Look Who's Talking, a Sleeper Smash, Greases John Travolta's Return to Hollywood Favor

updated 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Look who's talking about John Travolta. Hollywood, mostly, and for a change they're saying nice things about him there. They're saying that the co-star of the hit movie Look Who's Talking Is on his way to a comeback. "You do hear his name being bandied about more," says Buffy Shutt, president of marketing for the film's distributor, Columbia/Tri-Star. "Even the more cynical people who've seen him in this movie have discovered him again. His name is back on the lists."

In the four years since the release of Perfect (which was anything but), onetime pop icon and Academy Award nomninee Travolta, now 35—and a few pounds heavier than when he played blue-collar terpsichorean Tony Manero in 1977's Saturday Night Fever—has been conspicuously absent from the screen. Contrary to appearances, which suggest he simply dropped off the face of the earth, he has been busy. It's just that few people have ever seen the things he has worked on. A comedy with Whoopi Goldberg and a film about Howard Hughes were talked about, but that's as far as they got. A 1987 version of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter passed largely unnoticed on ABC. The Experts, a turgid comedy about two nightclub owners, opened this January in Texas and Oklahoma, then got packed off to video stores. Two other films, The Tender and Chains of Gold, will be released next year.

Another reason for his absence in Hollywood is simply that he no longer lives there. In 1988 he sold the Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch he had owned for 10 years and moved to Spruce Creek, a fly-in country club community built around a lighted 4,000-foot landing strip near Daytona Beach, Fla. Travolta, who pilots his own white Learjet, spends more than half the year in his four-bedroom, four-bath, gray-and-white French-provincial there. The house, with its own swimming pool and a matching French-provincial airplane hangar, is in the $500,000 price range.

"Travolta is very visible in the community, and people take him for granted now," says Spruce Creek developer Jay Thompson. "He's such a nice person, so low-key and unpretentious, he fits right in." Travolta passes the time by jogging, playing 18 holes on the Spruce Creek golf course and playing tennis on the community's eight lighted courts. While he lives alone, occupants of the house often include his houseboy, his trainer and visiting script writers. He frequently eats at the country club. He has visited nearby Disney World at least three times. "He has a very modest life-style," says his manager, Jonathan Krane. "He's not obsessed with his career."

Of course, with the success of Look Who's Talking, the obsession may return. The film comedy centers on Mikey, a baby determined to find himself a father, and stars Kirstie (Cheers) Alley as the unwed mother, Travolta as the kid's No. 1 choice for Da-da and Bruce Willis as the voice of miniature matchmaker Mikey. A sleeper, the film has earned $46 million in its first 17 days of release and is expected to make more than twice that.

But for Travolta, there is irony in the film's success. From the beginning, the Look Who's Talking marketing team made a conscious decision to underplay his presence in the movie. The premise of Look Who's Talking—a cynical, wisecracking baby—seemed shaky enough. It would be of little help to trumpet Travolta, whose name—starting with Moment to Moment, his 1980 flop with Lily Tomlin—had been increasingly antonymous with success. "I didn't worry that John Travolta's name would keep people away," says Jeff Sagansky, Tri-Star's president. "But I didn't know if it would be a huge draw."

"It wouldn't have been fair to the movie to sell it as a John Travolta film," explains Buffy Shutt. "When you have an actor whose past few movies didn't do well, you have to stop and think. And we wanted to sell it as a comedy."

Consequently the print ad campaign features a picture of a hipper-than-hip baby complete with shades and Walkman earphones. "With John and Kirstie in the ad, they would have looked like the love interest, and that was a different kind of movie," says Shutt, adding that Travolta went along with the marketing strategy completely. "He liked his work in this movie, and he didn't want the release to be blown."

Soft-pedaling Travolta's involvement, insists the movie's director, Amy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Heckerling, doesn't mean that the actor is box office poison. "The reason actors become stars is because people respond to something in them, and you can't take that away," says Heckerling, who wrote the movie with Travolta in mind. "John has proved he's a wonderful actor with good comic timing, and he's sexy. What else do you need from a guy?"

Boffo box office, a warm critical response and the chance to reclaim his place in Hollywood aren't exactly pushing Travolta to sell out at Spruce Creek and wing back to La La Land. "I will be eternally grateful for the opportunities the town has given me," he said recently. "But I wouldn't live there for anything."

—Joanne Kaufman, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles, Sandra Hinson in Spruce Creek

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