John Travolta Turns 50

As luck would have it, Oprah and John turned 50 within weeks of each other.

John originally thought he would spend his big birthday quietly. Little did he know, wife Kelly Preston had cooked up a star-studded, mega-fiesta weekend in Las Cabos, Mexico to honor her husband! The 250-person "A list" included such stars as Barbra Streisand, Sylvester Stallone, Meg Ryan, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Carly Simon and Oprah. Oprah says it was a first for her—she drank tequila until dawn!

John says he had a revelation about turning the big 5-0, "You feel alive to the degree that you feel you can help others."
John Travolta

John's new blockbuster film, Ladder 49 is a tribute to heroic firefighters who put their lives on the line every day. Oprah says when she finished watching the movie, she wanted to "go right out and hug a firefighter!"

How did firefighters react to first screenings of the film?

"We already know how they're reacting," says John. "We screened the movie for fire chiefs and captains across the country, and they cry and they cheer. That's what we wanted. This is a very interesting movie because it's the first time in my career that we've done something that was for the bigger picture."
John Travolta talking about firefighters

What was it like for John to prepare for playing a real-life hero?

Says John, "I said to a firefighter in the prep for the movie, 'Why do you go in when everyone else comes out?' He said 'I don't have a choice. I can't help it. I have to.' That's the beauty of these firefighters. They're so selfless and so decent."
John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix

His performances have been called devilishly hypnotic, intense and edgy. Acting since he was a child, he honed his craft in dozens of TV shows in the 1980s and dozens of movies in the 1990s. For Ladder 49, Joaquin took his role so seriously that he trained for two months with the Baltimore Fire Department, putting out actual fires.

Joaquin admits that he was afraid of heights before he started making this film. "I got to the pole and I looked down and I couldn't do it. But you go through the training and it exposes your fears and helps you to overcome them. We ended up rappelling off a six-story tower and that really helped."
Jacinda Barrett, John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix

Called Hollywood's next big star, 32-year-old Australian Jacinda Barrett is the breakout actress of the year. After being named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People," Jacinda got her break in the movies.

The producer didn't know when he cast her, that Jacinda's father was a firefighter for 33 years.

"We spent time with the families in Baltimore," says Jacinda, "and pretty soon I realized there were a lot of similarities between American firefighters and my parents. So, I went to my mother and father and asked them to write histories of their early years of marriage and my father's early years as a firefighter. For me, it was great."
Firefighter Dino Mahaffey

For firefighter Dino Mahaffey, February 22, 2004 was just another workday. He and the men of Engine Company 21 outside of Baltimore responded to a house fire that started in clothes dryer.

When Dino was searching the house for victims, a raging wall of fire closed in on him and trapped him on the second floor. When the first floor exploded, Dino fell back, smashing his breathing gear. Just before passing out, Dino was able to send a frantic "Mayday" to the other firefighters.

Without hesitation, firefighters Kenny Ward and Phil Bird ran into the burning building. Crawling on their hands and knees through the thick, black smoke, Kenny and Phil could only search by touch. They found Dino unconscious and not breathing. Kenny and Phil carried Dino's severely burned body to a window where they lowered him to paramedics.

Dino remained in a coma for 28 days, but has since recovered and returned home.

I feel like I owe Kenny and Phil everything," Dino says. "I can't thank them enough for what they did. I mean, my kids still have their father. Kenny and Phil are real-life heroes."
Kenny Ward and Phil Bird fly on John Travolta's plane

When John Travolta heard about Phil and Kenny, he wanted to pay them an unexpected visit with his Ladder 49 castmates, Joaquin and Jacinda. We arranged for the men to be at a Detroit firehouse. They were told it was for a recruitment campaign, but surprise! John told them that in their honor, he was flying them on his private 707 plane to The Oprah Winfrey Show!

They were just amazed by John's "mansion in the sky"! Even though Phil and Kenny were having the time of their life, they still had their pal in their minds.

"This is for Dino!"
Phil Bird and Kenny Ward receive Medal of Valor for saving fellow firefighter.

Phil and Kenny didn't know it, but Dino's here! Their heroic actions earned Phil and Kenny a special honor among their peers. Dino presented it to them.

"On behalf of the Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department, it's my privilege to award to Fire Lieutenant Kenneth D. Ward and Emergency Response Technician Philip S. Bird, for great personal risk, judgment, zeal, courage and ingenuity—the Medal of Valor."

This was one of Oprah's favorite thank-yous ever! Find out what else made her list.
Jenny Stepanek honors her son, Mattie

In Summer 2004 we said goodbye to a very special friend—Mattie Stepaneck. Known as a phenomenal poet, peacemaker and philosopher, Mattie was almost 14 years old when he passed away.

In and out of the hospital for years, Mattie fought a rare form of muscular dystrophy—a disease that had already killed two brothers and a sister. With a spirit like no other, and who former president Jimmy Carter called "the most extraordinary person I have ever known in my life," Mattie the peacemaker is finally at rest.

Before Mattie passed away, his mother Jenny shared what the final moments were like with her brave, peaceful angel.

"I looked at him and said, 'Mattie, it's okay to rest,'" Jenny says. "'You are everything God created people to be, you are everything God created you to be, you have done everything you came here for, and it's okay to rest. I love you.'"