The death of Kelly Preston, 57, on Sunday, reminded me of the first time I met her and husband John Travolta.
It was 2007 and I was covering Travolta for the Ocala Star-Banner. Travolta was about to open his new movie “Wild Hogs.” The couple held a charity opening for the film in Ocala, near their Anthony home on Jumbolair Aviation Estates.
So, I took my notebook and expected the usual Hollywood shuffle from a couple of glamorous, rich, world famous movie stars dealing with a local reporter.
You know the routine: canned talking points, rehearsed answers and commercial spin in the place of humanity.
Well, I was wrong.
At the risk of cliché, John Travolta and Kelly Preston came across as regular people and likable human beings.
I discovered that under their movie star skin, they were — strange as it sounds — just like you and me.
For me, it was a lesson in life and journalism. Don’t pre-judge anybody, because you never know when one of the biggest stars in the world gets his kicks hanging out at Wal-Mart.
“Sure, John loves to go to Wal-Mart, but he can’t go to Wal-Mart,” Preston told me. “When John goes to Wal-Mart, it’s like (raises her voice as a store announcement): ‘John Travolta on aisle six.’ It’s crazy, people gather all around. He can’t last five minutes.”
Preston couldn’t resist laughing at her own words. But beneath the laughter was the essence of this power couple. They found life in small-town Central Florida a refuge from gossipy glitz and the unrelenting glare of Hollywood glitterati.
“I love rubbing elbows with life and real people,” John Travolta told me. “I don’t like living in ivory towers. That just doesn’t work for me, and it never has. I tried it and it doesn’t make me happy.”
He and his wife didn’t have to put on any airs or acts on the streets of Anthony or Ocala.
“We love it here because we can have a normal life,” Preston said. “John loves to go to Denny’s and Target, but that’s how life is here.”
They came to Anthony around 2003. Beyond the privacy and normalcy, Preston and Travolta found something just as vital: a sense of community.
“People here are very caring and very down to earth,” Preston said. “They have been wonderful and supportive to us. Most of the time, they respect our privacy.
“(Also), this is the best place for our children. They can go outside, and they have their freedom and their own space.”
The tranquil, peaceful life in Anthony, however, could not shield the couple from life’s tragic consequences.
The couple, at that time, had two children: a son, Jett, then 14, and daughter Ella, then 6.
In 2009, Jett, 16, died of a seizure.
I remember a sad January day in 2009, as I stood outside near the Travolta property in Anthony covering the private memorial service being held inside.
I was told by a close family source that John Travolta and Kelly Preston both kissed a large photograph of their son Jett at the close of the emotional service.
Many big stars were in attendance, including Lisa Marie Presley; Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood; actors Forest Whitaker, James Gandolfini, Kirstie Allie; and retired baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
Once again it hit me: Celebrities are just people. They live and they die. They laugh and they cry. They share the joy of life and look for solace from friends when death casts its shadow.
“You know, it’s horrific,” Tom Cruise told ABC television earlier in that day, “Both of them are doting parents. Just wonderful people.
“John just adored him; both of his children,” Cruise continued. “It’s something that I don’t have the words for.”
Standing outside Jumbolair Estates that day, watching helicopters and limousines come and go, while the television cameras followed every move, it dawned on me that status, wealth, fame or stardom offers no sanctuary from outrageous fortune.
Like two years ago, when Kelly Preston was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple, who married in 1991, had another son, Benjamin, who was born eight years ago.
Cancer didn’t care.
Kelly Preston died Sunday and John Travolta offered these words on Instagram:
“It is with a very heavy heart that I inform you that my beautiful wife Kelly has lost her two year battle with breast cancer. She fought a courageous fight with the love and support of so many. My family and I will forever be grateful to her doctors and nurses…as well as her many friends and loved ones who have been by her side. Kelly’s love and life will always be remembered.”
Sometimes, as a reporter, you feel like an accidental tourist. You drift in and out of people’s lives, writing about their most joyous and saddest moments. And you have to sum it all up on a keyboard, while straddling a line between objectivity and heartache.
I wasn’t close to Kelly Preston or John Travolta, but I met them both and liked them both. Together, they radiated a sense of fun, love and commitment. It wasn’t an act.
We live in dark times, when death and disease are common denominators, regardless of wealth, fame or social standing. It’s a moment to cope and contemplate loss, but we must keep alive the memories of good times and good people.
I won’t forget Kelly Preston.
Villager Tony Violanti is a long-time entertainment writer and part of the Villages-News.com team.