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Army Veteran and Director John Badham Revisits 'Saturday Night Fever' on Its 40th Annniversary

Hard to believe: December marks the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever and Paramount has released a brand new Director's Cut of the movie on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD. Anyone who was around back in 1977-78 remembers just how huge this movie was: imagine if Star Wars: The Force Awakens combined with Adele's 25 and every late-night comic made endless jokes about how the movie inspired everyone in America to dress like the characters and head out to Star Wars-themed nightclubs. The BeeGees-led soundtrack has sold over 40 million copies, making it one of the ten biggest albums of all time.

It's a phenomenon that no one saw coming: the movie was financed by the BeeGees manager Robert Stigwood and the low-budget production was the second feature for director John Badham, who had established his career in television. Badham was an Army veteran who was born in England and adopted by Henry Badham, Jr, an American officer who married his mother at the end of World War II. After Saturday Night Fever, Badham went on to direct the classics WarGames and Blue Thunder.

Badham talked to us about his experiences making the film, its popularity and his military family.

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I’ve been trying to explain to my kids what an enormous cultural phenomenon “Saturday Night Fever” was in '77, '78, '79. The movie, the album, the hit singles, the lifestyle craze it inspired. There's just not anything like that anymore. Explain what it was like for you to be in the middle of that hurricane.

Lord knows, it was unexpected. We all thought it was a good movie and that people would like it, but it was a very gritty movie too. We all remember the music and the dancing, but often forget how gritty it is. Paramount was worried sick that it would just turn people off, the language and the sexuality and the homophobia and all of that stuff going on in there.

Instead, people just locked onto Travolta's character and the world that he was in. They attached themselves more to the dream, of the Brooklyn dream of being able to be in the cool fantasy place like a disco with great music and cool stuff happening, as opposed to the very gritty, real life that they were living every day. People really attached themselves to that and got caught up in how cool would it be to be like him and to be in that fantasy world. Most of us have dreary lives and we're always trying to make it better.

You made the movie independently without input from Paramount. A traditional studio picture would’ve endured a lot more scrutiny from the suits.

The wonderful thing about Saturday Night Fever was that Robert Stigwood, the producer, had absolute final cut on the picture. He completely paid for it out of his company, RSO Production. Paramount had very little to say about it beyond -- it's gonna be this cool musical with Bee Gees songs in it and John Travolta dancing. John is going to star in our really big movie, not this pretend little movie, but a really big movie, which is going to be Grease.

We're just filling in the time with this kind of little low budget $2 million picture. Paramount went, “Okay, you're gonna pay for it. All right, we'll distribute it. I don’t think it was until we showed them the director's cut and producer's cut that they went, “Oh, my God, this has a lot of bad language in it. Can't you take it out?” Robert Stigwood would look at me and say, “Do not take out a word.” And I'm going, “Oh, no, I'm caught in between the rock and the hard place here.”

Badham with "Saturday Night Fever" star Karen Lynn Gorney back in the day.

They were worried to death that it was gonna just die at the box office. Indeed, the first review they got was from Daily Variety. It said, “It’s gonna be lucky to make it through Sunday of the first weekend.

So it was quite a phenomenon to wake up on Monday morning and realize that it had way more than made its money and its advertising back over the weekend and would go on for six months just nonstop.

Can you talk about your parents and how they met and what it was like being raised in a military family?

I was born in England to English parents. My mother and father separated when I was very young. This was right during World War II, so we were there in England during The Blitz and eventually I was sent off to North Wales to live with my grandparents in a safer part of the world than London.

My mother shows up one weekend with an American Air Force Colonel that she's met and that they’ve started dating and falling in love and were talking about getting married. So when the war was done he adopted me and brought us back to Birmingham, Alabama, where he lived and had a business. At that point, he had been promoted to general in the Air Force and retired from the military to run his company.

John Badham at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

I grew up with him and his very kind, nurturing influence. I would have thought that a general would be tough and mean, but that was not the case with my dad. We got to be around a lot of people who had been very heavily involved in the war, the guys who ran the Flying Tigers and Eddie Rickenbacker, who founded Eastern Air Lines.

I was around a lot of that and I guess learned good discipline and focus from him. When it came time to go into the military, I enlisted as a private in the Army. My dad said, “You know, we could probably get you a commission as second lieutenant.” I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to go and do what I had to do. I didn’t want to make a career out of the military. I had this thing about movies that I wanted to do eventually. “Movies? What's that?”

I went to college in the late 50's and then went into the military in '63 or so, when I got out of college. I went in and was in the Army National Guard. I came to California and finished up my National Guard duties out here. I'm a well-qualified medic. If you need some yellow fever shots or tetanus shots, boy, I'm your guy.

The new Blu-ray release features both the theatrical version of the movie and a new Director's Cut that adds four minutes to the original film. There's a commentary by John Badham on the theatrical version, a "70s Discopedia" and featurettes including "Catching the Fever," "Back to Bay Ridge," "Dance Like Travolta with John Cassese" and "Fever Challenge!" The DVD version contains the Director's Cut and all the extra features but omits the theatrical version and Badham's commentary.

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