Donna Pescow on John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever

Last winter, Donna Pescow reunited with her old Saturday Night Fever costar John Travolta to film a Capital One commercial. “John and I stayed friends, but we hadn’t worked together for 46 years,” Donna tells Closer. “It really was a heart tug. The minute we saw each other on the set, it was almost like things were in slow motion. You are just so overwhelmed with happiness to see someone.”

Of course, a lot has happened in Donna’s life since she became an overnight success in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. She’s had several long runs on TV series, appeared as a guest star on everything from Cold Case to The Sopranos, and has even spent time teaching acting. “I really don’t love free time,” Donna, 69, says with a chuckle. “I love working with young actors because there is this wonderful, fearless excitement and a desire to really dig in and learn. I love that.”

How did your childhood influence your decision to become an actress?

“My grandfather was sort of like a surrogate dad to me. He was a movie projectionist at the RKO Albee in downtown Brooklyn. I used to go to work with him on Saturdays, sit in the booth and watch movies all day long. I just loved it.”

So you knew what you wanted to do for a living from a very young age?

“Yes. I think I was just a real hammy kid. My grandfather was a stage manager during vaudeville, so he knew all these really hilarious routines from comedians like Abbott and Costello. I was the only 8-year-old doing “Who’s on First?” It was just a natural progression that I became someone who gravitated to the entertainment industry.”

Did your family approve?

“My family was very supportive. They would take me to Broadway shows. There were a couple of behind-the-scenes people — stage and crew members — in my family. I just sort of adored all of it: drama or comedy, theater or film. I felt at home with it all.”

Did you have any idols growing up?

“Bette Davis and Carol Burnett. Carol was my comedic idol. I lived for her show when I was a kid. How can anyone not love her?”

What have been some of your favorite roles?

Saturday Night Fever always will be closest to my heart. It was my first film, and it really launched my career. It was such a wonderful experience.”

Were you surprised by the success of Saturday Night Fever?

“I think when it first came out, everyone was blown away by the success of the film because it was a very small-budget movie. I don’t think anyone, certainly not Paramount and certainly not the people producing the film, thought it would be as enormous as it became.

It became a film that was a commentary of the era and the world of disco — also on the young kids trying to figure out who they are and where to go with all of life’s ups and downs.”

Donna Pescow and John Travolta
Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images

Is it true that you had to audition for the role of Annette six times?

“[Laughs] I thought it was a little tiny part, and I couldn’t quite understand why they were making such a fuss over me coming in so many times, but I was happy to do it. Everybody was looking for that authenticity and some sort of connection.”

Did you learn anything from working with John Travolta?

“I think in many ways he taught me how to work on set. He is such a generous person, and he is such a generous actor. He was just as concerned if you felt good about what you had just done or if you wanted another take. He was also an extraordinarily talented actor who loved doing things improvisationally. I think he was my biggest influence starting in film.”

In 1979, you got your own TV series, Angie. What are your memories of it?

“Everybody had such affection for one another. We just really had such a good time. Robert Hays, who has remained one of my closest friends — we’re godparents to each other’s kids — he loved cracking me up. We had an audience when we would film the show, and he would just find a moment to do some sort of silly imitation of Popeye’s laugh or something that would just throw me and crack me up.”

Sounds like a fun set.

“Yes! The other thing that was really amazing about Angie is that we taped on Paramount’s lot. Right opposite us, Robin Williams was doing Mork & Mindy. A couple of stages down was Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Taxi! The commissary at lunchtime was like sitcom college. It was really hilarious.”

You’ve been married for 37 years. What’s your secret?

“Again, luck, luck, luck. My husband was in advertising, and he was a writer. So, we were both in the same industry in the sense of entertainment, but not in the same field. I think that helped. But more than that, he’s hilariously funny, and I think a sense of humor keeps you going. He is my best friend as well as my husband.”

Do you have any hobbies?

“Boy, that’s a hard one. I love to work with kids. I’ve taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is my alma mater, and the Lee Strasberg Institute. I wouldn’t call it a hobby, but it is something that I love to do.”

Do you have any projects coming up that you can tell us about?

“There is a possible series. I also just finished a Grey’s Anatomy episode, which was tremendous fun. I just keep moving and keep working.”

Do you have anything on your bucket list?

“I’m looking for a one-woman show. I did a cabaret many years ago where I sang and talked, and it was great fun. I’m looking to see if I can find something that would work for me.”

What is the greatest life lesson you’ve learned?

“Stay the course. If there’s something you want and need, just keep working towards it. Don’t get discouraged to the point of giving up something that feeds your soul.”

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