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LUAINE LEE: John Travolta, flying high

Copyright 2000 Nando Media
Copyright 2000 Scripps Howard News Service

Scripps Howard News Service

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Though he's been an actor since he was 12, John Travolta has never lost his innocence. That may sound strange to people who recall his ponytailed gangster in "Pulp Fiction" or his on-the-hustle guy in "Get Shorty."

But Travolta can imbue the sleaziest scumbag with an inner glow. In his latest role, as a self-adoring TV weatherman who rigs the lottery in "Lucky Numbers," he proves, once again, that the tinsel hasn't tarnished his soul.

That can be a disadvantage, admits Travolta, as he leans forward, one hand resting on his pleated, black suit pants. He wishes he weren't so trusting, he confides.

"I'd like to be a little less naive about people's intentions. I think I really am naive about what people want from me and need from me. Maybe it's ego, but I always think they want the best for me and always think they love me deeply, and later I found out that often that wasn't the case. It was because of who I was or ... and that hurts. I would change my willingness to maybe not trust a little bit."

When director Nora Ephron was looking for someone to play the archangel in "Michael," she chose Travolta because she said he was the only actor she could think of who could be both strong and guileless. She works with him again in "Lucky Numbers," where he plays a weasel with such charm that you forget to hate him.

When you've hit such a financial and career pinnacle, it's hard to know who your true friends are.

"It's very difficult to know right away," he says, nodding, "and even in business relationships and with friends it's very difficult. I feel blessed I have the amount (October 24, 2000 7:11 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) I have, but there have been very big moments where I've felt, 'Oh, gosh, what was I thinking?"'

For a kid who left home at 16, Travolta hasn't done badly. He remembers when he was 5 he used to beg his mother to take him to New York and push him onto the stage. She'd tried that with his sister, Ellen, and nothing came of it. She wasn't eager to try again.

"I wanted her to be Mama Rose and she was tired and didn't want to be Mama Rose. The best she could do was let me go," he says.

The star of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" was always self-sufficient and determined to be a performer.

"I was a very independent soul. At 9 years old, when they took me to the airport, I'd say, 'Leave me. I'll be fine.' And I'd go on the plane by myself. I was a very independent guy. The same thing later, I'd get myself to the airport on three different buses and get on the plane and I just prided myself on being an adult."

He says he wasn't afraid. "Not much scared me. Well, loss of loved ones scared me, but that, of course, that's true of anybody. The people I loved meant a lot to me and losing anyone was the button, that more than anything."

Married to actress Kelly Preston for nine years, Travolta, 46, is the father of an 8-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter. He says the secret to making a marriage work is the commitment.

"But you really want to be with that person the rest of your life, and you'll accept the ups and the downs regardless. You'll just accept whatever comes along, and that's a big pill to swallow because things come along, they do come along," he says, shaking his head. "And you say, 'Oh, God, help me get through this one.' And you get through it if you have a deep enough commitment," he says.

"I've teased Kelly so many times. If there have been moments of jealousy here and there, I've said, 'You're not going to get rid of me. You'd have to divorce me, I'm not going to divorce you. I told you we're going to be here forever, so you're stuck with me.' Certain people really want the marriage and aren't interested in not having it work," he says.

That kind of perseverance has pervaded every aspect of Travolta's life. Proving that he could act was something he accomplished when he was still a teen-ager, hitting it big as Vinnie Barbarino on TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter."

But Travolta achieved something else that meant almost as much to him: "Getting my pilot's solo license," he says, cupping his chin onto his hand.

"I dropped out of high school, so I didn't know if I had the technical expertise and the smarts to do something as sophisticated as I thought flying was. I proceeded to get seven jet ratings and I felt like, wow, I can even maybe say to someone if they said, 'You're no rocket scientist,' I could say, 'Well, I'm closer to rocket science than you are,"' he giggles.

"I was truly motivated," he recalls, "and had a furloughed United Airlines pilot that cried when I quit for the third time. I quit three times! He said, 'Look, I know a pilot when I see one. If you don't continue, I'm going to quit flying myself.' He said, ' I beg you to stay.' I thought, 'This sweet man begging me to stay, a 19-year-old kid? It must matter to him.' I said, 'OK, I'll do it for you.' I did it and in a few hours he was totally right. It all came together and I grasped it and I soloed."

Travolta is still soloing.

"Lucky Numbers" opens Friday (Oct. 27).