Saturday Night Fever at 40: fascinating facts about the biggest disco movie of all time
It was based on a 'true story' that wasn't true — and they weren't dancing to the Bee Gees.
He was a paint store clerk living at home with his parents in Brooklyn, New York — but on the weekends, he was the king of the dance floor.
Played by John Travolta, Tony Manero became an icon of the disco era, an everyman who could break out of his circumstance and achieve respect and acclaim.
The film Saturday Night Fever was released 40 years ago this week, and soon became one of the biggest dance movies of all time. It also shot Travolta to fame and further solidified the Bee Gees' music careers.
So to honour the film, we've put on our finest disco duds and dancing shoes and gathered up these fascinating facts about the iconic film.
It was based on a 'true story' that wasn't true
The movie's main character was famously based on a real-life character named Vincent, who was the subject of a 1976 New York magazine article by writer Nik Cohn. Titled "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," the New Journalism-style article described a troubled, working-class guy who was also a great dancer and had found his way to shine. Only thing was, Cohn eventually admitted that Vincent was "a total fabrication."
"The problem was that my story was a fraud," he wrote two decades later in the Mail and Guardian. "I'd only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story's hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd's Bush mod whom I'd known in the '60s, a one-time king of the Goldhawk Road."
When the "Saturday Night" piece eventually appeared, it ran with drawings rather than photos, as well as a disclaimer: "Everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved. Only the names of the main characters have been changed."
Cohn continued to write for New York Magazine, and in 1983, was indicted on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges for importing $4-million worth of heroin.
When producer Robert Stigwood signed John Travolta, people thought he was out of his mind
When Australian impresario Robert Stigwood signed Travolta to a three-movie contract for $1 million, it was the talk of Hollywood — for all the wrong reasons. After all, the biggest role Travolta had ever played was heartthrob Vinnie Barbarino on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.
"Everyone thought it was madness, because nobody had ever made the transition from television to movie stardom," said Bill Oakes, who was working for Stigwood at the time. "So a lot of us thought to pay a million dollars for Vinnie Barbarino is going to make us a laughingstock."
Stigwood, who had once managed the Beatles and went on to produce successful West End productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and Grease, as well as the film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, paid Cohn $90,000 for the rights to the magazine article — almost unheard of at the time.
The film's main star wasn't into disco
Travolta's character Tony was obsessed with disco — but Travolta himself wasn't all that interested, in part because disco fever was already cooling off, at least in New York.
"It was on its way out. The clothing I wore in the movie, the polyester this and that was all finished when we did the movie. I thought I was doing, honestly, an art film — really, that it was a slice of life about a small group of people in Brooklyn that were obsessed with disco dancing and that I had a very interesting character to play. I did not think it would be a big commercial movie at all," he said in an interview.
"The clothing for Saturday Night Fever, I had to go to the Village [in New York], in the back of the store and tops of shelves and pull out boxes because they hadn't sold those pants in three years. They hadn't sold those shirts in two years. That suit was kind of a classic suit, so that was being avidly sold but that's how out of date we thought all that was when we were making it. I thought I was doing kind of a little retro movie and then it became like it had never existed before."
Still, long before he became a film star, Travolta did love to dance. "I think my first turn-on to dance was James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, when I was five or six," remembered Travolta on the set of Hairspray in Toronto. "I used to try to imitate him in front of the television set. I liked black dancing better than white dancing. I used to watch Soul Train, and what I wanted to create was a Soul Train feel in Saturday Night Fever."
Actress Donna Pescow had to relearn her Brooklyn accent
Actress Donna Pescow was just 22 when she landed the role of Annette — and she was thrilled she wouldn't have to spend her Christmas selling ornaments at Bloomingdale's as she had for years. However she had spent two years studying theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and had managed to get rid of her Brooklyn accent — only to be told she would need to get it back. "Donna. Move back home, hang out with your parents," casting director Shirley Rich reportedly told her. "You sound like you don't come from anywhere."
Before rehearsals, Pescow had also never been to a discotheque.
Travolta was not dancing to the Bee Gees
Some of the film's most iconic scenes involve Tony and Annette dancing to Bee Gees megahits including "You Should Be Dancin'" and "More Than a Woman" — but the Bee Gees had no involvement in the film and their music was only added in post-production.
"We were recording our new album in the north of France. And we'd written about and recorded about four or five songs for the new album when [producer Robert Stigwood] rang from L.A. and said, 'We're putting together this little film, low budget, called Tribal Rites of a Saturday Night. Would you have any songs on hand?" remembered Robin Gibb in the book The Bee Gees. "And we said, 'Look, we can't. We haven't any time to sit down and write for a film.' We didn't know what it was about."
Eventually the brothers Gibb agreed, and wrote most of the soundtrack in a single weekend.
So if Travolta wasn't dancing to the Bee Gees, what music was backing his monster moves? In a later interview he revealed, "Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs."
His moves were partly inspired by Robert DeNiro
You won't catch Robert DeNiro starring in any disco flicks, but the revered actor at least partly inspired Travolta's dance moves.
"DeNiro dropped the gauntlet. He learned how to play saxophone for a year, he learned how to become a boxer and that was the feeling in the air if you wanted to take your craft seriously, it was beyond just the standard fare. You really became the best at the thing that you were supposed to do," explained Travolta in an interview. "I took about nine months of my life and everyday I danced to become what I thought was a great local disco dance."
Best known for his spot on the TV show Dance Fever, Deney Terrio gave Travolta many of his best disco moves — but Lester Wilson, a gay nightclub legend who worked with Sammy Davis Jr. on Broadway and in London, is credited with turning Travolta into a pro. Travolta said he was "such an interesting guy. He taught me what he called his 'hang time.' He would smoke a cigarette to greet the day, and he infused my dancing with African-American rhythm.
"I'm the kind of dancer who needs thought and construction—an idea—before I dance. I need an internal story," he said. "Lester would put on some music and he would say, 'Move with me, motherf--ker—move with me!'"
The soundtrack is one of the most popular of all time
The soundtrack was the best-selling of all time until Whitney Houston's 1992 soundtrack for The Bodyguard knocked it to the number 2 spot, where it remains to this day.
In 1979, the soundtrack landed a Grammy for best album — making it the first film soundtrack to win the honour. (Since then, only two others have won best album Grammys: The Bodyguard in 1994 and O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2002.) It's also regularly included in lists of best albums of all time.
In November of this year, a 40th anniversary super deluxe box set was released and includes the remastered soundtrack on two LPs, a two-CD edition that includes new mixes of "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love" and "You Should Be Dancing," a 4K-restored 40th anniversary director's cut of the film on Blu-ray, a 24-page book, five art prints, a movie poster and a turntable mat.
Some of Travolta's on-screen pain was real
During filming, John Travolta's real-life girlfriend, actress Diana Gentner, developed breast cancer and died. At that time pop icon Andy Warhol was on a flight with Travolta, and he later wrote about it in his diary. "John Travolta kept going to the bathroom, coming out with his eyes bright red, drinking orange juice and liquor in a paper cup, and he put his head in a pillow and started crying," wrote Warhol. "I saw him reading a script, too, so I thought he was acting, really cute and sensitive-looking, very tall…. You can see the magic in him. I asked the stewardess why he was crying and she said, 'death in the family,'so I thought it was a mother or father, until I picked up the paper at home and found out that it was Diana Hyland, who'd died of cancer at forty-one, soap-opera queen, his steady date."
"I remember the scene at the Verrazano Bridge when I lean over and kiss him," said actress Karen Lynn Gorney, who plays Travolta's on-screen girlfriend. "The poor thing was suffering so, and that kiss was totally spontaneous. That wasn't Tony and Stephanie — that was because I really saw he was hurting."
That bridge scene was as harrowing to shoot as it is to watch
In one scene, one of the guys in Tony's entourage climbs up onto the cables and railings of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. They beg him to get down, but to no avail; Tony climbs on the railing to try to save him, but he falls to his death. "They were talking about putting a guy wire on us and I said, 'No,'" remembered actor Paul Pape, "I just jumped up on the cable to show them I could swing around. There was no safety net. I was [hundreds] of feet above the water. All that was improvised—it wasn't planned. I just jumped up there and said, 'Let's do it, let's get it done.'"
The camera operator took a handheld camera out on the bridge beam with nothing more than another crew member holding his waist. "I was young. You couldn't sense danger then. But you're 600 feet off the water. I had my camera in my hand and we just did it. We wanted to show Hollywood we could make great films."
Two of Travolta's family members made cameo appearances
There are several cameos in the film, and two of them are Travolta's family members. At the beginning of the movie, his mother Helen plays a woman waiting for a can of paint; his sister Annie plays a pizza girl who says, "One or two Tony?" Travolta answers, "Two, two is good."
That famous pose was an afterthought
Think of Saturday Night Fever, and you'll probably picture that poster image of Travolta in a white suit, chest out, one arm pointing up, one arm pointing down — but it turns out that iconic pose wasn't choreographed. In fact, it was an afterthought at the end of a long day.
"It was 14- or 15-hour day and the photographer said, 'Do you have anything else in you?' And I said, 'Oh geez. Okay, how about this?'" remembers Travolta.
"The next thing I know was I'm looking at photographs about three months later for poster ideas and I said, 'Oh my God, I can't believe they picked that shot.' I didn't know it would create the iconic figure that it ultimately did."
Filming in Brooklyn came with its challenges
Filming in Brooklyn came with a host of challenges, from crowds to crime — not to mention explosives. At one point, a firebomb even got thrown into the discotheque. Eventually the crew figured out they needed to pay certain locals in order to get proper security.
Filming began in March 1977 outside the dance studio, and already the buzz in the area had reached a fever pitch. "I got a phone call from the production manager, and he said, 'This is chaos!' I came out and there were l0,000 kids on the streets, and we only have four security guys," remembered McCormick. "So we had to shut down for a couple of hours while we just regrouped and tried to figure out a way to make it work. It was the first time that we actually had a sense of who John was." Eventually they had to give up, because it was impossible to shoot. "There was no place you could point the camera without seeing l5,000 people. We'd have to put out fake call sheets and get out there at 5:30 in the morning."
The screenwriter was notoriously quirky
Norman Wexler wrote the adaptation of the magazine story into the Saturday Night Fever script, and was notoriously quirky. "He would come into his agent's office, or try to pitch a script to somebody, and start giving nylons and chocolates to the secretaries," remembered Karen Lynn Gorney, who played Tony's love interest Stephanie Mangano. Wexler suffered from bi-polar disorder, and when he went off his medication, he could turn violent. In one manic episode, he reportedly bit a stewardess; in another he threatened to assassinate then president Richard Nixon.
But even though it came in at a whopping 149 pages, the filmmakers were thrilled with the script. ""It was way, way, way, way too long, but quite wonderful," remembered McCormick. "I think what Norman did so well was to create a family situation that had real truth, an accurate look at how men related to women in that moment, in ways that you would never get away with now."
Travolta was on a plane when his Academy Award nomination was announced
On the big day when Academy Award nominations were being announced, John Travolta was on a plane — but he knew that when he landed, he would be able to tell whether the news was good or bad by the reception he received.
"I was in Mexico and it was my birthday. I was flying home on an airliner and I couldn't get anyone early enough to find out if I had been nominated," remembered Travolta in an interview. "I arrived at Los Angeles airport and there was a customs smoked glass type of apparatus. I thought that if there's no one there, it means I didn't get nominated but if there's a group there, then I did.
"So I ran across there and all my friends are there," he said. "They were cheering; everything was in slow motion."
Travolate didn't win, however: Richard Dreyfuss took the best actor honour for The Goodbye Girl.
There are two versions of the film
The first version of the film, released in 1977, was R-rated, but a second version of the film — minus much of the profanity, nudity and fighting — was released in 1979 to attract a wider, and younger, audience.
Stigwood, however, was not a fan of the tamer version. In an interview he later said, "It doesn't have the power, or the impact, of the original R-rated edition."
In 2017, a 122-minute director's cut premiered at the TCM Festival at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.