When ‘Bubble Boy’ John Travolta Fell in Love With His TV Mom
Long before the days of Zoom, John Travolta was the original remote learning student.
In 1976, the up-and-coming actor played Tod Lubitch, a teenage boy born with no immune system, in the made-for-TV film The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Forced to live indefinitely inside a sterile plastic pod, Tod attends his Houston high school via closed-circuit television system. Teenage melodrama ensues.
The story was loosely based on the condition of real-life “bubble boy” David Vetter, who suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). Vetter’s highly publicized youth, which he spent entirely within the confines of specially sterilized chambers, captivated the country during the early ‘70s.
Vetter was 5 when The Boy in the Plastic Bubble premiered on ABC on Nov. 12, 1976. The project marked director John Randal Kleiser's first collaboration with Travolta, two years before Grease would cement both their legacies. The film also costarred Diana Hyland and Robert Reed as the ever-loving Lubitch parents, Ralph Bellamy as Tod’s stalwart doctor and Glynnis O'Connor (of Ode to Billy Joe fame) as girl next door Gina Biggs.
O’Connor and Travolta sparked onscreen chemistry as budding young lovers, but it was Hyland whom the actor fell for behind the scenes. While filming, Travolta began a relationship with Hyland, 18 years his senior. But their affair was brief.
In 1977, Hyland died suddenly of breast cancer at 41 years old. Speaking to People that year, Travolta referred to Hyland as his first love. “I thought I was in love before, but I wasn’t," he said. "From the moment I met her, I was attracted. We were like two maniacs talking all the time on the set of Bubble. After a month it became romantic."
Travolta stayed beside Hyland on her deathbed. Reflecting that time, he added: "I gave her great joy in the last months of her life. I always feel she is with me — I mean, her intentions are. Diana always wanted the world for me in every possible way."'
Six months later, Hyland won a posthumous Emmy for her performance. Hers was one of four nominations earned by The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which proved to be an overall hit. In addition to spawning hokey TV copycats, the movie presaged Travolta's rise to superstardom. The actor first found fame on the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, a year before The Boy in the Plastic Bubble premiered on the same network. That same month, Carrie was released in theaters, featuring Travolta in a supporting (and evil) role. The next year, he achieved peerless fame with Saturday Night Fever and maintained his hot streak with Kleiser’s classic Grease.
But Vetter, who inspired The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, was apparently not a fan. “David laughed at the idea that his character could simply wear the space suit back into the isolator without contaminating the bubble,” wrote Steve McVicker, who chronicled Vetter’s life for the Houston Press in 1997. A year after the movie came out, though, NASA designed a special space suit that allowed Vetter to travel eight feet outside his bubble.
Still, Vetter never experienced the freedom of Travolta’s Tod. And while The Boy in the Plastic Bubble ends hopefully — with the teenage patient finally stepping outside in pursuit of love — Vetter would not survive to adolescence. He died in 1984 at the age of 12.
Although The Boy in the Plastic Bubble may seem dated, the COVID-19 pandemic makes for an apt time to rewatch this tale of sanitization and isolation. Luckily, it’s available in full on YouTube. Highlights include a cameo by astronaut Buzz Aldrin; a romantic, plastic-sheathed kiss that would definitely earn the CDC stamp of approval; and a disco-dancing scene inside the tripped-out bubble, where Tod lets loose and gets funky in true Travolta form.
Watch 'The Boy in the Plastic Bubble'
The Boy in the Plastic Bubble has spawned numerous pop cultural homages in various mediums. The film (or perhaps the tale of Vetter himself) inspired Paul Simon's “The Boy in the Bubble” off his 1988 album Graceland. A 1992 episode of Seinfeld, “The Bubble Boy,” also relies on the collective understanding of Tod’s immune disorder. (In the episode, George is framed for depressurizing one sickly kid’s germ-free environment.) Other references to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble have appeared in That ‘70s Show, NCIS, Family Guy and The Simpsons. (In the latter, Bart falls ill and is relegated to a hamster ball.) And in 2001, Jake Gyllenhaal starred in a full-movie satirization of The Boy in the Plastic Bubble called Bubble Boy.
Listen to Paul Simon's 'The Boy in the Bubble'