Travolta was published by Taylor Publishing in 1996.
When English journalist Nik Cohn sat down to document the disco culture which he had been watching spread like spilt beer across Brooklyn’s dance club floors, he could never have dreamed what it would eventually turn into. Certainly Tribal Rites Of The New Saturday Night, the resultant essay, had nothing in common with the dream which had taken him into Robert Stigwood’s office six months before.
According to Stigwood, Cohn had dropped by to talk to him about the possibility of writing a movie. “I said, ‘OK, if you have an idea, come and see me again and we’ll talk about it.’ Six months later I picked up New York magazine and saw this cover story and Nik’s name, so I immediately read it. And I thought ‘this is a wonderful film subject.'” No sooner had he put down the article than he was raging on the phone to Cohn.
“You’re crazy! You come to me about writing a story for a picture. This is it!” Then he called Cohn’s agent to acquiring the film rights to the story. Within 24 hours, the deal was done.
Tribal Rights Of The New Saturday Night, the essay from which Saturday Night Fever would eventually emerge, was a strong theme for a film, although it really did need a mind like Stigwood’s, forever alert to the incidentals which other onlookers might easily overlook, to spot that. Cohn’s own style of writing is journalism at its best: fast, but never rushed; easy but never lazy; informative, but never schoolmasterly – at his best, the rock’n’roll history Pop From The Beginning or the New York City travelers’ guide Heart Of The City, Cohn brings an almost fictional feel to the facts at hand, transforming the driest tidbit into fascinating anecdote, creating images which linger long after the page is turned.
So it was with Tribal Rights Of The Saturday Night. Cohn is the observer, but it is the reader who is in the room, watching the blue collar Brooklynites hop and hustle across the floor, living out a fantasy world of their own creation, which is nevertheless as real as the paychecks which they collected that week – and which they’ll probably blow that night.
Cohn wrote a preliminary script based around this original article, laying the foundations of the world into which screenwriter Norman Wexler would introduce Tony Manero, an Italian American who whiles away his days in the paint store where he works, and his nights in a bedroom decorated with posters for Rocky, Al Pacino and Farrah Fawcett–Majors. He runs with a gang, he fights with his parents, and exactly like the lost souls who populated Cohn’s essay, he lives for just one thing, the disco every Saturday night. In terms of realism, he is a walking, talking cliche, but that’s only one of the tricks which Saturday Night Fever has up its white polyester sleeve. Tony’s a cliche, and even his dancing partner knows it.
Robert Stigwood was certain that John Travolta was the man for the role, as certain as he was about the role being right for the cinema. He remembered John from the Superstar auditions, “and I was intrigued a few years later to see him pop up on Welcome Back Kotter. I could see the potential building in him, so I offered him a firm three picture deal, pay or play, guarantee of a million dollars.” At the press conference Stigwood staged to announce John’s recruitment, the actor made a single quip which has remained with Stigwood ever since. “I auditioned for him five years ago, and I just heard back.”
Of more interest to the media, of course, was that million dollar deal. Broken down across three movies, it evened out at a mere $333,000 per film, a pittance compared to what some Hollywood stars were commanding, but still John was forced to deal with some very persistent rumors that he was now a millionaire. He denied it, but did admit that he “could” be one in a couple of years. “In the meantime, I love the publicity that makes me out to be one now. It’s fun to see your future spread out in front of you.”
He was earning a lot of money, John would confess, but not as much as people thought. He was not, for instance, as rich as Elton John! “Last year I was living in a one bedroom apartment. For the amount of money that was coming in, I was no better off than I was seven years ago in New York. By the time I get my paycheck, there’s not much left. If you take the gross figures, you’d think I was rolling in money. But the breakdown would astound you. I pay 50% of my income to managers, business managers, lawyers, agents, secretaries and staff. Of the remaining 50%, I’m in a 50% tax bracket. That leaves me with nothing.”
Well, not quite, and besides, what money he did get, he was very careful with. “A couple of my friends that had money for generations said that you should target yourself to live off your interest,” John explained. “So I sat down and had a long talk with myself. I said, ‘hell John, you’re allowed to change with your success. Your fans want you to change. If not, what are you working so hard for? So, instead of a house, I bought an airplane.”
Actually, he bought an airliner, a commercial DC-3. The workhorse of the world’s airline companies, ever since its introduction in 1935, the DC-3, John reminisced, was “the first true airliner. It depended just on people who wanted to pick up and go someplace.” And that promptly became another expense. “I go to get the plane fixed and they charge me four times the amount that was on my estimate. I know it’s because of my name.”
On another occasion, John took his classic Thunderbird in for repair, “and they kept it nine months. When they see me coming, the price of parts goes up. They’re not even subtle about it. They just rip me off overtly. Success turned the things I really love into nightmares. I had a potential lawsuit on my plane. I couldn’t get my T-Bird out of the shop!”
He acknowledged, “the average person will probably read this and think, oh, I wish I had such problems, right? But when you’re in whatever reality you’re in, those are the problems.”
The script for Saturday Night Fever was still being written when John signed up for the role. He took the job on the strength of Cohn’s essay alone, and he admits that when something approaching a finished script finally reached him, he did wonder what he had got himself into.
“I was in the middle of the TV show, I was too close to Barbarino, and all Tony looked like to me was an extension of him.” He read late into the night, a frown so deeply etched in his forehead that finally, Diana could stand it no longer. “Give it to me,” she demanded. “I’ll let you know if it’s any good.”
An hour later, she burst back into the room. “Baby, you are going to be great in this! This Tony, he’s got all the colors. First he’s angry about something, he hates the trap that Brooklyn and his dumb job are. There’s a whole glamorous world out there waiting, which he feels only when he dances. And he grows, he gets out of Brooklyn.”
John smiled at the recollection. “She went on like that for a long time. ‘He’s miles from what you’ve played, and what isn’t in the script, you’re going to put there.'” And when John brought up the fact that Manero was the king of disco, “and I’m not that good a dancer,” she simply snapped back, “baby, you’re going to learn.” The next day, John began taking lessons with the disco dance troupe Dancing Machine.