How a closeted gay producer made ‘Saturday Night Fever’ a hit film — largely thanks to its soundtrack

​Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser ​

Robert Stigwood (far left) attends a dinner aboard the Jezebel yacht (1982). Photo by Scott Stallard/Courtesy HBO.

“Saturday Night Fever” (1977) was a wildly popular film about Brooklyn’s underground disco scene. It inspired disco mania throughout the country, and the soundtrack sold more than 40 million copies and went platinum 16 times, giving the world hits like “Night Fever,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and “If I Can't Have You.” 

Australian entrepreneur Robert Stigwood came up with the film, based on a 1976 New York magazine article. His vision for film, music, and theater forever changed show business. He helped make John Travolta a household name with “Saturday Night Fever” and later “Grease” the movie. He produced the Broadway shows “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and managed Cream, The Bee Gees, and Eric Clapton.

During the 1970s, it seemed like everything Stigwood touched turned to gold. But then a fierce backlash to disco music capped his career. 

His story is captured in the new HBO documentary “Mr. Saturday Night,” directed by John Maggio. 

Stigwood, a closeted gay man in the 1960s who came to New York from London, was a risk-taking producer who had his hands in everything but didn’t seek a ton of public attention, Maggio tells Press Play.

He cast John Travolta after seeing the young actor on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” a TV sitcom. “He saw Travolta and thought, ‘This guy's gonna be a movie star,’ which was … unheard of at that time. TV stars didn't become matinee idols overnight. At that time, it was a huge risk. And he signed it for $1 million, which was a huge sum then, for three pictures.”

And Stigwood released the soundtrack before the movie itself. Maggio says, “That soundtrack really sold millions before any theater had played ‘Saturday  Night Fever.’ … There was something about that alchemy of the soundtrack, priming them. And then by the time they got to the movie theater, you recognized that there was some kind of magic going on in those dance scenes for what would turn out to be … a very dark movie.”

Maggio says Stigwood made a ton of money thanks to the film — and so did everyone else involved. He was living large — the flower bill at his New York office was $15,000 per week, and the people he lavished with his money were able to spend weekends in Rio. 

The director points out a moment at the end of the film where Stigwood is alone on his massive yacht, sunburned, and eating sausages and eggs with HP sauce. “HP sauce marks you as someone who hasn't quite achieved that kind of British royalty, that kind of British success, even though he hung out with royalty. He’s never quite in the club. And I think that always kind of stayed with them. I think that's what motivated him to be a success, and then at the end of his life, I think it was also … a tinge of sadness to me.”

He notes that Stigwood was very powerful at the end of the 1970s but wasn’t an outsized Hollywood figure. Then in the 1980s, he lost interest in having big hits. “And then he just faded away.”

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