Look­ing back at the mak­ing of John Tra­volta’s disco drama. Side ef­fects of read­ing may in­clude bouts of strut­ting.

ONE COLD, RAINY DE­CEM­BER night in 1975, a young man who was dressed to blend in — flared brightcrim­son trousers and a sheer black body-hug­ging shirt — made his way across the dance­floor of a Brook­lyn night­club, through the strut­ting and writhing crowd, and out to get some air.

The scene on the side­walk was no less lively: a full-on brawl was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally play­ing it­self out. But in the mid­dle of the fa­mil­iar fly­ing fists and knees was an en­tirely un­usual sight. Just start­ing to get out of a cab was an older man wear­ing, of all ab­sur­di­ties, a tweed suit. The pair’s eyes met and they stud­ied each other briefly, aliens from dis­tant galaxies es­tab­lish­ing ten­ta­tive first con­tact. As well as the tweed, the man was wear­ing an ex­pres­sion of height­ened anx­i­ety, which deep­ened into panic when one of the fight­ing youths turned and un­leashed a gen­er­ous gout of vomit over his trouser leg. The younger man on the side­walk watched as the tweed suit slammed the cab door and roared off into the Brook­lyn night. He shrugged. The weird shit, he might have thought, you see round here.

Back in the cab, Nik Cohn pon­dered the events of the evening as he sped back to the safety of Man­hat­tan. An Ir­ish rock jour­nal­ist who had only re­lo­cated from the UK to New York in late 1975, Cohn needed to make a mark, and was on the hunt for a scene to call his own. He had pitched a piece about the grow­ing disco craze to his dis­tinctly unim­pressed ed­i­tor at New York Mag­a­zine, and tonight’s trip to the fa­mous night­club 2001 Odyssey was meant to be the first recce. It had not been a suc­cess.

But some­thing about that guy in the crim­son trousers stayed with him. “[He was] stand­ing in the club door­way, di­rectly un­der a neon light and calmly watch­ing the ac­tion,” Cohn would write 20-odd years later. “There was a cer­tain style about him — an in­ner force, a hunger and a sense of his own spe­cial­ness. He looked, in short, like a star.”

When Cohn’s piece was fi­nally pub­lished on 7 June 1976, its ro­coco ti­tle, ‘Tribal Rites Of The New Satur­day Night’, gave it away as an ex­am­ple of New Jour­nal­ism, a form pi­o­neered by the likes of Tru­man Capote and Tom Wolfe in which jour­nal­ists em­ployed nov­el­is­tic tech­niques to tell fac­tual sto­ries. It is, in truth, a mid­dling ex­am­ple of the genre. But at its cen­tre was a com­pelling char­ac­ter: ‘Vin­cent’. Though the peo­ple that sur­round him have a flimsy, ghost-like as­pect, Vin­cent feels real. “He owned 14 flo­ral shirts, five suits, three over­coats and had ap­peared on Amer­i­can Band­stand,” Cohn wrote. “Only one thing both­ered him, and that was the pass­ing of time. Al­ready he was 18... soon enough he would be 19, 20. Then this golden age would pass. By nat­u­ral law some­one new would arise to re­place him. Then every­thing would be over.”

Cohn was aware that one of the fringe ben­e­fits of New Jour­nal­ism was that, with their strong nar­ra­tive hooks and richly sketched lo­cales, these sto­ries oc­ca­sion­ally made it to the big screen. He folded a copy of the ar­ti­cle into an en­ve­lope which he ad­dressed to Robert Stig­wood, a big-time mu­sic mogul mov­ing into films who Cohn knew from his days back in Lon­don. Was there, he won­dered, a movie here?


be­hind Satur­day Night Fever was Robert Stig­wood’s un­shake­able be­lief that John Tra­volta was des­tined for huge things. Stig­wood had first come across Tra­volta five years pre­vi­ously while cast­ing Je­sus Christ Su­per­star for Broad­way. Then just 17, the teenager was, Stig­wood judged, just too young for the lead. But he wrote on his cast­ing notes, “This kid is go­ing to be a huge star.” A half-decade later he put his money on the line, and signed Tra­volta to an un­prece­dented $1 mil­lion three-pic­ture deal, with the plan be­ing he would star in Grease once Olivia New­ton-john be­came avail­able as his co-star. That left a tan­ta­lis­ing, shoot­shaped gap — and, hap­pily for Nik Cohn, the Aus­tralian im­pre­sario was thus in the mar­ket for some­thing quick.

Stig­wood, who died in 2016, had ca­reened into the mid­dle of the staid Bri­tish pop scene in the early 1960s and up­ended it, smash­ing down the bar­ri­ers be­tween man­ager, pro­moter and pub­lisher in much the same way the new in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­ers were cur­rently re­mak­ing Hol­ly­wood in their own im­age. Work­ing for him through­out the ’70s was Kevin Mccormick, an Amer­i­can stu­dent in Lon­don who’d got a job as Stig­wood’s as­sis­tant to as­suage his par­ents more than any­thing else. “I ended up stay­ing for about a decade,” Mccormick, now Ex­ec­u­tive VP at Warner Bros. in Bur­bank, tells Em­pire. “Fi­nally I was made ex­ec­u­tive in charge of film and tele­vi­sion in New York. I asked Robert, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ And he said, ‘You buy projects.’ One of the first things I ac­quired was this mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle by Nik Cohn.”

Thus Cohn got his pay­day — $90,000 for the rights to what would be­come Satur­day Night Fever. He had also been promised a pass at the screen­play. It was, by Cohn’s own ad­mis­sion, a train­wreck. “The al­pha and omega of bad screen­plays” was the view of Don Simp­son, a newly ar­rived ju­nior ex­ec­u­tive at Para­mount who res­o­lutely op­posed the stu­dio’s in­volve­ment in what he con­sid­ered a doomed project, a rare bad call from the fu­ture su­per-pro­ducer.

Mean­while, Mccormick had been given the job of find­ing a di­rec­tor, a task for which he was woe­fully un­der­pre­pared. “I was 25, didn’t re­ally know any­thing,” he re­calls. “So I went out to Cal­i­for­nia and went around to var­i­ous agents and asked if any were in­ter­ested. No-one was. Fi­nally one griz­zled old guy said to me, ‘Lis­ten, kid, my clients do movies, they don’t do mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles.’ I went back to my ho­tel rather de­jected.”

But a few hours later Mccormick got a call from Marvin Moss, the agent who had just sent him pack­ing. The kid was in luck, Moss said. A client of his had picked the ar­ti­cle up while Moss was trapped on a long call, read it and liked it. “This guy’s had kind of mixed reviews,” Moss told Mccormick, clearly not one to over­sell his clients. “You should see his lat­est be­fore you com­mit.”

And so a cou­ple of days later Mccormick and Stig­wood sat down to watch a very early screen­ing of Rocky. And John G. Avild­sen, whose decade of mixed reviews was about to come to a glo­ri­ous end, be­came the di­rec­tor of Satur­day Night Fever.

With Cohn’s screen­play re­jected by ab­so­lutely ev­ery­body, Avild­sen brought on screen­writer Nor­man Wexler. It was a stroke of ge­nius. Wexler had worked with Avild­sen on Joe in 1970, and with Sid­ney Lumet on Ser­pico in 1973. Both screen­plays had been Os­car-nom­i­nated, and both sketched gritty, be­liev­able char­ac­ters with box of­fice-sat­is­fy­ing aplomb. But Wexler was a com­plex and trou­bled man. He suf­fered from a fe­ro­cious para­noia, of­ten cir­cling the block sev­eral times be­fore a meet­ing to make sure he wasn’t be­ing tailed. He had been known to bran­dish hand­guns. Flights were a par­tic­u­lar source of stress. On one he bit a stew­ardess on the arm. On an­other he an­nounced he planned to as­sas­si­nate Pres­i­dent Nixon and was ar­rested by the FBI.

“Later I dis­cov­ered he was suf­fer­ing from what would be di­ag­nosed as bipo­lar dis­or­der,” re­mem­bers Mccormick. “And lit­er­ally ev­ery time he had been suc­cess­ful he had gone through these manic episodes and re­ally put a truck through his ca­reer and his fam­ily life. When I met him he was es­tranged from his kids and his ex-wife and was liv­ing in a one-bed­room apart­ment with a ta­ble, a few chairs, a bed and a type­writer. I’d come down at two in the af­ter­noon and he’d just be get­ting started. I’d read the pages he’d writ­ten the night be­fore. And it was the most in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me.”

Wexler was get­ting even more of a rush from the ma­te­rial. “I wrote Satur­day Night Fever wholly or­gan­i­cally, scene by scene,” the writer, who died in 1999, told Tra­volta’s bi­og­ra­pher, Nigel An­drews. “I was try­ing to imag­ine this boy’s life. I thought there ought to be a bit of a mes­sage: that with a lit­tle bit of luck and guts you can break out of your so­cial and fam­ily pro­gram­ming. When I got to the fi­nal pe­riod of writ­ing I got that glow I’d barely ever had in my life and that I only get when I look at a few things like a Ver­meer or a Magritte.”

Wexler’s words may sound hy­per­bolic, but his con­fi­dence was not en­tirely mis­placed. His screen­play is an ob­ject les­son in screen­writ­ing. Gone is the ‘Vin­cent’ of Cohn’s piece, re­placed by Tony Man­era, a richly com­plex char­ac­ter: charm­ing, boor­ish, of­ten dumb but pos­sess­ing flashes of in­sight, wit, hu­man­ity and even a ragged no­bil­ity. Above all Wexler un­der­stood that Tony was trapped — hemmed in by a bick­er­ing fam­ily and a dead-end job — the puls­ing lights and hazy glam­our of the 2001 Odyssey proving an es­cape, al­beit one that is tem­po­rary and chimeri­cal.

“There was a lot of en­thu­si­asm,

apart from Avild­sen who thought it was all over the place and not cool enough,” says Mccormick of Wexler’s screen­play. “And so there be­came a re­volv­ing door of other writ­ers.”

In fact, with the buzz on Rocky

build­ing to deaf­en­ing lev­els, Avild­sen ap­peared to be get­ting more and more antsy about Satur­day Night Fever. Maybe Tra­volta should be a painter as well as a dancer? Shouldn’t he work in a chic clothes shop rather than a hard­ware store? Could he or­gan­ise a raid on the Odyssey? Wasn’t Tra­volta too fat?

“John had failed big in the past,” says Mccormick. “Now he was see­ing what suc­cess was. And he didn’t want to do some­thing that was small and dark and not tri­umphant. It all cul­mi­nated with Stig­wood, who had been in France try­ing to sign the Rolling Stones, call­ing me and say­ing, ‘What’s go­ing on?’”

Mccormick ex­plained to his boss that Avild­sen had brought in an­other writer who had de­liv­ered yet an­other draft. It was aw­ful. “Oh, and I should also let you know that John has asked me to tell you that he’s not us­ing the Bee Gees,” Mccormick con­tin­ued. “He says they’re over.”

“Tell him to meet me at 145 Cen­tral Park West to­mor­row at 7.30am,” said Stig­wood. “You should be there too.”

The next morn­ing, in Robert Stig­wood’s pala­tial digs over­look­ing Cen­tral Park, the pro­ducer asked Avild­sen if he in­tended to shoot the Wexler screen­play. Avild­sen said no. Stig­wood left the room to take a phone call. “John, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he told Avild­sen af­ter he re­turned. “The good news is you’ve just been nom­i­nated for an Acad­emy Award for Rocky. The bad news is you’re fired from Satur­day Night Fever.” “STIG­WOOD HAD BALLS

of steel,” says John Bad­ham, the di­rec­tor who found him­self in­her­it­ing a star and a screen­play, but very lit­tle else, with only weeks un­til shoot­ing. “He had worked with mu­si­cal artists who could be dif­fi­cult, and just wasn’t go­ing to be told what to do against his bet­ter judge­ment.”

Bad­ham, who at that point had one small film (The Bingo Long Trav­el­ing All-stars & Mo­tor Kings) and some highly re­garded TV work be­hind him, had been in bed with a high fever when his agent called to tell him a screen­play was en route to his apart­ment. “An hour later, I’m cured,” he re­calls. “I thought it was won­der­fully funny and real. What do I know about Brook­lyn? Like, noth­ing. But if this thing is speak­ing to me, it’s gotta speak to other peo­ple too.”

Two days later the Alabama-raised Bad­ham met with Tra­volta, who of­fered to give him a crash course of the mooted lo­ca­tions. “Let me be your guide,” he said. “Let me take you by the hand and show you the real New York. I know this town.”

To Bad­ham, Tra­volta was a reve­la­tion. “I of­ten think of what a dif­fer­ent kind of ac­tor would have done,” he muses. “God love him, I love Richard Gere, but just for a mo­ment let’s imag­ine Richard Gere had done it. Would he have brought the charm to a char­ac­ter who had so many neg­a­tive things go­ing for him? You know, mean to his par­ents, re­bel­lious, sex­ist. But some­how John over­laid it with this charm that he had.”

Tra­volta, for his part, was de­lighted that Bad­ham took both the mu­sic and the danc­ing seriously; they were el­e­ments to which Avild­sen had never re­ally been com­mit­ted. Bad­ham hired Lester Wil­son, a flam­boy­ant dance cham­pion, to re­fine Tra­volta’s moves, in­clud­ing the iconic solo se­quence that would an­chor the story. And, hap­pily for Robert Stig­wood, Bad­ham was bliss­fully un­aware the Bee Gees were meant to be over.

“I had not heard any of the de­mos, so when I walked into Stig­wood’s of­fice the next day, he handed me a cas­sette and said, ‘Here’s five songs from The Bee Gees and three of them are num­ber one hits,’” Bad­ham says. “I thought that was so ar­ro­gant. Who knows what are num­ber one hits? And I said, ‘Well, Robert, this is great, but where do they go?’ He said,

‘You’ll fig­ure it out.’”

In fact, Stig­wood was wrong. Four

of the songs on the tape would chart at num­ber one.

Bad­ham filled out the cast with young rel­a­tive un­knowns. Donna Pescow had been work­ing at Bloom­ing­dale’s when she got the role of Annette, the girl whose ado­ra­tion for Tony is cal­lously re­jected and whose bru­tal rape is still al­most un­watch­able to­day. Karen Lynn Gor­ney, who plays Stephanie, the as­pir­ing so­phis­ti­cate whose de­ter­mi­na­tion to get out of Brook­lyn might of­fer Tony the glim­mer of a fu­ture, had ap­peared on soaps but lit­tle else.

But these green­horns were less prob­lem­atic for Bad­ham than the crowds that would turn up at five in the morn­ing to catch a glimpse of Tra­volta, then re­ceiv­ing 10,000 fan let­ters a week as swoon­some guido Vin­nie Bar­barino in TV hit Wel­come Back Kot­ter.

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters even fur­ther was the tragic fact that dur­ing the shoot Tra­volta’s then part­ner, Diana Hy­land, a 41-year-old ac­tor with whom he had met and fallen in love while film­ing The Boy In The Plas­tic Bub­ble (she had played his mother), was dy­ing of breast can­cer. The 23-year-old Tra­volta com­muted be­tween New York and her hos­pi­tal bed in Los An­ge­les, mak­ing his fi­nal visit to­wards the end of March, two weeks into film­ing, when she died. Tra­volta’s plan to scat­ter her ashes on Santa Mon­ica beach had to be aban­doned when scores of Vin­nie Bar­barino fans de­scended en masse. Andy Warhol recorded in his di­ary see­ing Tra­volta, a fel­low pas­sen­ger, cry­ing on his re­turn flight to New York. And then, back on set, he went back to work.

There were other stresses, too. “We were shoot­ing in sketchy neigh­bour­hoods,” Mccormick re­mem­bers. “We got into a lit­tle beef with the Mob shaking us down for money. I made the mis­take of call­ing a lawyer who was work­ing for the city gov­ern­ment. We’re in a Mafia bowl­ing al­ley and the phone rings and it’s the District At­tor­ney say­ing would I mind wear­ing a wire? That was a mis­take I wouldn’t make again. But ev­ery­body, from the lowli­est PA to the most sea­soned vet­eran, felt there was some­thing spe­cial hap­pen­ing.” Satur­day Night Fever

is not a for­got­ten film. Its fate would be, in some ways, much worse. It would be­come the ‘disco movie’, its raw, heart­break­ing power, and Tra­volta’s mes­meris­ing per­for­mance as a kid who might make it out of his slowly clos­ing trap, oc­cluded by its dusty glit­ter balls and they wore that!

polyester cou­ture. It stands along­side The Out­siders and Rebel Without A Cause

as one of the most hon­est movies about the ag­o­nies of youth Hol­ly­wood ever pro­duced. Its fi­nal shot — a glo­ri­ously old-school iris in on Tony and Stephanie bathed in the uncertain light of a Man­hat­tan morn­ing, of­fer­ing a sliver, but no more, of hope — would soon be anath­ema to an in­dus­try mov­ing to­wards the tri­umphal freeze-frame as the only pos­si­ble con­clu­sion to any movie at all.

“Could it have been made, in the form it was, three or four years later? “No, I don’t think so,” says Kevin Mccormick. “I don’t think any­body in­side the stu­dio sys­tem would’ve done it. Or if they had, it would have been much more main­stream and less truth­ful.”

Ah... truth­ful. Well, there it gets com­pli­cated. In 1996 Nik Cohn is­sued a wholly un­ex­pected mea culpa.

The bulk of his orig­i­nal piece, he revealed, had been com­pletely in­vented. He’d never talked to ‘Vin­cent’, as there was no such per­son. While he had vis­ited the 2001 Odyssey again, he could never track down the fig­ure in the crim­son pants in the door­way, and the crowd he found in­side were un­com­mu­nica­tive at best. The ‘nov­el­ist’s tech­niques’ that de­fined the New Jour­nal­ism, had in Cohn’s case, been given full reign. “I was to­tally out of my depth. I’d just ar­rived in the States,” he said. “My knowl­edge of street kids was ba­si­cally mods in Shep­herd’s Bush who went up the West End at week­ends. I couldn’t be­gin to come to terms with the re­al­ity, ex­cept that it was ob­vi­ously the same thing with dif­fer­ent ac­cents.”

So he made it all up. “I went back to Bay Ridge in day­light. I walked some streets, went into a cou­ple of stores. I imag­ined how it would feel to burn up, all caged en­er­gies, with no out­let but the dance­floor... And pre­sented it as fact.”

It was, of course, in­ex­cus­able. A guar­an­teed ca­reer-en­der in to­day’s more strin­gent cli­mate. But iron­i­cally, de­spite his flam­boy­ant dis­re­gard for ac­cu­racy, Cohn’s right on the money when it comes to truth. It is the same thing with dif­fer­ent ac­cents, and tastes in pants. Satur­day Night Fever is as po­tent a movie now as it was 40 years ago, a tale of youth briefly es­cap­ing its bonds, join­ing what­ever tribe is on the as­cen­dant, and head­ing out into the dark­ness.

Ev­ery Satur­day night.

Clock­wise from above: Star at­trac­tion: Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gor­ney) and Tony Manero (John Tra­volta) show off some moves; Chore­og­ra­pher Deney Ter­rio re­hearses with Tra­volta; Di­rec­tor John Bad­ham be­hind the cam­era on set with Tra­volta; Bad­ham be­tween...

Clock­wise from above: Tony (Tra­volta) trips the light fan­tas­tic; Tony and Stephanie in dance ac­tion; Hands up who’s the great­est dancer; Time for some se­ri­ous re­hears­ing; Tony beau­ti­fies him­self for a night out on the dance­floor; An an­gry son makes his...

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