What fewer people know is that in 1977, 23-year-old Travolta lost his first love to the same disease that would later claim his wife. In 1976, on the set of the TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, he had fallen for his on-screen mother, the Emmy-winning actress Diana Hyland, who was 18 years his senior. “I have never been more in love with anyone in my life,” he later said. “We were like two maniacs talking all the time on the set of Bubble. After a month it became romantic.”
Tragedy followed shortly afterwards. In the same year that Saturday Night Fever made him an international star and sex symbol as the white-suited disco king, Tony Manero – winning him his first Oscar nomination – Travolta was at Hyland’s bedside as she lost her own battle with breast cancer. Her son Zachary subsequently revealed his mother died in Travolta’s arms.
Such trauma so early in his adult life, Travolta reflected in an interview for The Telegraph London in 2014, had bequeathed him a certain strength. “I’m probably less terrified of death than your average fellow now,” he said, “because people so near to me have suffered before their time, and I just feel that if they can do it, so can I. I almost feel like it’s disrespectful to fear it when others have been able to do it.”
He was talking on that occasion about how he coped with the death of Jett. His family’s distress – at the time they had a younger daughter, Ella Bleu, and the following year, when Preston was 47, she gave birth to a son, Benjamin – was compounded in the immediate aftermath by a local ambulance driver and his lawyer allegedly trying to extort $25 million from the couple, by threatening to release sensitive details about Jett’s death. Travolta gave evidence at a high-profile criminal trial but later decided to stop pursuing the case, citing the severe strain on his family.
At the time, Travolta told the Telegraph London’s Celia Walden he had felt so utterly overwhelmed by grief that he seriously considered throwing in the acting towel. Instead, he went on, in 2014, to make The Forger, a thriller that echoed his recent experience: starring as a convicted criminal who is released early to look after his young son, facing death with an inoperable brain tumour.
And it was the support of his co-believers in the Church of Scientology that he credited with enabling him to regain what he describes as his natural state as “a glass half full man”. Our secular, sceptical Western society has largely turned its back on religion, but when it comes to grief and loss, belief in a higher power or a higher purpose still retains a strong resonance. Travolta has spoken of how he retains some of the beliefs he picked up growing up as the youngest of six in a New York suburb with his Italian-American father and Irish mother. The traditional Catholic belief that “a person’s soul lives on forever” is, he said in that 2014 interview, something he still values.
But by that time, he had also been part of the controversial Church of Scientology for almost four decades. For Travolta – Preston, too, was a member; the pair starring in the universally panned screen adaptation of founder L Ron Hubbard novel Battlefield Earth in 2000 – it proved to be his salvation after the death of Jett.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had the support of Scientology,” he said. “I don’t think I could have got through it. They were with me every day after Jett died. They even travelled with me when I needed to get away. And for a solid two years it was like that: they were there every day.”
Scientology, he claimed “really does provide a method that helps you handle extreme tragedies”. Among Hubbard’s teachings is the belief that those who die are born again in a new body – unlike reincarnation, which involves an element of judgment for past lives.
Travolta first embraced Scientology in 1975 after being introduced to it by the actress Joan Prather on the set of The Devil’s Rain. “I wasn’t well and she gave me what’s called ‘an assist’,” he later recalled. “I got well very quickly after that, but when I say quickly, I mean 30 minutes later.”
Scientology, he said, offers not just ideas but practical tools to banish pain. “I believe Hubbard resolved the human mind,” he said in 2013, “and in resolving it he has also resolved human pain.”
Travolta will need all the tools at his disposal to cope with this third tragedy. In the Instagram post announcing his wife’s death, he added: “I will be taking some time to be there for my children who have lost their mother, so forgive me in advance if you don’t hear from us for a while. But please know that I will feel your outpouring of love in the weeks and months ahead as we heal.”
Grief is not something that can be overcome by force of will, just as cancer – as Travolta knows all too well – is not something that can always be battled and defeated. Perhaps he also knows, more than most, though, that time can bring a kind of healing.