Travolta's highs, lows — from 'Kotter' to Oscar meme

Jake Coyle
Associated Press
John Travolta was criticized for touching of Idina Menzel’s face and saying, “You, you my darling, my beautiful ...” at the Oscars.

Since strutting onto the big screen in "Saturday Night Fever," John Travolta has had a career marked by dramatic ups and downs, from comeback king to Internet meme.

Travolta's latest step back into the spotlight at the Academy Awards was uneasy. He's been widely pilloried for his touching of Idina Menzel's face while he cooed, "You, you my darling, my beautiful, my wickedly talented Idina Menzel."

"Apparently I played with her chin too much," Travolta told Jimmy Kimmel about his reunion with Menzel. At the conclusion of the Oscars, host Neil Patrick Harris predicted Travolta (booked to redeem himself for his infamous mangling of Menzel's name the year before) will be back at next year's show to apologize again for "all the face touching."

Images of Travolta kissing Scarlett Johansson in front of photographers on the red carpet also went viral, turning the star into a social media punch line. Johansson, however, defended Travolta in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday, saying, "There is nothing at all strange, creepy or inappropriate about John Travolta" and called the photo "an unfortunate still-frame from a live-action encounter that was very sweet and totally welcome."

One of Travolta’s highlights was his work in the disco sensation “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Oscar incidents come at a time when Travolta, 61, is prepping a handful of projects and ahead of the release of an explosive documentary on Scientology that focuses considerably on Travolta's relationship with the organization. Should that film, "Going Clear," from the Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, go on to be Oscar nominated, as many expect it to, it could again make Travolta a part of next year's Academy Awards, albeit in a much different way.

But Travolta has long navigated the ebb and flow of celebrity, relying on his boyish charisma and a few good dance moves for numerous revivals. Here's a look at his highs and lows:

High: Already known to TV viewers of "Welcome Back, Kotter," Travolta emphatically debuted as a leading man in the 1977 disco sensation "Saturday Night Fever." He pronounced: "This is dancing, not that Fred Astaire thing. I just move and strut, and that's dancing!" He followed it up as Danny Zuko in 1978's "Grease," forever immortalizing his high voice and pomade-slicked hair.

Low: The 1980s weren't nearly as good to Travolta as the '70s. He worked consistently, but in a string of flops like "Perfect," in which he played a Rolling Stone reporter, and "Two of a Kind," which reteamed him with "Grease" co-star Olivia Newton-John. Many of the films he turned down (like "American Gigolo") were more successful than the films he chose to make.

High: Though the "Look Who's Talking" comedies restored Travolta's popularity, his resurrection was undoubtedly due to one man: Quentin Tarantino. The director specifically sought out Travolta, even though Daniel Day-Lewis, fresh off his Oscar win for "My Left Foot," reportedly wanted the part. Travolta's performance as Vincent Vega earned him his second Oscar nomination and brought on a rush of work, including the acclaimed Elmore Leonard adaptation "Get Shorty."

Low: The "Pulp Fiction" rejuvenation did not last long, though Travolta's track record ("Michael," ''Face/Off," ''Primary Colors," ''A Civil Action") was better in the late 1990s than it was in the '80s. He even had a notable cameo in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line." But in 2000, he starred in perhaps the biggest bomb of his career: "Battlefield Earth." The futuristic science-fiction film was partly based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. It was made by independent production company Franchise Pictures (which was later convicted for inflating the budget to "Battlefield Earth" and went bankrupt), with Travolta putting up money of his own. It's frequently ranked among the worst movies of the decade.

High: Travolta continued to co-star in big-budget releases that got mediocre reviews and did modest box office: "Swordfish," "The Punisher," "The Taking of Pelham 123." More recently, Travolta has lined up several films: "The Forger" (a crime drama due out in April), "Criminal Activities" (a mob thriller directed by Jackie Earle Haley) and "In a Valley of Violence" (a Western co-starring Ethan Hawke). Most intriguingly, he's to play O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro in the pcoming FX series "American Crime Story" by Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck," "American Horror Story").

Low: Travolta's recent years have been marred by tragedy, lawsuits and increased attention to his long-held religion. His son Jett died in 2009 of a seizure at age 16. In 2013, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright published "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief."