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FIRST THINGS FIRST. HOW about we forget the notebook, says John Travolta; he wants to have a real conversation, he wants to make eye contact. Not a problem. After all, one can hardly object to a request to gaze deep into those ice-blue orbs. Not only would it be an affront to the institution of Popular Culture—hey, this is Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever we're talking about here—it would be impolite. Seated on the patio outside the opulent Tudor-style mansion he is renting in Beverly Hills while he shoots his latest movie, a drama called White Man's Burden, Travolta is the consummate host. When he gently asks if you would like more espresso, or another plate of cookies—or to put down your pad of paper, please—the only civilized response is, "Yes...of course...thank you."

In fairness, Travolta, 40, is equally amenable to requests made of him. There isn't a brash question he won't answer, a touchy topic he won't in some manner address. Take, for instance, that gut of his—those layers of padding that have erased the ripples of his well-toned youth (circa 1983's Staying Alive) and replaced them with the softer stuff of middle age. "There was nothing I could do about it," says Travolta of turning 40 last February. "You can do things in life about everything except getting older, and that," he adds with a chuckle, "is annoying."

And what of that even touchier topic, the long-standing speculation that, despite his three-year marriage to 32-year-old actress Kelly Preston, Travolta is gay? Is that annoying too? "I hear those rumors," Travolta says with a good-natured shake of his head, "and I ask myself, 'What's the motivation of people spreading them?' "

Okay, then, how about his 20-year involvement with the Church of Scientology, the religious-philosophical organization to which Travolta, along with fellow celebs Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson, belongs—but which many outsiders call a mind-controlling cult?

Travolta's easy banter momentarily stops.

"Give us a f—-ing break," he says with a rare flash of annoyance. "Being the bold personalities we are, do you honestly think we'd let ourselves be controlled?"

One person who clearly does exert control over Travolta is a 2-year-old barefoot tot in red pajamas who just now appears on the other side of the French doors a few feet away. Separated by a pane of glass from the backyard world of swimming pools and swing sets, little Jett Travolta gives his pop a look that says, "I want out!" Seconds later, the 6', 200-lb. superstar is cavorting on the lawn with his kid while humming the theme song of a certain purple dinosaur. "No one's allowed to be hard on Barney in this house," says Travolta with mock solemnity. "We respect him."

Coincidentally, that's the way movie fans and industry insiders have been feeling about Travolta lately. The source of the buzz is his turn as a hit man with a bad hairdo and a worse heroin addiction in the black comedy-gangster flick Pulp Fiction. The film won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has been one of the highest-grossing movies in America this fall. Critics credit much of its success to Travolta. Not surprisingly, so do a lot of the star's pals. Alley, Bruce Willis (who costars in Fiction) and his wife, Demi Moore, have recently phoned in their congratulations. Even Mike Myers's mother-in-law—the inspiration for his Saturday Night Live character Linda Richman—has called. "She said that she thought you were great" Preston proudly tells Travolta. "She went on and on like that!"

As Travolta himself sees it, his decision to play Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction was his best career move in years. The actor earned only $140,000 for his part in director Quentin Tarantino's low-budget film, far less than the millions-per-picture he banked for such previous hits as 1978's Grease, 1980's Urban Cowboy and 1989's Look Who's Talking. But for a long time now Travolta has been yearning for something that many of the seriously flawed humans in Pulp Fiction also want: redemption. "You know, I started out with an Oscar nomination, and I proceeded to have enormous hits," he explained last year. "But I never got another nomination. So I'd like to be in a film where there's the kind of role that would be artistically deserving of, you know, where I started."

Fiction has made him an Oscar contender again, and Travolta, having heard the whispers around Hollywood, knows it. "It's a great compliment," he says. "But I'm trying not to take it to heart because I don't want to be disappointed." Not that, for Travolta, that would be anything new. For every hit on his résumé, there is at least one resounding flop: movies like 1978's Moment by Moment, 1985's Perfect and 1991's Shout. Some, Travolta admits, have been truly bad, while others—such as 1981's Blow Out—he feels have been judged too harshly. "Because of my past, I can't just be mildly successful," he says. "I have to be hellaciously successful for my work to register."

Fair or not, Travolta had fallen far from the Hollywood A-list when director Tarantino, 31, a fan of the actor's since the days of TV's Welcome Back, Kotter, first tried to sign him for Fiction. The producers backing the movie balked; they suggested Daniel Day-Lewis. Tarantino had to ask, then beg, then angrily demand that Travolta be allowed to play Vega. "He's a terrific actor," says Tarantino of the man who has become his good friend. "There's no doubt, he is a huge star." Travolta didn't—and still doesn't—take the studio's skepticism personally. "You can't blame them," he said of the executives in charge. "Movies are very expensive, and they want to hedge their bets. I imagine that, if I were a producer, I'd have the same considerations."

In any case, Travolta explains, the quest to find balance and happiness in his personal life has always been more important than any movie role. A loner in his childhood in Englewood, N.J., where he was the sixth child in a tight-knit middle-class family headed by Salvatore Travolta, a tire salesman, and his wife, Helen, a high school drama teacher, young Travolta often had trouble fitting in—and finding the right girl.

When he finally did, in 1976, she was a woman 18 years his senior. Actress Diana Hyland met the then 22-year-old Travolta when they costarred in that year's television production of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble—in which she played his mother. He fell fast and hard for Hyland. Then, nine months into the romance, she died of cancer—in Travolta's arms. Less than two years later, Travolta's mother also died of cancer.

"It was all so overwhelming," says his sister Ellen Travolta, 54, an actress in L.A. "Suddenly he was one of the most famous people in the world and extraordinarily wealthy, but the people he was closest to in his personal life were gone. It was a bittersweet period for him."

Through it all, Travolta relied on the support of family and friends—including on-again, off-again flame Marilu Henner. His newfound millions gave comfort too. His sister Ellen is still tickled by the memory of her little brother's spending sprees—family trips all over the world, fancy clothes, private jets, homes. "When he was in his early 20s, he bought this fabulous place in Santa Barbara," she recalls. "I mean, he was still a baby. But he sat at the head of a long, long table with a buzzer [to summon servants] by his foot. We giggled so hard. This was not—repeat not—how we grew up in New Jersey."

But luxury couldn't overcome loneliness. In 1975, on the advice of a friend, Travolta turned to Scientology to help him deal with fame and later the deaths of his loved ones. Travolta says he attended Scientology self-help seminars on a near-daily basis back then, and today goes to courses as often as his schedule will allow. "The family respects his practice of Scientology," says Ellen. "None of us do it, though I and a few others took one course recently which lasted about 12 hours. Basically it took things that were on your mind and helped put them in order. I really enjoyed it."

Travolta is grateful for his family's understanding. "It's helped me so much," he says of Scientology. "I don't know why people are afraid of it. It's given me a better quality of life, a better sense of survival and hope for mankind."

It also gave him, in a roundabout way, a wife. Travolta and Preston met in Canada in 1987 while filming The Experts (a movie so bad it went almost straight to video). Preston, says Travolta, "was going through some personal trouble, and I helped her with some techniques of Scientology." He was impressed that Preston was open to the church's teaching, not to mention her beauty and adventurous spirit. But she was married—to actor Kevin Gage—and the two went their separate ways. A few years later they ran into each other at a party at the home of Kirstie Alley, Travolta's costar in Look Who's Talking. Preston was by then a recent divorcée dating Charlie Sheen—but Alley thought it a mismatch. "Why don't you two get together," she whispered to Travolta.

Shy by nature, Travolta just laughed the idea off—until he ran into Preston again in the summer of 1990, when both were unattached and making movies in Vancouver. "He asked if I was over Charlie," says Preston. She said yes, and they went to dinner, then dancing, then for a romantic midnight stroll through the city streets. The next thing Travolta knew, it was New Year's Eve in Switzerland, where the new couple was vacationing, and he was down on his knee. "Earlier that day I'd passed by a jewelry store and seen the most beautiful ring," he says. "You're going to propose in six months anyway," he told himself. "Why not just get the ring now?" He did—only to find he couldn't wait to pop the question. "That night I shocked the heck out of everyone," he says with a grin.

The Travoltas share a passion for flying (he owns a Gulfstream II, a Learjet and a 1947 British single-engine Vampire fighter), eating and parenting. In their 20-bedroom stone mansion not far from Alley's home in Maine, the adoring mom and dad have put together an extraordinary eclectic playland. Jett's bedroom is in the form of a hull of a plane; a floor-to-ceiling papier-mâché beanstalk winds up a beam; and an ice-cream parlor, a seesaw, a pretend school and a Peter Pan-themed room with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling all are at Jett's disposal. "This is wonderland," Preston has said. "John and I got together and figured out what all our fantasies were as kids."

Travolta has been a full-time father, even an overtime one. "I can't imagine what life would be like without Jett," he says. "After he was born and cleaned up, I held him for hours while Kelly slept. When they came to take him away for various tests, I said, 'No, you can't see him today. You'll have to do it another day.' I went a little nutsy." Having a child was an experience Travolta and Preston say they would like to repeat. "I definitely want more kids," says the actress, who recently finished filming a television movie, Mrs. Munck, with Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. "I just want to work a little more first."

So does Travolta, now that his stock is once again on the rise. He is already filming the small-budget White Man '$ Burden, written and directed by a friend of Tarantino's, Desmond Nakano. After that he has signed on for Get Shorty, a big-budget adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, for which he will receive $3.5 million.

The new round of success, of course, has required some compromises. Usually at this time of year, Travolta is making lavish preparations for an all-out Christmas shindig at his home in Maine, to which he invites—and flies in—more than 50 family members and friends. "It is an extraordinary event," says Ellen. "I remember two years ago Santa Claus flew in. Every bedroom had its own Christmas tree. The help dressed in red and white. He'd planned every detail, but that's John. He has flair."

What he doesn't have this year is time. "With my schedule now, I'd just be biting off too big a piece," says Travolta. Instead, he will have a small gathering for his sisters and brothers, his father, a few close buddies and, oh, yeah, a few furry friends too. Kirstie Alley has just called, says Preston. "She wants to send her new puppy and her cat on the jet with us over Christmas while she is out of town. No lemurs or monkeys," Preston assures Travolta. "It won't be a zoo."

He smiles, and his blue eyes light up again. "I've always thought," he says, "that as long as I did the right things and had the right intentions, everything would fall right into place."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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  • Todd Gold.