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'Saturday Night Fever' turns 40! 6 things you may not know about the disco classic

When it premiered in 1977, the movie was an instant sensation, propelling John Travolta from "Welcome Back, Kotter" star to international celebrity.
/ Source: TODAY

"Saturday Night Fever" turns 40 this year, and you know what? You should be dancin', yeah!

When it premiered in 1977, the movie was an instant sensation, propelling John Travolta from "Welcome Back, Kotter" star to international celebrity. It also gave the Bee Gees a new lease on life as a disco band, and transformed how movies could use music to tell a story.

Donna Pescow and John Travolta strike an iconic pose in "Saturday Night Fever."Getty Images

But while we may remember the iconic white suit Travolta's Tony Manero wore, or the flashing lights of the disco floor at Brooklyn's 2001 Odyssey Club, or tunes like "How Deep Is Your Love," there's much more to "Saturday Night Fever" than a bunch of dance sequences and images of Tony strutting down the sidewalk. Here are six things you might not have known about the film — which deserves a fresh twirl on the floor!

1. John Travolta was so popular it was almost impossible to film on location.

The first day of shooting was a near riot, as 15,000 people turned out on the streets to try and get a glimpse at Travolta. "One time John and I were in the makeup trailer, and it started rocking," Donna Pescow, who played Tony's former dance partner and hopeful girlfriend, told TODAY. "People were shaking the trailer to make him come out to do autographs."

Annette (Pescow) hopes Tony (Travolta) will pay attention to her, but his eyes go wandering.Paramount Pictures

Director John Badham came up with a clever idea: send out a decoy car rigged up with cameras as if Travolta was inside and lure away the crowds before sending out the real one. "That worked for about 1 millionth of a second," he told TODAY. "Finally, we realized: if we're going to be on the streets, we have to wake up literally at dawn and get the shots. If we could be out by 9 a.m. we were in great shape."

2. The movie was inspired by a New York magazine article called "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night."

The article by Nik Cohn, which was published on June 7, 1976, noted that Manhattan was still "firmly rooted in the sixties" and all the cool kids were in the boroughs, dancing their nights away. The original article, which focuses on a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, dancer named Vincent, is still a terrific read and can be found here — though its author admitted in the mid-1990s that the character of Vincent (Travolta) was a "total fabrication."

3. It was only director Badham's second feature film.

Badham had "just finished ruining my career" by refusing to direct Diana Ross (who was 30 years old then) as Dorothy in "The Wiz" when he got a look at the script for what would become "Saturday Night Fever." "I grew up in Alabama and had never been to Brooklyn in my life, but these characters spoke to me," he said. "Two hours after I got the script I'd read it and was running around the house yelling, I was so glad to get to do this."

4. Neither Badham nor Pescow knew much about disco.

"I didn't even know what disco was," Pescow recalled. "I was very into Carole King and Stevie Wonder." Badham, meanwhile, largely saw his way in through the dancing. "When I started looking at disco really closely, I thought, 'They're doing the fox trot!' We could take any kind of dance move, from tango to salsa to waltz and do it to disco music, which is what we did. You just work it to the beat of the music."

5. Fans aside, shooting in Brooklyn was not without peril.

One day when the crew arrived to shoot at 2001 Odyssey early in the morning, they noticed there'd been a bit of a disco inferno: A fire had singed the front doors. "At first we thought there was some homeless guy trying to get warm here," recalled Badham.

But then "a long-finned Cadillac rolled up and some very large men came out." They found the production manager and, as Badham reports, said, "We hear you boys had a little barbecue last night. We're here to help you out with that and make sure it doesn't happen again." The "helpers" asked for $3,500 to take care of matters, and Badham happily paid.

"If they'd said $10,000, we'd have screamed our head off," he admitted.

6. Audiences may have come for the dancing, but they stayed for the story.

One reason "Saturday Night Fever" remains so memorable is that it goes deeper than disco: It's really a dark coming-of-age story about a young man who starts to see the bigger picture of his life, and learns how to actually have a female friend. (Revolutionary!)

"Early on the critics were like, 'it's kind of vulgar,' but it sold out the houses, every day," said Badham. "I was told that when Barry Diller, who ran (distributor) Paramount at the time, got the opening weekend grosses he yelled at the poor guy who reported them, saying there were 'too many zeros' here."

In the end, the film would gross $94 million in the U.S., or $358 million adjusted for 2017. The soundtrack sold more than 15 million albums and was at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 18 weeks.

Guess that $3,500 was money well spent!

"Saturday Night Fever" is getting a special anniversary director's-cut release on Blu-ray and DVD on May 2, and will slide back into over 620 theaters nationwide on May 7 and May 10, courtesy of Fathom Events. See if it's dancing into your town here!

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