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'A Civil Action' keeps Travolta in the game

Web posted on:
Tuesday, December 29, 1998 1:16:29 PM EST

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- In sprinting down the comeback trail from his days in "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Saturday Night Fever," John Travolta has played a number of flawed characters with an undeniable likability.

In "Phenomenon," he was a small-town mechanic inexplicably turned into a super-genius. In "Michael," he played an archangel slumming it on Earth. And in "Primary Colors," Travolta portrayed Clinton-esque presidential candidate Jack Stanton, a turn that earned him a Golden Globe nomination as best actor.

Now, "A Civil Action" casts him as a lawyer whose ego threatens his case, his firm, his partners and their families.

"He had a coldness and insensitivity and arrogance that distanced himself from people," Travolta says of his character. "But because he was kind of naively unaware of his bulldozer abrasiveness, I think it kind of saved him in a weird way."

Travolta as a lawyer in "A Civil Action"

'I went off my memory'

The film is based on a true story in which residents of a small town, convinced that polluted drinking water is killing their children, file a civil action against two companies. But Travolta did not meet the real attorney, Jan Schlichtmann, until well into filming.

"So I went off my memory of lawyers I knew in the last 23 years, good ones and bad ones and performers and non-performers, and I decided that's really what I had to do in order to make this an effective performance," the actor says.

In addition to "A Civil Action," Travolta briefly appears this winter in director Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line."

"I was supposed to do a movie with Terrence Malick years ago -- 'Days of Heaven' -- and I didn't get to do it because of contractual problems," Travolta says. "... As a favor to him I did a cameo in this movie called 'A Thin Red Line.'"

"A Thin Red Line" is Malick's first movie -- he also directed "Badlands" -- since directing "Days of Heaven" in 1978.

Travolta makes a cameo appearance in the Terrence Malick film "The Thin Red Line"

Film work keeping Travolta busy

Travolta takes quite a bit more screen time in his current project, "The General's Daughter," a military mystery based on the book by Nelson DeMille. The film that co-stars Madeline Stowe and Timothy Hutton is scheduled for release in summer 1999.

After success as Vinnie Barbarino in "Kotter" and an Oscar nomination for his role in 1977's "Fever," Travolta's star shone brightly into the '80s before dropping below the horizon. Then came Quentin Tarantino and a role as hit man Vincent Vega in 1994's "Pulp Fiction."

With another Oscar nomination under his belt, Travolta was back, and film work has kept him busy ever since.

Even so, the 44-year-old Travolta still finds time to pursue a 20-year passion -- flying.

"Last night I graduated from American Airlines Academy to be a first officer for a Boeing 707 and that was really great," he says. "Mostly it was kind of a fantasy."

But don't expect to see him in the cockpit next time you fly. John Travolta is keeping his day job in the movies.

Correspondent Sherri Sylvester contributed to this report.

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