People think SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER catapulted John Travolta to stardom when it opened on Dec. 12, 1977, but he already was wildly popular from the TV series “WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.”
When “KOTTER” premiered two years earlier, Travolta was a young actor who’d done some commercials and hoped to break out playing Vinnie Barbarino, one of four tough NY high school kids known as Sweathogs. The show starred Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter, a teacher, and ex-Sweathog, himself, but Travolta emerged as a teen heartthrob who made the ratings soar.
FEVER was part of a $1M deal Travolta signed with producer Robert Stigwood in 1976 for three films to be released by Paramount. It was based on the article “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, which ran in New York Magazine in June 1976. Cohn’s story wasn’t nearly as familiar to moviegoers as a hit stage play or best-selling novel would have been. What really steered FEVER to success was its disco soundtrack by The Bee Gees. Originally, the film was to be called “Saturday Night,” but when Stigwood & director John Badham (“WAR GAMES”) heard The Bee Gees’ “Night Fever,” they immediately made it part of what’s now a memorable title.
The Bee Gees were brought in by Stigwood, who’d managed them for many years. Stigwood, whose RSO Records was a major music business force then, met with them in France, where they were mixing a live album and had no time to read a screenplay. But they told Stigwood they’d already written & recorded a few songs that might work in the movie — like “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” & “How Deep Is Your Love?”
During production, Travolta & the team weren’t actually dancing to The Bee Gees’ music because it didn’t get into the film until post-production. What they danced so well to were mostly songs by Stevie Wonder and other Motown stars. After finishing their album, The Bee Gees jumped into action, reportedly writing most of FEVER’s soundtrack in just one weekend. Their double-LP became the top-selling soundtrack ever, winning four GRAMMY’s in 1979, including Best Album.
FEVER, which cost $3.5M to make, did $94.2M domestic and brought Travolta a best actor Oscar nomination. Stigwood & Travolta’s next project was the movie version of the stage hit GREASE, which cost $6M and did $190.1M domestic. Travolta got to pick their third film — the romantic drama MOMENT BY MOMENT, co-starring Lily Tomlin, which cost $8M to make, but only grossed $11M domestic — nearly torpedoing Travolta’s career.