As he was blowing up on television, John Travolta also found success in music with his 1976 cover of Gary Benson’s “Let Her In.” And his big time film debut, something beyond the limits of his smaller roles and television work, was on the way — it just wouldn’t be “Days of Heaven.” In fact, that movie’s editing process took so long that it wouldn’t come out until 1978, nearly two years after the initial filming ended, and budget overruns and muted critical praise led to it being seen as a failure.
It’s easy to imagine Travolta in the role of Bill, eventually played by Richard Gere. The character is nervy, edgy, and scheming, but with a gleam in his eye. But, it wouldn’t have been the star-making turn Travolta received with the 1977 rough-edged disco classic, “Saturday Night Fever.” That movie combined Travolta’s charm, musical sensibilities, and a more realistic take on the New York Italian-American character type the actor had mastered on “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
Even though Travolta’s getting cast in “Saturday Night Fever” now looks like an obvious choice, it was difficult for studio executives to wrap their head around it at the time. They even worried hiring Travolta would make them a “laughingstock.” By the end of the decade, his film roles would eclipse his television work.
Travolta would eventually get the chance to work with Terrence Malick in his next project, the 1998 World War II film “The Thin Red Line,” a beautiful, sprawling, poetic film starring nearly every male lead in Hollywood. He’s in it for about two minutes. “Days of Heaven” may not have given him his big break, but “The Thin Red Line” was something of a victory lap.