On This Day: John Travolta Channeled John Dutton for Cover of PEOPLE Magazine in 1980

by Suzanne Halliburton
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John Travolta, 41 summers ago, made the two step, honky tonks and cowboy hats into national obsessions.

And don’t forget the mechanical bull. Travolta made the mechanical bull oh-so-cool.

So that’s why on June 23, 1980, People magazine commemorated the pop culture craze with a John Travolta cover to celebrate all things Urban Cowboy. It was back when everyone flocked to see Travolta as Bud Davis try to woo Sissy (Debra Winger) every Saturday night at Gilley’s in Pasadena, Tx. With his cowboy hat and starched jeans, you can make a case that present-day characters like John Dutton in Yellowstone were channeling Bud, the blue-collar shift worker by day who drained longnecks and two-stepped every night.

The magazine proclaimed that John Travolta “kicks his trouble and greaser image to click as the Urban Cowboy.”

Everybody Wanted to Two Step Like John Travolta

John Travolta was 25 when he agreed to do Urban Cowboy. It was only his fourth starring role. And he dazzled as a small-town Texas boy who moves to the big city. In Urban Cowboy, Travolta did to the two step exactly what he accomplished in Saturday Night Fever and disco dancing.

The Urban Cowboy choreographer who helped teach John Travolta all the smooth moves was Houston resident Patsy Swayne. Yes, she was Patrick Swayne’s mother, although her son still was three years away from his first big role.

John Travolta moved to Houston to immerse himself in the Lone Star culture. He ate lots of Tex-Mex and learned the proper Texas twang. Back at his home in California, Travolta also had an area devoted to Urban Cowboy. He built a dance floor. And, he put a mechanical bull in the corner to practice.

“These Texans just wanted to have a beer, a whiskey, and a fantastic time,” John Travolta told Texas Monthly.

Urban Cowboy Based on Search for True Grit

The movie was based on a 1978 article written for Esquire. The headline was The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” So maybe John Travolta was redesigning John Wayne’s swagger as he strutted across the dance floor.

Travolta wasn’t the only beneficiary of Urban Cowboy. Mickey Gilley enjoyed a career resurgence. And the movie soundtrack featured three songs that hit No. 1 on the country charts and six that made it into the pop top 40. There were songs from Kenny Rogers, the Eagles, Charlie Daniels Band, Johnny Lee, Dan Fogelberg and Bob Seger.

This movie “launched me into the stratosphere,” Gilley told Rolling Stone Country in 2015.

Gilley added “I was in an elevator in Nashville one day back in the ’80s. There was a guy on there who said, ‘I want to thank you for all you did for Western wear.’ And I said, ‘You need to thank John Travolta. He’s the one who brought it front and center.’

“Every night when I go to bed, I thank John Travolta for keeping my career alive,” Gilley added.

So if you’re John Travolta cool, trot out your two-step this weekend. He turned it into a craze.

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