Kelly Preston, actress best known for punching Tom Cruise in the film Jerry Maguire – obituary

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Telegraph Obituaries
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Kelly Preston in 2018 - Arthur Mola/Invision/AP
Kelly Preston in 2018 - Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

Kelly Preston, who has died of breast cancer aged 57, was perhaps best known as the warmly sympathetic wife of John Travolta, but on the rare occasions on which Hollywood gave her the opportunity she also showed that she was an actress of considerable ability.

Her screen career in fact spanned 40 years, beginning with small parts in television series such as CHiPs and Hawaii Five-O. Although she lost out on the lead role in The Blue Lagoon (1980) to Brooke Shields, she started being cast in films soon after, though chiefly, it seemed, for her all-American looks.

In the mid-1980s, at the height of the teen sex-comedy boom, she appeared as the object of desire in two of the genre’s lesser exhibits, Mischief – a sort of hopeful hybrid of Footlose and Porky’s – and Secret Admirer.

With Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire - TriStar/Getty Images
With Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire - TriStar/Getty Images

For Space Camp (1986), she was that staple of cinema, the Valley Girl who is actually a genius. By then, though still playing frizzy-haired teenagers, she was already in her mid-twenties. In Twins (1988), the comedy that featured Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as improbable siblings, she at least got to be an adult as the former’s love interest (also a twin), but later complained about the “postage-stamp” dresses she was made to wear.

When she returned to the screen in the mid-1990s, her standing in the industry arguably enhanced by her marriage to a post-Pulp Fiction Travolta, it was in her most notable role. This was in Jerry Maguire (1996) as Avery Bishop, the overachieving girlfriend of the titular sports agent.

Opposite Tom Cruise, one of cinema’s most watchable presences, Kelly Preston more than held her own. This was most gloriously true of their climatic scene – “I don’t cry at movies, I don’t gush over babies!” – where she clobbers Jerry as, stricken with doubts about his life, he breaks up with her (“Loser!”).

She was born Kelly Kamalelehua Smith in Honolulu, Hawaii, on October 13 1962. Her father, who was employed by an agricultural business, drowned when she was three. Her mother, who worked in the mental health sector, remarried, to Peter Palzis, whose surname Kelly took when he adopted her.

With John Travolta in 1991 at the opening of the Church of Scientology Museum in Los Angeles - Joan Adlen/Getty Images
With John Travolta in 1991 at the opening of the Church of Scientology Museum in Los Angeles - Joan Adlen/Getty Images

His work as a personnel director took the family to Iraq and Australia for parts of her childhood, and she subsequently studied drama at the University of Southern California. By her mid-teens, however, she had begun working as a model and as an actress in commercials, using Preston as a stage name.

She and Travolta met on the set of The Experts (1989), a spy comedy which bombed but left the two smitten. Kelly Preston had previously dated George Clooney, and after a short marriage to the actor Kevin Gage had become engaged to Charlie Sheen. She denied reports that their relationship came to an end after he shot and wounded her in the arm.

Kelly Preston in 1989 - Deborah Feingold/Getty Images
Kelly Preston in 1989 - Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

Travolta proposed to her in Gstaad and, having flown there on Concorde, they were married in Paris, at the Hotel Crillon in 1991. It transpired, however, that as the ceremony was conducted by a fellow Scientologist – the couple were both long-standing members of the movement – their marriage was not valid in America, and they had to retake their vows in Florida. The pair’s homes included one in the state which incorporates parking for the fleet of aircraft that Travolta flies himself, among them a Boeing 707.

When not bringing up their children, Kelly Preston appeared in largely minor roles in more than 40 other films, for instance in the would-be teen romcom What a Girl Wants, with Colin Firth, and The Cat in the Hat (both 2003).

She also featured in television series such as Medium and CSI:Cyber, but was perhaps most widely seen in the video accompanying the rock group Maroon 5’s song She Will Be Loved (2004), in which she was in a mother-daughter love triangle. Clips of the track have racked up more than half a billion views online.

Just before his success in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta had been in a relationship with the actress Diana Hyland when she was dying from breast cancer. He and Kelly Preston suffered more tragedy in 2009, when their 16-year-old son Jett, who was autistic, died when they were on holiday in the Bahamas, reportedly after suffering a seizure.

With John Travolta in the adaptation of L Ron Hubbard's novel Battlefield Earth - STR New/Reuters
With John Travolta in the adaptation of L Ron Hubbard's novel Battlefield Earth - STR New/Reuters

An alleged plot to extort money from the couple by exploiting the circumstances of Jett’s death led to criminal charges against several defendants, but ended in a mistrial. Kelly Preston dealt with this, as she did with the inevitable rumours about the two, with aplomb and seeming candour.

Some felt, however, that John Travolta asked too much of her loyalty when casting her alongside him in his critically excoriated films Battlefield Earth (2000, based on a novel by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology) and Gotti (2018).

He survives her together with their daughter, Ella Bleu, and son, Benjamin.

Kelly Preston, born October 13 1962, died July 12 2020