Travolta talks movies, Walmart and religion in interview

by Kimberly on April 25, 2011


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Two weeks ago today, he walked the red carpet in New York City with his fellow Sweathogs. Two days later, in NYC, he anchored a press conference about his upcoming John Gotti biopic.

Days later, he darted off to Los Angeles for a surprise appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” where, with a deadpan delivery, he encouraged pal Kirstie Alley to heat things up with her dance partner.

The actor has not been home since.

Home, of course, is Marion County.

And home, to hear Travolta tell it, is where he wants to be.

“This town is amazing. Honestly, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he said, sitting next to his pool, his Qantas Boeing 707 parked yards away. “This is like being in a high-quality, old-fashioned, storybook town.”

Travolta spoke with the Star-Banner on April 5, days before he left for NYC for TV Land’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” reunion. It was the first time the newspaper interviewed him at his home. With occasional cackles, he reminisced about “Kotter” and also talked at length about his movies, his passion for aviation and his love for Marion County.

He also offered his guest cookies from a plate on the patio table. “Please,” he said with a warm smile, “have some.”

He wore jeans, a black T-shirt and a black ball cap. Daughter Ella Bleu was hanging out nearby with friends. Baby Ben’s stroller was parked near the home’s huge windows. People buzzed around the property, pressure cleaning the driveway, preparing the 707 for an evening trip, serving iced tea.

Yet there is a distinct lack of formality amid the buzz. Clearly, this is home. And despite the jet-set life, the A-list actor with a storied, 35-plus-year career is as excited discussing the art of “Pulp Fiction” as he is discussing bargain hunting in Ocala.

“Target and Walgreens,” he said laughing, “and Walmart. We love it.”

“As far as Walmart’s concerned, you can get Christmas presents that are just unbelievable,” he said. “I bought some of my family dresses from Walmart, and it was their favorite clothing. Honestly. These are high-fashion women, and they didn’t know (where I bought it). They were wearing it for New Year’s.”

Did they ever find out?

“Well, my wife …” he said, rubbing his head and cracking up. “One of my sisters said, ‘Oh my God, that dress was so off-the-charts awesome.’ And my wife said, ‘Is that the one from Walmart?’ And I looked at her like, ‘We’re NOT YET supposed to say that.”

Travolta’s wife, of course, is actress Kelly Preston. She, too, is often seen in Target and other local hangouts. The family eats and shops locally; it is common to see snapshots of them posing with employees at local businesses.

They have a place in Los Angeles, too, but they choose to live in quieter confines. For Travolta, it’s always been this way. Even when magazines from TV Guide to Time dubbed him the hottest thing in Hollywood, he did not call Hollywood home.

‘My own universe’

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, with “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and a hit record under his belt, Travolta placed himself out of the celebrity excess of Los Angeles, the hub of show business.

“That was the height of decadence,” he said. “I wasn’t attracted to a dark lifestyle at all. It’s not that I didn’t tolerate others with it. But personally, partying wasn’t an allure for me. And I had my church.

“I had become a Scientologist right before ‘Kotter.’ I was more interested in gaining knowledge of how the mind works and how to function in life better. I was much hungrier for knowledge to function better than I was indulging in a darker lifestyle.”

He purchased a Spanish-style mansion in Santa Barbara, well north of L.A. There, the most popular actor in TV and movies lived alone.

“I was lonely. Trust me,” he said, his tone softening.

“I think I was alone because I was interested in things that were going to help me structure a future that made sense. The benefit I was getting was worth the loneliness because it was helping me survive. I don’t think I could have taken the onslaught of attention — positive and negative — I was getting without it. It really grounded me.”

In Santa Barbara, he buried himself in his faith, learned how to fly jets and invited famous friends to visit him, including his “Kotter” cast mates and his “Urban Cowboy” co-star Debra Winger.

“I created my own universe by having family and friends come up. I could control the environment much more,” he said. “It was not a complicated lifestyle, but it protected me from a lifestyle that I don’t think I had the genetic structure to handle. I was too sensitive to it. I don’t think I would have fared well; I don’t think I would have lasted very long.”

Local folks

Living outside the limelight is what brought the Travoltas to Marion County. That, and a big ole runway.

The family purchased the land in Anthony in 2001 alongside the large airstrip used by late Nautilus creator Arthur Jones. The fitness entrepreneur used to care for orphaned elephants on the property, thus dubbing the area — and, now, gated community — Jumbolair.

Travolta is a pilot who casually jets off to his big-city gigs and the Scientology church in Clearwater like Ocalans motor off to work and the neighborhood chapel.

The family’s 707 is named the Jett Clipper Ella. Their Gulfstream G2 honors their late son, Jett, whose birthday is printed on the plane. And Travolta said the family may trade in a plane and name the new one after Marion County’s newest celebrity, baby Benjamin Travolta.

“I go out on the streets at various times, and Ben is far more popular than me: ‘Hey John! We’re so happy about Ben. He’s adorable. He’s cute. He’s this. He’s that,’ ” Travolta said laughing. “There is a lot of support and love (here.) It’s awesome.”

So much so, he said, his church — the Church of Scientology — chose Ocala to open a mission center after conducting a national search of possible cities. Located at 50 SE First Ave., the Scientology center is scheduled to open in June, Travolta said.

The facility is designed for educating people about Scientology, but it will not be for advanced study, Church of Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney said last year.

Travolta is elated about the center, partially because the location search reflected so well on his adopted hometown.

“(Ocala) scored the highest in the history of the church — out of the whole country,” he said. “It scored the highest in family morals, priorities … Let’s put it this way: The concept is people were not about themselves, they were about others.”

Time for church

The Star-Banner interview lasted about 90 minutes. As dusk settled over the Marion County property where elephants once roamed, Travolta politely excused himself and profusely thanked the newspaper for its time and interest.

Nearby, a crew prepared the 707 for Travolta’s evening trip to the Scientology center in Clearwater. Minutes after the interview, the plane took off, and, essentially, Travolta drove to church.

But before he left, he paused and, again, motioned toward the plate of cookies on the table. “Please,” he said earnestly to his guest, “take some cookies. Really. Take them home.”

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