John Travolta

updated 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

Johnny, we hardly knew ye. With Look Who's Talking Now, Travolta seemed to have settled into soft, sitcommy roles. But then came Pulp Fiction. There are few actors who could pull off the scene in which Travolta's character, hit man Vincent Vega, splatters the brains of a hapless passenger with a handgun, then pleads honest mistake. Travolta's attitude is, I bloodied up the car a bit, so shoot me. His suggestion is, Hey, be cool. And therein lies the secret of his enduring appeal. Travolta—all six feet, slightly paunchy 200 pounds of him—is always cool, whether he's bombing at the box office or redefining noir for the '90s.

Travolta truly seems not to care about micromanaging his career. "No movie has ever been that important to me," he says. "No missed opportunity that big." Since Saturday Night Fever, he has dropped in on genres the way some actors hit Planet Hollywood openings. Along the way. he has layered in losers like 1991's Shout. "It's hard to make a cultural phenomenon every time," he has said. But Travolta doesn't make bad movies. He survives them. As the actor, now 40, has said matter-of-factly, "I wouldn't know what it's like not to be an icon."

Part of his personal success, says Travolta, comes from his 20-year practice of Scientology; the rest from his three-year marriage to actress Kelly Preston, 32, with whom he has a son, Jett, 2. The family lives well, enveloped in a 20-bedroom mansion on a secluded island in Maine's Penobscot Bay. (Travolta stores two of his three private jets at his Spruce Creek, Fla., house.)

Professionally he also has things in order. He is now wrapping White Man's Burden, an independent film, and then he begins Get Shorty, based on the Elmore . Leonard novel. "As long as I'm in the running for parts," says Travolta, "that's fine." This year he's not only running but setting the pace.

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