John Travolta Trained Like Rocky For His Iconic Blockbuster Movie

John Travolta was trained by Sylvester Stallone's trainer in Rocky, Jimmy Gambina, for his role in Saturday Night Fever.

By Britta DeVore | Published

john travolta

While John Travolta may be known on the big screen for his tough guy attitude in features like Grease, Pulp Fiction, and the unforgettable cinematic classic, Face/Off, it was his role in Saturday Night Fever that would force the actor to sculpt his body like he never had before. According to a Vanity Fair interview with Kevin McCormick, the former assistant of Saturday Night Fever producer Robert Stigwood, the film’s star was whipped into shape by none other than Rocky trainer Jimmy Gambina. According to McCormick, Gambina “ran [Travolta] like he was a fighter,” making the otherwise “soft and not that energetic” star into a buff, ripped, and trim heartthrob. 

Gambina himself was brought onto the project when Stigwood recruited Rocky director John G. Avildsen to direct. The ex-boxer trained Sylvester Stallone for his iconic role as the underdog ring fighter, Rocky Balboa, making it a no-brainer that he would be able to do the same for John Travolta. In the end, not only could Travolta keep up with the dance moves needed to boogie through the film, but he ended up with a dream physique.

For those who haven’t seen Saturday Night Fever, it’s peak ‘70s – filled with tunes from the Bee Gees, suits, and bell bottoms. John Travolta stars as a 19-year-old Italian American teen from Brooklyn named Tony Manero. Raised in a tight-knit, yet highly dysfunctional family, Tony still lives at home and works at a paint shop – a job that he feels too big for. 

john travolta saturday night fever
Saturday Night Fever

His workdays are boring and when he gets home, he’s constantly harassed by his mother (Julie Bovasso) and father (Val Bisoglio) who treat him as second best to his brother Frank Jr. (Martin Shakar) who has recently joined the priesthood. A devout Catholic family, Tony’s parents turn more against him knowing what the young man gets up to on the weekends. While life may be boring during the work week, Tony escapes it all by dancing his blues away at the disco with his degenerate group of friends – enter John Travolta’s tight workout schedule.

Tony’s a masterful dancer, but much too full of himself as his cockiness and selfish nature lead him to be less than kind to those around him. When a dance competition arises that would see the winner raking in $500, Tony can’t help but find himself a dance partner to try and win the cash. But John Travolta’s boxing training wasn’t all for the dance floor as there’s also a gang-fight-related aspect to the feature – throwing in even more drama and hurdles in the way of Tony’s rise to the top of the ballroom. 

The John Travolta-led feature would open to a majority of positive reviews and gross a total of $237.1 million at the global box office. A true time capsule (even if it was highly dramatized) of the 1970s, the film still sits at an 83% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It also boasts one of the (in this writer’s humble opinion) best film soundtracks with a slew of upbeat, disco tunes sure to power you through your day.