Before John Badham was brought in to direct Saturday Night Fever, producer Robert Stigwood had to fire the original director of the 1977 disco flick — Rocky and Karate Kid director John G. Avildsen — over several creative differences, including an on-set feud with star John Travolta.
Saturday Night Fever executive producer Kevin McCormick explains how it all went down in director John Maggio’s Mr. Saturday Night, a new installment in HBO’s music box documentary series that premieres Thursday. The film chronicles the life of Stigwood, an Australian entrepreneur, and his meteoric rise to fame as one of the most successful movie producers of his time.
With a unique eye for talent, Stigwood signed Travolta to a three-picture deal back in his Welcome Back, Kotter days when few believed the future star could make the jump from television to movies. That three-picture deal produced Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and 1978’s Moment By Moment. Stigwood’s career also included enduring hit films like The Who’s Tommy, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita.
But as famous as he was for identifying talent — he managed both The Bee Gees, who wrote and performed the hit-packed soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, and Cream’s Eric Clapton — Stigwood was not afraid to give someone the boot.
Maggio, director of Mr. Saturday Night, gave us the breakdown of exactly how Avildsen — who would also go on to direct Lean on Me — was unceremoniously fired from Saturday Night Fever on the very day he was nominated for an Oscar for Rocky, which he would go on to win.
“Well, it’s funny. So Avildsen was coming off of Rocky, right? Huge. Again, another monster success. Success for him, success for [Sylvester] Stallone, success for Hollywood. And they had a hard time finding a director. Kevin McCormick had come out to LA, and it was really — nobody saw what Stigwood saw in the script [of Saturday Night Fever] and all of that, so there weren’t a lot of people coming to him. But in his last day there — he tells the story in the film — Avildsen’s agent called up and said, Okay, my client is interested. But you have to go see his film, which turned out to be Rocky,” Maggio told MovieMaker.
“Stigwood and Kevin go see Rocky. They’re impressed. They sign Avildsen. Avildsen says, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, you’ve got to hire Norman Wexler, this really intense screenwriter who does gritty. If you want gritty, this is the guy who does gritty.’ But by the time they got on the set, it seemed like he didn’t have a vision for how the film was going to be told,” Maggio said.
“They had this great script, they had a great actor, but [Avildensen] didn’t seem to add anything to it, and I think Travolta picked up on that. Travolta, by all accounts, is a perfectionist, and he really wanted to get this just right. I mean, you see it — the dancing, it’s unbelievable. It’s transcendent. And [Travolta] brought that into the script, and they just did not get along,” he added. “Then, Avildsen was refusing to come to set. Travolta was refusing to come to set. And so Stigwood brought [Avildsen] in and fired him — on the day that he was nominated for an Oscar. He said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, you’ve been nominated for an Oscar. The bad news is, you’re fired.’ And then they brought in John Badham.”
Another precipitating factor in Avildsen being let go from Saturday Night Fever was that he didn’t want to use The Bee Gees’ soundtrack for the movie, Maglio adds, which consisted of some of the band’s greatest hits like Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, and More Than a Woman.
“He did not want The Bee Gees in it, and he and Travolta just didn’t get on. I think Travolta sensed he didn’t have the creative vision for the film. Kevin McCormick says in the film that he also — I think that the Oscar, with the success of Rocky, he had just grown really arrogant and it just wasn’t working. It became a toxic environment.”
Avildsen died in 2017 and could not provide his side of the story. Reps for Travolta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I don’t think there’s anything written about how Avildsen felt,” Maggio said. “I mean, this guy, he went on to make Karate Kid. He went on to make other things. But I wonder — it’s interesting if that was a missed opportunity, or would it have been as good?”
Mr. Saturday Night premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Main Image: A still of a couple dancing at 2001 Odyssey Nightclub in Brooklyn in 1976. Courtesy of HBO