In the late 1970s, off the heels of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, John Travolta was considered one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs. You could argue that he single-handedly made an entire generation think they could pull off white bell-bottom suits and ushered in the leather jacket trend of the 1980s. Though he’s more recently known for mega-flops such as Gotti, which received a rare 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, you’d still be hard-pressed to find a single American adult who doesn’t know at least some of the words to "Greased Lightning."
Unfortunately, as years pass, Travolta’s success in films like Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty has been overshadowed by a litany of bad press and tragedy. Since the heartbreaking 1977 death of his girlfriend, all the way to the death of his longtime wife decades later, the actor has been finding himself in the tabloids for the saddest reasons. Here are the tragic details about John Travolta.
John Travolta’s wife lost her secret battle with breast cancer
John Travolta and Kelly Preston‘s 28-year love story is one of endurance — through family tragedy, legal troubles, and more. According to People, Preston was married to actor Kevin Gage when the pair first met during a screen test for the 1989 flick The Experts. As she put it during an episode of Watch What Happens Live, it was "kinda" love at first sight — but they didn’t start dating until years later. First, she divorced Gage, had a fling with George Clooney, and almost tied the knot with Charlie Sheen. The couple finally walked down the aisle in 1991 when Preston was two months pregnant with their son Jett, and they never looked back.
Sadly, Preston and Travolta’s time together was cut short. According to People, the actress passed away on July 12, 2020, following a secret battle with breast cancer. She had privately been battling the disease for two years. The star left behind her two living children, 20-year-old Ella, and 9-year-old Benjamin.
"She fought a courageous fight with the love and support of so many," Travolta wrote in an Instagram post. "My family and I will forever be grateful to her doctors and nurses at MD Anderson Cancer Center, all the medical centers that have helped, as well as her many friends and loved ones who have been by her side. Kelly’s love and life will always be remembered."
He also lost his girlfriend to breast cancer
Kelly Preston isn’t the only loved one that John Travolta has lost to breast cancer. In the late 1970s, the actor was just 23 years old when his girlfriend Diana Hyland succumbed to the same disease at the age of 41.
According to People, Hyland had a mastectomy two years prior to her death. When Travolta first met her on the set of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, he claimed there was "a possibility" she’d fully recover. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse when he was in the midst of filming Saturday Night Fever, and the actress was wrapping up some early episodes of Eight Is Enough. "She didn’t know she was going to die for sure until two weeks before," Travolta told the magazine in 1977. That’s when the actor flew back to Los Angeles to be with Hyland during her final days. He was with her when she passed away and claimed he "felt the breath go out of her."
Travolta described the time after Hyland’s death as the "hardest 10 weeks" of his life, and he relied on Scientology to help him through. "I gave her great joy the last months of her life," Travolta told People in that same 1977 interview. "I always feel she is with me — I mean, her intentions are. Diana always wanted the world for me in every possible way."
John Travolta was accused of sexual battery in 2000
John Travolta has long been painted as a family man — with his decades-long marriage and dedication to his children as proof — but in 2018, The Daily Beast put a lens on the numerous allegations of sexual assault and harassment leveled against the star. This included sexual battery allegations from an anonymous 21-year old masseur.
In 2000, a masseur filed a police report claiming he was groped by the actor, who allegedly "exposed himself and made lewd remarks about gay fantasies," according to Radar Online. As The Daily Beast reports, Travolta has denied similar claims, and some of his accusers have recanted over the years. In this instance, the investigating officer noted in the police report that "the details do not meet the elements of battery… or ‘sexual battery.’" We’ll probably never know the truth, but former Scientologists who were close to the star have spoken about his alleged dark side.
According to Karen de la Carriere, a former friend of the actor and ex-Scientology executive who spoke to The Daily Beast, Travolta is a "bad boy who likes risky sexual adventures." De la Carriere’s husband, Jeffrey Augustine, revealed that the star allegedly has "a dark side" and is "reckless," using Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs as "his own private Mafia if he gets into trouble." Overall, Travolta doesn’t seem to be sweating the bad press, posting happy snaps of his family on Instagram.
The National Enquirer report that launched a nasty legal battle
John Travolta was faced with more difficult press following a National Enquirer report where pilot Douglas Gotterba, who worked with the actor for six years, claimed the pair had a years-long secret relationship in the 1980s. The report alleged that Travolta hid the relationship by pretending to date Brooke Shields, who was 16 years old at the time. He allegedly met Kelly Preston a year after they called it quits.
Following the accusations, the Pulp Fiction star entered a legal battle with Gotterba. According to The Hollywood Reporter, his attorney sent numerous cease-and-desist letters claiming the pilot broke a confidentiality agreement he signed at the time of his termination. Gotterba countersued, claiming the deal wasn’t "authentic." Per Radar Online, the pilot dropped the lawsuit in 2015, but that didn’t mean the incident — which caused an onslaught of salacious press — didn’t sting.
"This is every celebrity’s Achilles heel," Travolta admitted to The Daily Beast. "It’s just about people wanting money. That’s all. It happens on many levels … Other people may attack it back more than I do, but I let all the media stuff go a long time ago because I can’t control it. I think that’s why it persists, to some degree."
The tragic death of John Travolta’s 16-year-old son
In 2009, John Travolta tragically lost his 16-year-old son during a family vacation in the Bahamas. According to People, the teen died after suffering from a seizure and hitting his head in a bathtub at their vacation home in Old Bahama Bay Hotel. He was discovered unconscious by a caretaker and pronounced dead at the hospital.
Jett — who was hospitalized with Kawasaki Disease as a young child — had a history of seizures, which Travolta elaborated on in the testimony for his 2009 extortion case. According to CBS News, he said the child would have one "every five to ten days," and they would last "from 45 seconds to minutes."
Following Jett’s death, Travolta sunk into a deep depression. In an on-stage interview with the BBC, the Saturday Night Fever star admitted it was "the worst thing" that ever happened to him, and he "didn’t know if [he] was going to make it" through. "Life was no longer interesting to me, so it took a lot to get me better," he said. He also claimed that he "didn’t want to wake up," but ultimately leaned on the Church of Scientology to help him recover. "They didn’t take a day off, working through different angles of the techniques to get through grief and loss, and to make me feel that finally I could get through a day," he told the BBC.
John Travolta hid his son’s autism diagnosis for years
It’s not easy raising a special needs child. It’s even less easy if the press is breathing down your neck. This could be one of the reasons that, according to Us Weekly, John Travolta and Kelly Preston never disclosed their son Jett’s autism until after his tragic death — and even then, it was only part of court testimony.
According to CBS News, Travolta owned up to Jett’s autism in the months following his death as part of an on-going extortion case. Two men were allegedly trying to blackmail him for $25 million "with private information about his son’s rescue effort." According to ABC News, Travolta testified that a Bahamian medic was threatening to say he was responsible for his son’s passing, but the case was later dismissed because the actor couldn’t "bear to testify again."
Years later, Preston opened up about her son’s diagnosis during an episode of The Doctors (via Us Weekly) where she admitted she believed his autism was caused by "certain contributing factors" like suffering from food poisoning during pregnancy, having a "fast and hard" labor, breastfeeding on antibiotics, thrush, and Kawasaki disease. According to The Mayo Clinic, autism is largely thought to be genetic, and researchers are still trying to determine how many environmental factors play into the disorder.
The press surrounding Jett’s death made it hard for John Travolta to grieve
Dealing with his son’s death was hard enough on its own, but it was exacerbated by the onslaught of media coverage. The particularly gutting headlines speculated about John Travolta’s role as a father: why didn’t he come clean about his son’s autism? Was he responsible in any way? In a particularly bizarre report published a decade after the fact, The Daily Mail alleged that Travolta tried to resurrect his son in the back of the ambulance.
In an eye-opening interview with DailyMailTV, Sam Domingo — a former Scientologist who practiced the religion for 22 years — claimed that Travolta did something called a "Bring Back to Life assist." Scientologists allegedly believe that the spirit Thetan leaves your body when you die and searches for a new body. You can reportedly attempt to order Thetan back into a body by saying, "I command you to get into the body now." It’s claims like these that led Travolta to admit that the press surrounding his son’s death was the "most offensive." In 2014, he told The Daily Beast that it really impacted his ability to grieve.
"I felt like that was the lowest I’d ever felt," he said. "Sex stuff is always going to be interesting to somebody, but you stay away from family. You really should. With that, I always felt like the media—not all of the media, but parts of it—went too low there."