John Travolta may be widely known for his role in the 1978 hit Grease, but one of his first breakout roles was in the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. The show ran for 4 seasons, filming 95 episodes from 1975-1979. While Gabe Kaplan may have played the title character, everyone remembers Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino as the young actor became an instant heartthrob.
However, Travolta’s mom, Helen Cecilia Burke Travolta, almost kept him from taking a role in the show. She was not only his mother but also an acting teacher. She knew her son was talented and that many actors get typecasted and have less than stellar Hollywood careers. According to Travolta, “She didn’t want people to think that I had a New York accent or that I behaved in that less-than-ideal IQ way. She was saving my reputation because she didn’t think I’d ever become famous playing a dumb New York character!”
Travolta’s career opportunities began growing with his success in Kotter. It was from 1975 to 1979 that he began juggling his TV and movie careers as he went on to play disco dancer Tony Manero in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. At that point, he could’ve up and left the sitcom altogether due to his newfound success, but he chose to stay until the February 3, 1979 episode, “Barbarino’s Baby.”
It was actually Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett that convinced Travolta to stick around. “She left [that show] after one year of superstardom and got in trouble for it. I got the memo pretty quickly that if you become big from this TV series, don’t leave it, because your movie career might get hurt! So I stayed two years longer than was kind of scheduled.”