The Rocky Mountain News

By Robert Denerstein

Friday, John Travolta opened in The General's Daughter, a thriller set on a fictional Army base in Georgia. Travolta plays an Army detective assigned to investigate the murder of a captain, a woman who happens to be the daughter of the post's commanding officer. The movie veers into touchy territory, raising questions about the role of women in the military and about the Army's need to preserve its image.

These days no one questions Travolta's box-office appeal. He's a marquee player who has held his own in movies as diverse as Primary Colors, in which he played a president very much like the one we have, and Broken Arrow, in which he portrayed a rogue military pilot.

Maybe it's because he resurrected his once-brilliant career from the ashes of obscurity, but Travolta seems to bring new relish to each part, a winking exuberance that allows audiences to share the good time he's having.

Last week I chatted briefly with Travolta, who's always been a favorite - and for the most solid of reasons. Like me, he grew up in northern New Jersey. It's not the same reason I like someone such as Sir John Gielgud, but then I've never seen Gielgud dance.

Travolta, who was promoting his movie from Atlanta, placed his own call.

"Hi, this is John Travolta," he said, lighting the fuse of memory. It's difficult to believe that Travolta burst into national consciousness in 1975 when he played Vinnie Barbarino on the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter.

I'll do the math.

That was 24 years ago, and Travolta, who's 45, seemed like the nation's hottest new star. During a time when ethnicity was erupting on big screens, Travolta brought a new flavor to the mix: Italian- Lite, and it played well against heavier versions from stars such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Travolta quickly made the transition from TV to movies. In 1977, he starred in the landmark Saturday Night Fever. With his white suit, gyrating hips and finger pointing skyward, Travolta's Tony Manero epitomized the disco dreams of young urbanites who came alive to the throbbing rhythms of a dance craze. He followed with Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980).

Now the kid from New Jersey is playing hard-boiled soldiers, battle-hardened veterans whose ideas haven't entirely eroded.

"The story was the first attraction," Travolta said. "It was a best-selling book (by novelist Nelson DeMille) and had big-studio value. I referred to the book often. I had to look at what I could do to make it worthwhile. I thought the character of Paul Brenner was complex.

"The most exciting thing was that he could be all the things you expected - a good fighter, for example - but he was also up to intellectual sparring with James Woods' character. (Woods, who once played an acting teacher on Welcome Back, Kotter, portrays an alarmingly intelligent officer who may be involved in the crime.)

"Brenner understands about protecting the system, but only up to a point. He wants his heroes to remain heroes. ... I thought that was intriguing. He was a cynical guy but still had a hero in mind. Then that hero (the general of the title) failed him. In the end he had to become the soldier he wanted to be by becoming a cop first."

Travolta's now playing cops, but for a time it seemed as if he couldn't - as the cliche goes - get arrested in Hollywood, at least not in a big way. When I began reviewing movies, Travolta was a hot property, but he seemed to fade from prominence with a series of movies that slid downhill after his performance as a sound-effects wizard in Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981).

Staying Alive, a misguided sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and a variety of other movies slipped from view. When he landed a hit - 1993's Look Who's Talking Now - he was no longer being taken seriously as an actor.

All that changed in 1994 when Quentin Tarantino cast Travolta in Pulp Fiction. He played Vincent Vega, a heroin-using gangster. Travolta had returned, and this time he seemed to have shed the superficiality that marked some of his early work. He had a nice turn in the big-screen version of Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty. He became a star again.

His movies have even taken on a bit of weight - from the intricate machinations of law that were considered in A Civil Action to the presence of women in the military in General's Daughter.

"The recent changes in the military are apparent, and I don't have a view on what those changes should be," Travolta said. "But the military always has been of interest. It's of epic proportions. At the end of the day, everyone's interested in it. That's what I know."

Travolta's list of recent co-stars is impressive. Emma Thompson in Primary Colors. Dustin Hoffman in Mad City. Robert Duvall in A Civil Action. He played opposite Sean Penn and Robin Wright in She's So Lovely. In The General's Daugther, he appears with James Woods, Madeline Stowe and James Cromwell. Nice company.

"Well, I get approval of the actors," Travolta said. "I just liked these choices, and those people wanted to do the movie."

Even Travolta's well-publicized commitment to Scientology doesn't seem to have hurt his career, although that will soon be put to the test. He's the driving force behind Battlefield: Earth, a science- fiction epic that begins filming in July. It's based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. You wonder whether audiences will be put off by the movie's pedigree.

"Once people see the movie, they'll realize it has nothing to do with the other subject matter (Scientology)," Travolta said. "The biggest audience for the movie is a sci-fi audience. Only the media will try to collapse the two (the movie and Scientology). I'll be playing a 9-foot-tall alien who's as wicked as any you've ever seen. I'm going to play the role on stilts. They'll be 3 feet tall or something like that. Next week I'm going to do a screen test to see whether I can function on stilts.

"I didn't write any part of the movie. You should know that we're doing half the book - 500 pages. The second part will be a sequel."

Lately, Travolta has been playing villains and good guys. Any preference?

"I just like the character to be well-defined and delineated."

So this is a great time for Travolta, a period made sweeter by the knowledge that he's writing a great second act for his career. He's working constantly. He has a family (with actress Kelly Preston). The Toronto Sun recently quoted Travolta as saying Barbra Streisand has asked him to sing with her on New Year's Eve during an end-of-the- century show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

"After Battlefield, I'll probably do Standing Room Only, a movie in which I play a nightclub singer with some shadows of Sinatra and Tony Bennett," he said. "I already recorded the songs. I just had to postpone it. I took a break instead of going into filming directly."

Are things as good as they seem from the outside looking in?

"Yes," Travolta said. "I'm completely happy. It's amazing."

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