Travolta was born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey. His mother was an actress and singer who had appeared in The Sunshine Sisters, a radio vocal group, and acted and directed before becoming a high school drama and English teacher.
After attending Dwight Morrow High School, Travolta moved to New York City and landed a role in the touring company of the musical Grease and on Broadway in Over Here! singing the Sherman Brothers' song "Dream Drummin'." He then moved to Los Angeles to further his career in show business.
Travolta's first California-filmed television role was as a fall victim in, Emergency! in September 1972, but his first significant movie roles were in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and as Billy Nolan, a bully who was goaded into playing a prank on Sissy Spacek's character in the horror film, Carrie in 1976.
Around the same time, he landed his star-making role as Vinnie Barbarino in the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter (1975–1979), in which his sister, Ellen, also occasionally appeared as Arnold Horshack's mother
During this period, Travolta had a hit single entitled "Let Her In" peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
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In the next few years, he appeared in some of his most memorable screen roles: Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and as Danny Zuko in Grease the following year. These two films were among the most commercially successful pictures of the decade and catapulted Travolta's career. Saturday Night Fever earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. At age 24, Travolta became one of the youngest performers ever nominated for the Best Actor Oscar.
Travolta performed several of the songs on the Grease soundtrack album.
In 1980, Travolta inspired a nationwide country music craze that followed on the heels of his hit film, Urban Cowboy, in which he starred with Debra Winger.
After Urban Cowboy, Travolta starred in a string of flops.These included Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Perfect, co-starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Two of a Kind, a romantic comedy reuniting him with Olivia Newton-John. During that time he was offered, but turned down, lead roles in what would become box office hits, including American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman, both of which went to Richard Gere.
In 1989 Travolta starred in Look Who's Talking, which grossed nearly $300 million, making it his most successful film since Grease. Travolta made two sequels in the Look Who's Talking series, but It was Quentin Tarantino's hit Pulp Fiction for which he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Vincent Vega, that his career took an upswing.
Notable roles following Pulp Fiction include a movie-buff loan shark in Get Shorty, an FBI agent and terrorist in Face/Off, a desperate attorney in A Civil Action, a Bill Clinton-esque presidential candidate in Primary Colors and a military detective in The General's Daughter.
Travolta also starred in Battlefield Earth in 2000 based on a work of science fiction by L. Ron Hubbard - the originator of Scientology of which Travolta is a member - in which he played the leader of a group of aliens that enslaves humanity on a bleak future Earth. The film received almost universally negative reviews and did very poorly at the box office.
Travolta then played Mrs. Edna Turnblad in the remake of Hairspray, his first musical since Grease.
Travolta is a certified private pilot and owns five aircraft, including an ex-Australian Boeing 707–138 airliner. The plane bears the name Jett Clipper Ella in honor of his and wife Kelly Preston's children; daughter Ella and their late son Jett.
On September 13, 2010, during the first episode of the final season of her talk show, Oprah Winfrey announced that she would be taking her entire studio audience on an 8-day expenses-paid trip to Australia, with Travolta serving as pilot for the trip. He had helped Winfrey plan the trip for over a year.