The Time When Robert Gagno Was Mistaken for John Travolta's Son

This week's cover story is a profile of Robert Gagno, a 22-year-old autistic savant from Vancouver, B.C. who's one of the best pinball players in the world. You might think you've never seen Robert. But if you've ever watched Look Who's Talking Too then you'd be wrong.

Back in 1989, Robert's mom Kathy kept hearing radio ads promoting a casting call for baby boys with blond hair and blue eyes, an apt description of her youngest son. Having spent a couple weeks with Kathy, I can attest to the fact that she's nothing like one of those childhood-destroying stage moms you might see on TLC. What she is, however, is intensely curious about a lot of different things, including film, so she figured there was no harm in taking Robert to the audition.

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Young Robert with his co-star Kirstie Alley.
When Kathy arrived at the Vancouver movie studio she thought Robert's odds were long. The huge room was filled with hundreds of little boys, all of them blue-eyed and blond just like hers. Kathy also had another disadvantage: at 18 months, Robert was a little younger than the 24-month-olds the casting call people said they were looking for.

Kathy sat holding a bottle to Robert's mouth, trying to shake the feeling that people were staring at her and her boy. She's got a mild case of social anxiety disorder, so at first she thought she was just being paranoid. But then Kathy noticed that it wasn't just other moms staring, it was also the people running the audition, and suddenly she and Robert were being jumped to the front of the line and ushered to a room in the back.

At less than two years old, Robert was still a year away from being diagnosed as autistic. But Kathy had already seen signs that her son was different, especially in the way that, unlike other kids, he didn't cry if left alone with strangers.

In hindsight, Kathy would come to see Robert's lack of attachment anxiety as an obvious sign of his autism. But at the time it was just one of many things that made Robert Robert, and it made him different in a way that was perfect for the part.

While other kids cried and tried to wriggle free when one of the burlier members of the crew carried them away from their parents, Robert just smiled and played with the man's bushy beard. The kid was a natural.

After five call-backs, Robert was finally offered the role of body-double for Mikey, the main baby. So any time you see Mikey from behind or being held by his "mom" Kirstie Alley? That's Robert. Which brings us to the time when he was mistaken for John Travolta's son.

Kathy was a huge Travolta fan. The first time they met she was crouched down playing with Robert when he came up behind her.

"I remember thinking that if I stood up I was going to faint," she says. "So I just squatted there for three minutes. My legs were like spaghetti."

Kathy's "oh my god a movie star" feeling lasted for a few weeks. But like most movies, "Look Who's Talking Too" took a long time to shoot. So by the time Robert and Travolta were set to film a scene on a downtown Vancouver street, wherein Travolta the dad picks up Robert his son in a fatherly embrace, Kathy had gotten so used to seeing Travolta as just another guy on set that she didn't think twice when he handed Robert off to her between takes.

Kathy walked Robert close to where the spectators held back by barriers were watching when one of them asked, "Is that John Travolta's son?"

"Why would you think that?" she said, not realizing that the kid-handoff she'd just executed with Travolta probably looked natural enough to be mistaken for one in real life.

"Because you're John Travolta's wife," replied the onlooker.

Kathy can't remember exactly what she said to this. But as the high schooler who'd once swooned every time Vinnie Barbarino came swaggering on to her television screen, she does remember the gist of her response.

"I didn't deny it," she says.

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Like looking into a mirror. A mirror that makes one of the two people looking at it look like a baby.

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