I never imagined wanting to come to John Travolta’s defense. But amidst all the post-Oscar Travolfrenzy about his on-stage butchering of Idina Menzel’s name, I’d like to weigh in. Sure, I typed my name into the generator to “travoltify” it (it’s Murray Taylor) and I chuckled at the snide comments on Facebook. But inside, I cringed a little, thinking back to a rainy day in Kitty Hawk, N.C.
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Travolta. The closest I came was when we helped produced a big event in 2003 celebrating the Wright Brothers’ invention of flight. Travolta, a pilot and avid aviation buff, agreed to appear on stage just prior to President Bush’s arrival. A colleague put on the big show; my company was responsible for guest hospitality.
It was cold and raining hard that day. My business partner and I were positioned just in front of the mammoth stage, checking credentials for VIP access. Tens of thousands of people were hunkered down in the stands waiting for the big event, when we got word the President’s helicopter would be delayed.
That meant dead air on stage, an anathema that cuts directly to a producer’s heart. We heard by two-way radio that my friend running the show was asking Travolta to come on stage and ad lib a bit to fill the awkward pause in the action.
And then we were told he wouldn’t do it. No matter how much the producer negotiated, cajoled, or pled, the famous actor wouldn’t go on.
Wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t budge.
You’d think he would swagger on stage Barbarino-style and heckle the people in the front row, killing time hilariously while we awaited the President’s arrival. That didn’t come close to happening.
The idea of walking out script-less onto a rain-soaked stage in front of thousands of people waiting to hear from their Commander in Chief frightened him to inaction. The guy who glibly wooed the innocent Sandy, who somehow made disco and white suits cool and once played an all-too convincing hit man, was by all accounts, scared to death.
That story has always stuck with me—how a successful American icon could be rendered so helpless in an arena most people would assume he would embrace. Turned out, Travolta the actor was very different than Travolta the man. He was as flawed and imperfect and as scared of things as we were.
I don’t know why or how he flubbed his appearance at the Oscars the other night. But as soon as I saw it, I thought back to that stormy day on the coast of North Carolina, when I learned first-hand that our idols are human too.