20 Things You Might Not Have Realised About Saturday Night Fever
We recently provided you with 10 extremely groovy facts about 1983’s Staying Alive, which is of course the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, the film that made John Travolta a household name and spawned one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time.
Released in 1977, Saturday Night Fever sees Travolta play Tony Manero, a young working-class man from Brooklyn whose discotheque prowess provides a stark contrast to the difficulties he has in his everyday life.
So put on your dancing shoes and get ready to strut your stuff, as we give you 20 things that you might not have realised about this true 1970s dance classic. All together now… “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive, ah, ha, ha, ha…”
20. The film is based on a New York Magazine article that turned out to be fabricated
Saturday Night Fever is based on a 1976 New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.
Cohn, a British writer who is considered by some to be ‘the father of rock criticism,’ later admitted that the article’s content was a complete fabrication.
He based these ideas on the nightlife of English cities, rather than on anything he’d seen in New York.
But the magazine cover makes an authentic appearance amid Tony Manero’s exploits in the city.
After his solo dance in the disco, Tony wanders out to speak to the doorman, checking whether Stephanie has arrived yet.
In the background, you can see the Tribal Rites magazine cover, stretched out to poster size on the dimly lit wall.
19. John Travolta didn’t dance to a single Bee Gees track during filming
As horrifying as this may sound to fans of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta did not dance to a single Bee Gees track during filming.
This was due to the fact that the group wasn’t even asked to write the soundtrack until the film had nearly finished shooting.
An early demo version of the group’s hit Stayin’ Alive was, however, ready in time for Travolta to perform his famous strut seen at the start of the film.
However, all of the famous dance sequences were shot to the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs instead.
One of these sequences was filmed with Scaggs’ song Lowdown, but when the crew later asked for Scaggs’ permission to use the tune, the star refused.
Instead, the producers had to hire composer David Shire to write a replacement piece with a tempo that perfectly matched the dance routine.
18. Donna Pescow put on 40 pounds to play Annette
Saturday Night Fever’s casting agents initially considered Donna Pescow to be “too pretty” to take on the role of Annette.
This character is a young local dancer whose obvious affections are lost on John Travolta’s Tony.
Pescow, appearing in her very first acting role, put on 40 pounds in weight for the role, and relearned how to speak in her native Brooklyn accent.
It took six auditions for her to win the part – three with the original director John Avidsen, and three more with John Badham.
Aged 22 when she bagged the role, Pescow was overjoyed, noting that it was the first winter in years where she wouldn’t have to work in Bloomingdale’s.
Ordinarily, she would spend the festive season selling Christmas ornaments in this New York department store.
17. John Travolta’s girlfriend died while the film was being shot
Tragically, John Travolta’s girlfriend of the time, Diana Hyland, died whilst he was filming Saturday Night Fever.
Travolta was given permission to fly to Los Angeles to be with Hyland, who passed away at the age of 41 after a battle with breast cancer.
Hyland was a prolific actress, appearing in The Twilight Zone, Naked City, The Eleventh Hour, The Fugitive and The Invaders, as well as the 1966 drama The Chase.
18 years her junior, Travolta first met Hyland while they were filming the 1976 made-for-television movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
The pair played a mother and son in the film, and Hyland was posthumously awarded an Emmy for her performance.
The following year, playing the 19-year-old Tony in Saturday Night Fever, the 24-year-old Travolta became one of the youngest actors to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.
16. Tony’s famous white suit was originally going to be black
The suit donned by Tony Manero was originally going to be black to match the fashion of the time.
However, the film’s costume designer convinced John Travolta and director John Badham that it should instead be white.
The white suit was meant to symbolise Tony’s “journey to enlightenment” as he struggles with the pressures of early adulthood.
But it also had the benefit of standing out vividly against the backdrop of a darkened disco.
The film’s unforgettable poster, with Travolta in the white suit striking a pose, was actually created in a throwaway moment.
After a 14-hour working day, the photographer asked if Travolta had any other ideas for the cover, and he threw one hand up and one down in an unplanned and somewhat exhausting moment.
15. John Travolta wasn’t even a fan of disco music
John Travolta later admitted that he wasn’t a fan of disco music at the time of Saturday Night Fever, saying “it was on its way out.”
The star also revealed his shock at the film’s massive success, saying “I thought I was doing an art film.”
He believed it was going to be “a slice of life about a small group of people in Brooklyn that were obsessed with disco dancing.”
“I did not think it would be a big commercial movie at all,” he noted. He couldn’t have been further from the truth. This $2 million-budget film eventually grossed an incredible $237 million.
The movie eventually had a $237-million gross on a $2-million budget.
The incredible success of this film helped to promote Travolta’s next big hit, Grease – though Saturday Night Fever came out in cinemas only after production for Grease had wrapped.
14. Seven minutes of footage was cut after the film’s initial run to make it a PG
The original version of Saturday Night Fever had an adults-only ‘R’ rating due to some of its sexual and violent content.
But after the film proved to be a big hit with cinema audiences, Paramount Pictures were keen to make it available to a much larger audience.
This meant that seven minutes of footage, including swearing, nudity and a rape scene, were removed.
As a result, the film’s rating was revised down to a family-friendly ‘PG’ classification.
The film’s producer Robert Stigwood later complained that these post-release edits had “ruined the film.”
“It doesn’t have the power or the impact of the original R-rated edition,” he said of the censored version.
13. Someone threw a firebomb at the disco where the film was being shot
What should’ve been a relatively straightforward shoot in Brooklyn for Saturday Night Fever soon developed into a battle with the neighbours.
A few of the locals were angry they hadn’t been hired to work on the film, according to a 2007 Vanity Fair article.
One person threw a firebomb at the disco where the movie was being filmed – although fortunately it didn’t cause any serious damage.
While on set, executive producer Kevin McCormick was approached by two local men asking for money.
They told him, “You know, you’re being disruptive to the neighbourhood. You might need some security. And if you want to put lights on the bowling alley across the street, Black Stan really wants seven grand.”
McCormick decided it was worth paying them, and sure enough, there was no more disruption during the making of the movie.
12. Over 40% of the cast made their film debut in Saturday Night Fever
As well as Travolta’s aforementioned mother and sister, there were plenty of other new faces to cinema among the cast of Saturday Night Fever.
In fact, almost half of the actors featured had their big screen debuts in this movie.
The new starlets to appear in this homage to disco included Donna Pescow, who played Annette, as well as Joseph Cali in the role of Joey.
The woman who asks to wipe Tony Manero’s forehead is played by Denny Dillon, who later became a cast member for Saturday Night Live and joined the comedy series Dream On as Toby Pedalbee.
Fran Drescher, of The Nanny fame, also had her first taste of movies in this film, in which her character asks Tony, “So, are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?”
Shelly Batt, who makes her movie debut as a girl at the disco, went on to star in Hart to Hart and Loving Couples.
11. Carrie Fisher and Jessica Lange were considered for the role of Stephanie
Saturday Night Fever’s Stephanie is a talented dancer, who arrives at Tony’s favourite disco and instantly catches his attention.
Despite Stephanie’s initial dislike of Tony, she agrees to team up with him for an upcoming dance competition.
This role was particularly challenging to cast. Several hundred women auditioned unsuccessfully, with Jessica Lange, Kathleen Quinlan and Carrie Fisher among those considered for the part.
Funnily enough, it was a chance meeting in a taxi that finally won Karen Lynn Gorney the role.
Aged 32 at the time, the actress was searching for work when she happened to share a taxi ride with a stranger – the nephew of producer Robert Stigwood.
When this nephew mentioned his uncle was producing a new disco movie, Gorney quipped, “Oh, am I in it?” With the nephew’s recommendation, she won the role soon afterwards.
10. The smoke effects on the dancefloor were made from toxic burning tar
There are barely any special effects in Saturday Night Fever, with the exception of the smoke-covered dance floor.
Rather than using dry ice or a smoke machine for this effect, the production team instead redirected the smoke pouring out of a neighbouring alley.
Unfortunately, this smoke was actually a toxic mixture of burning tires and tar, and it proved a pretty unhealthy shortcut.
At one point, the disco became so smoky that the team brought in oxygen tanks for Travolta, according to Vanity Fair.
On the other hand, no expense was spared for the dramatic lighting of the dance floor.
At a cost of $15,000, the filmmakers put lights under the plexiglass floor and covered the walls with foil and Christmas lights to make the whole room shine.
9. Travolta threatened to quit when the studio asked to film one dance close-up
Travolta underwent an intense training regimen to get in shape for Saturday Night Fever, running two miles and dancing for three hours each day.
So when the producers announced they would film his number You Should Be Dancing in a close-up, Travolta was furious.
Travolta wanted his whole body to be filmed, to show off the moves he’d been practising in all their glory.
Travolta even threatened to quit if they altered the scene in this way, so the producers complied and his entire dance was filmed as originally planned.
This was the first of many films where Travolta would throw himself into learning new dance styles, often contributing to a rise in their popularity.
For the film Urban Cowboy, Travolta learned country dancing, and country music saw a huge surge in popularity after the film’s release.
8. The Oscar-winning director of Rocky was fired from the movie
In Tony Manero’s bedroom, we see it’s a poster of Rocky, rather than any disco star, that adorns his wall.
Rocky was directed by John G Avildsen, who won an Academy Award for the timeless sports drama.
This Rocky poster is a nod to Avildsen, who was originally set to direct Saturday Night Fever.
Avildsen was fired after he got into a dispute with the producer Robert Stigwood – the pair couldn’t agree about details of the script.
Funnily enough, the Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone – whose poster watches over Tony as he prepares for a dance competition – was a big fan of Saturday Night Fever.
He ended up directing the sequel Staying Alive, which was a critical failure but commercial success.
7. Tony’s famous “Watch the hair!” line was improvised by Travolta
Travolta used his improvisation to add some flair and attitude to Tony’s character throughout the making of Saturday Night Fever.
There’s no finer example of this than the dinner scene, where Tony and his father are bickering.
When Tony’s dad slaps him on the head for a third time, Tony says angrily, “Would you just watch the hair? I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it!” All of this was improvised by Travolta on the spot.
What’s more, Tony’s grandma interrupts the mealtime conversation with improvised Italian lines, even though she had nothing to say in the script.
Played by Nina Hansen, the grandma shouts, “Basta! Mangia! Mangia!”, which translates to, “Enough [fighting]! Eat! Eat!”
Badham felt Hansen’s interjections added realism to the chaotic scene, and so he decided to leave them in the film’s final cut.
6. The dance floor was inspired by a real club in Alabama
In the city of Birmingham, Alabama, there’s a private dining club that inspired the bright lights of the Brooklyn disco in Saturday Night Fever.
Odd though this may sound, the director John Badham had The Club in Birmingham in mind while making the movie because of his childhood visits to the venue.
When he was two, Badham’s parents relocated from London to Birmingham, Alabama. The Club, which is on Red Mountain and has beautiful views over the city, became the family’s favourite spot for birthdays and celebrations.
Still open today, The Club’s most striking feature is its illuminated plexiglass dance floor.
In a 2016 interview with Garden & Gun, Badham recalled: “My mother loved to dance and had made me take lessons, so we would go out onto the beautiful lighted dance floor and have a great time. That image stuck with me many years later.”
Inspired, Badham decided to install a glowing floor in the disco for Saturday Night Fever – even though typical dancefloors in New York City were “worn-out hardwood or even dirty concrete.”
5. Filming often took place at the crack of dawn so the production could avoid Travolta superfans
John Travolta had a huge and passionate teenage fanbase in the 70s thanks to the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.
In this sitcom, he played a mischievous young heartthrob who drops out of high school – as did Travolta himself, albeit to pursue acting.
When word got out that Travolta was filming Saturday Night Fever in Brooklyn, thousands of fans congregated in the streets to catch a glimpse of him.
Mostly made up of teenage girls, these crowds soon grew to 10,000-15,000 people, and started getting in the way of production.
By noon on the first day of filming, the team gave up and headed home because of the ever-growing swathes of fans.
The filmmakers later resorted to filming late at night and at the crack of dawn, to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
4. John Travolta’s mother and sister both appear in the film
The woman Tony sells a can of paint to in Saturday Night Fever is played by John Travolta’s mother, Helen, in her one and only film cameo.
Helen Travolta was an actress and singer who performed with the radio group The Sunshine Singers before she became a high school English and Drama teacher.
But she wasn’t the only member of Travolta’s family to join the cast of Saturday Night Fever.
John’s sister Ann also appears in a small role, playing the waitress who gives Tony slices of pizza, as well as speaking the film’s very first line of dialogue.
“Hiya Tony! Two or three?” she sings out in a strong Brooklyn accent through the shop window.
All of John Travolta’s siblings – Ann, Joey, Ellen, Margaret and Sam – ended up training in acting just like their mother.
3. It popularised disco music across the globe
Saturday Night Fever had a big part to play in making disco music popular across the globe.
Its soundtrack sold a quite staggering 40 million copies, becoming the best-selling album in history.
This record wasn’t surpassed until Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released five years later.
It remained the best-selling film soundtrack for even longer, only overtaken by The Bodyguard in 1992.
Nor was the Saturday Night Fever craze quick to pass – it held a spot on Billboard’s album charts for a total of 120 weeks, lasting till 1980.
The song Stayin’ Alive, written by the Gibb brothers, was originally meant to be entitled “Saturday Night” to match the film – but the siblings decided that title was too generic.
2. It was late critic Gene Siskel’s favourite film of all time
Gene Siskel, the legendary film critic who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, once revealed that Saturday Night Fever was his favourite film of all time.
He reportedly watched it at least 17 times, claiming that the film grips you from its opening moments.
“One minute into Saturday Night Fever,” he said, “you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it’s talking about.”
He also wrote that “Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines. He struts like crazy.”
Siskel even purchased John Travolta’s legendary white suit from the movie at a 1979 charity auction.
This suit was Siskel’s “most prized possession”, according to his website. He bought it for $2,000 – and 17 years later, he sold it at Christie’s for $145,000.
1. The film’s sequel, Staying Alive, has been named the worst of all time
Thanks to Saturday Night Fever’s huge box office success, the producers Robert Stigwood and Norman Wexler were keen to create a sequel as soon as possible.
But they faced resistance for several years from Travolta, who didn’t like their scripts because they had Tony abandon his dreams of dancing.
Instead, Travolta felt that a triumphant career in show business should be waiting for Tony.
When Travolta eventually agreed to a script in which Tony joins a Broadway show but remains stuck in the chorus, the 1983 sequel was finally set in motion.
It received overwhelmingly negative reviews, with Entertainment Weekly eventually naming it the worst sequel of all time.
In fact, four other 80s movies were also among their top ten worst sequels: CaddyShack II, The Fly II, Jaws: The Revenge and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.