended to actors who bounce between rehab and jail. None, he says, was offered him — and he suspects it's because of his religion.
"You're not given credit for taking care of yourself and not going down the tubes, but you are given credit for when you do go down the tubes. I think that's an issue.''
Ultimately, the 47-year-old actor says he'll forge ahead, through the spin and unfolding acts of his career.
"I mostly enjoy the people,'' he says when asked what he likes most of being a star.
"If you told me 25 years ago that one day at my house I would have Marlon Brando and Barbra Streisand and Tom Hanks sitting around — that was my dinner company — c'mon!" he says.
"These are things a great life are made up of."