- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

"This has been a glorious career," John Travolta affirms during a recent visit to Washington, where he meets the press at the Four Seasons Hotel to promote "Basic," a hyperdevious suspense thriller that opens nationally today.
"I couldn't have designed it better," the actor adds. Not that he considers himself capable of such premeditation.
"I've always felt that the next great part was in a writer's imagination," Mr. Travolta explains. "I would never have thought of 'Saturday Night Fever' or 'Pulp Fiction' or 'Michael' or 'Face/Off' or any of the wonderful parts I've had. You can say I brought them to life, but they all began in the minds of writers.
"I'm hoping to be like Paul Newman at 75 or 76, or whatever he is. Still acting and still in demand." (For the record, Mr. Newman is 78 and Mr. Travolta 49.)
Born in Englewood, N.J., Mr. Travolta was the youngest of six children. His mother, Helen, had been part of a pop singing group called the Sunshine Sisters. Before settling into steady work as a high school drama teacher, she had large theatrical ambitions for her elder children. As Mr. Travolta tells it, she was so unsuccessful in transmitting those goals to his older siblings that she was reluctant to encourage the baby of the family, who was avid to perform.
"I started as a child actor," Mr. Travolta says. "I was about 12 when I was first cast in something. I feel like I've had a longer career than most actors my age. Many were in their 20s or 30s before their careers started to gain some traction. I'm sort of the boy from 'Gypsy.' Ethel Merman was still playing Mama Rose in that show when one of my sisters joined the cast in 1961.
"My mother had tried to get my two older sisters into show business. She pushed and pushed, and they resisted and resisted. They went into the business because of her insistence, not of their own volition. All I wanted was for my mother to be a Mama Rose on my behalf. She wouldn't do it. The effort with my sisters had worn her out. I begged her to push me, but she refused."
His mother did relent enough to make a pivotal call on Mr. Travolta's behalf when the youth division of the Actors Studio in New York was auditioning a play. "A wonderful play," the actor recalls. "It was 'Who Will Save the Plowboy?' by Frank D. Gilroy.' Very well crafted. I was so thankful she did that for me. I got the part and did it for 12 weeks. Loved every second of it.
"It broke my heart to think she had exhausted all that effort on my sisters when I was so willing to be her show-business project. But it probably gave me more motivation, you know? Not driven, but tenacious certainly.
"I remember when I first got an agent and filled out an application, I called back right away and apologized for not mentioning that I could do German accents. It amused him. He told me that there probably wouldn't be much call for a German accent in someone my age for at least 24 hours. I was like 'Funny Girl.' There was nothing I couldn't do."
Mr. Travolta made his off-Broadway debut at the age of 18 and joined a touring company of "Grease" a year later, playing the role of Doody. Five years later, of course, he had the lead role of Danny in a movie version. A summer blockbuster, it reinforced the impact of his breakthrough six months earlier in "Saturday Night Fever."
Career momentum had been accumulating for a couple of years. Mr. Travolta became a national favorite in the sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter." He also had appeared in a couple of films, the ludicrous horror thriller "The Devil's Rain" and the now classic "Carrie," Brian De Palma's version of an early Stephen King book, in which Mr. Travolta was one of the degenerates who tormented Sissy Spacek.
There had been a legendary mass audition in Los Angeles in the early part of 1976 that had determined the principal cast members of both "Star Wars" and "Carrie." Mr. Travolta confirms that he was up for both. "There were no readings. Just interviews. Basically, they wanted to see what you looked like."
Since his comeback role as a loquacious mobster in "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, Mr. Travolta has alternated between menaces and sympathetic characters. His string of bad guys in "Broken Arrow," "Face/Off" and last year's extremely mercenary "Swordfish" might have continued in "Basic." According to Mr. Travolta, several characters made the gang in "Swordfish" look tame before some tinkering commenced.
The rewrites were designed to create some protective ambiguity around a hornet's nest lurking at an Army Ranger base in Panama. Mr. Travolta is cast as a former Ranger, Tom Hardy, now a maverick in hot water with his current government employer, the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Summoned to the base by a former comrade, Tim Daly as commanding officer Col. Bill Styles, Hardy is urged to get to the bottom of a training mission that has ended in catastrophe and bewilderment. A mutual friend, Samuel L. Jackson as Ranger instructor Sgt. Nathan West, is implicated in the mess. A smarty-pants, Hardy finds it easy to play extroverted cop to the suspicious, slow-burning cop of Connie Nielsen as Capt. Julia Osborne, the military police officer assigned to the investigation.
Without wanting to jeopardize the script's twists and surprises, Mr. Travolta is willing to acknowledge that the original version was a darker caper melodrama than he thought prudent. "It did change," he says. "It was one of those how-dark-can-we-get propositions. So a lot of issues got picked apart, many bearing on the single question, 'What do we really want to see in this piece in the last analysis?'
"Even if you're pretty good at going to dark places, maybe there are times when people don't want to follow you all the way there. But the really interesting thing is that it was possible to turn the whole situation very effectively without changing the original scenes or characters all that much. It required some adjustment, not a wholesale rewrite. More a way of looking at it so that the mysteries could be more pleasurable to people."

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