Cover Story

John Travolta: The Man in the Plastic Bubble

The actor finds life after disco with a killer role in 'Pulp Fiction'

Before you see John Travolta, you see a beanstalk — a big, green snake of papier-mâché that sprouts from the floor, curls around the beams, and rises all the way to the roof.

Take your eyes off the beanstalk and everything is laid out before you: You're in a playroom. A playroom of such opulence that it floods every inch of Travolta's attic like a mad vision from the mind of Willy Wonka.

You see the hull of an airplane, which curves out from the wall to form a bedroom. You see a supermarket stand. A seesaw. A giant blue bouncing ball. A tree house. An ice cream parlor. A mock school. A kiddie kitchen. Rivers of toys. A cowboy room, a princess room, a Peter Pan room with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.

''This is Wonderland,'' proclaims Travolta's wife of three years, actress Kelly Preston, 32. ''John and I got together and wondered what all of our fantasies were as kids.''

Travolta is still asleep somewhere in this Maine mansion — he goes to bed in the wee hours of morning and tends to slumber past noon — but his son, Jett, is wide awake, darting from one fantasy to another. Jett winds up at the theater, a full-scale proscenium stage with a dressing room, where a waiter delivers the 2-year-old a plate of six tempura shrimp.

''This is Jett's favorite,'' says Preston. ''Mmm, mmm. These are a good batch.''

You are dazzled, but you have not witnessed the grand finale. Because at this very moment, John Travolta pops out of the floor. Literally. A trapdoor opens, and Travolta's head appears.

''How ya doin'?'' he says. He wears black jeans and a black long-sleeved T, which, in tandem, look like pajamas. The trim, pelvis-pumping torpedo who glided across the dance floors of Saturday Night Fever and Grease is 40 now. His shirt can't hide the slight parabola of a belly and his sideburns bear more than a tinge of gray, but his eyes beam with the same cobalt blue transparency that made America flush with disco fever in the '70s.

While Jett giggles and shrieks, Travolta grabs his son adoringly and carries him up and down the secret ladder.

This, to answer the inevitable question, is where John Travolta has been all these years. A star of imperial magnitude in the '70s — a man who launched crazes, not mere trends — Travolta watched his status in the late '80s shrivel to the point where he was stuck in quick-to-video trifles like The Experts and upstaged by babies and dogs in the Look Who's Talking series. Sure, the first of those baby flicks grossed a plenty-respectable $140 million, but as far as the cultural cognoscenti were concerned, Travolta had retired to Wonderland, and his blip had bounced off the radar long ago.

Then, metaphorically speaking, he popped out of the floor. Travolta's comeback this year has been that swift and sudden. The script:

(1) With Miramax skeptical of Travolta's star voltage, youngblood filmmaker Quentin Tarantino battles to cast the actor in Pulp Fiction, a funky, supercharged saga of love, honor, and sadism among Los Angeles scumbuckets.

(2) The film, starring Travolta as Vincent Vega — a hit man with a bad haircut and a taste for heroin — scores the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

(3) The world realizes what the director knew all along. ''He's one of the best stars Hollywood has ever produced,'' Tarantino gushes. ''Reporters ask me, 'So what made you choose him? He's not really that hot anymore!' Look, I've walked down the street with some big stars, okay? I cannot walk two feet down the street with John Travolta. People stop their cars. People are clawing all over him and stuff. It's like, he's a movie star!''

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