The Sylvester Stallone Story: ‘Rocky’ KOs Movie Biz

“I was so goddamned defensive because people had always considered me a rather muscular mono-minded greasy-teeshirt slimy-type neighborhood guinea.”



We are very tight on the sensual face of a young man. His mouth alternately curls, sneers, pulls tight in a grin as he talks. His dark eyes glitter, go distant in repose, grow old as tombs in the young face. Sometimes the face freezes, as if poised for sex or perjury. This is our hero, SYLVESTER STALLONE, called “SLY” by his friends. He is an actor. He is a writer. He has just finished starring in an extraordinary prizefight film called Rocky, which he has written for himself. The film will open in New York on November 21. Preview audiences have been ecstatic. They say he will win the Academy Award.

STALLONE: Yeah, Rocky. I wanted it to be real, but I also wanted to take it beyond just realism. To add fantasy. In real life, the climactic fight between Rocky and the champion probably would not have gone on that long. I mean, they were both basket cases. But for dramatic purposes, I wanted to make it an actual physical poem in a sense; there is a meter, a rhythm, It’s like a Mother Goose tale written in concrete.


The camera pulls back to reveal Stallone sitting over a lunch of vegetables: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes. His neck is thick. He has the developed chest and upper arms of a weight lifter, which he is. He doesn’t smoke.

STALLONE: That’s where I see the drive of my writing. I want to bring forth these toys. I want to give people those visions they had when they were younger and everything seemed more playful and they were all more vulnerable. The All-American thing. Why not? I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and it was great: The music was great, the food was great, everything was fine. They may be false images and idols, but I want to drag them back to the foreground because without a sense of optimism, without a sense of a positive future, it’s just …


Stallone continues to talk as we see brief glimpses, of him growing up with his family and friends. The early years are in Hell’s Kitchen. Then a move to Silver Springs, Maryland, where his parents open a gymnasium, then to a dreary section of Philadelphia. The parents bicker. There are cuts of young Sylvester in a variety of foster homes. The parents divorce when he is 11. Children laugh at young Sylvester, because he so thin he even develops rickets. He becomes a solitary, lifting weights to build up the spindly body and providing himself a private form of meditation. At 16, he has been kicked out of 14 schools; his father becomes rich, owner of a chain of beauty shops. His mother is still around. Stallone watches his friends and sees their lives start to settle.

STALLONE: They just said to themselves, you know I’m 22 years old, and I’m gonna get married to some girl named Dollie Mud and retire at Takawana Street and live under the bridge and smell fish for the rest of my life. It just inflamed me that people could start preparing their spiritual coffins at such a tender age. I didn’t want to go that route in my life or in Rocky. You have to try. That’s what Rocky does. It’s his golden shot and he’s gonna take it. It took me a long time to shed my heavy pessimism. I carried it around like a banner for years. I was so goddamned defensive because people had always con­sidered me a rather muscular mono-minded greasy-teeshirt slimy-type neighborhood guinea. One thing was true: I had always worked on the physical aspect because I figured that my body was just a device to carry my brain around, but if I’m going to walk around, I’d like to have some nice equipment. That’s all. But some people figured right away that the larger your arm gets the more diminished your mind. I hope I’ve put some chips in that myth. [He noshes cucumbers and sips from iced tea.] Kids didn’t articulate it that much. I mean, they’d just say things like, ‘Ooohhh, here comes the tough guy. Please don’t hit me, please’ — and I’d just be walking into a room. The teachers would be part of it. They would say, ‘Okay, today we are having a fire drill. Everyone goes out and Stallone, you hold the door.’ During recess, I was the guy who carried the equipment out. That type … I only lived a year in Philly. I worked for a pizza company there, living with my parents, who were, I think, trying to perfect the art of estrangement. Every other day they were on the move. They’d check out and then come back, and I’d wander around Philly.

Stallone looks out the window into the sunlight. We are on the lot at M-G-M in Culver City. Technicians, and extras walk by in the hazy, polluted sunlight. Stallone’s brown eyes go soft with memory.

STALLONE: I would ride the subway. And when you sit in the subway and look through the windows it’s almost like a picture screen. You see all of these images whipping by. And I kept looking over the rail and seeing this one place, this little microcosm, this teeming-humanity kind of a place called Fishtown. It was never getting better. It was like someone pulled the plug on this place. And I thought, what about the people that are in it? Obviously they don’t care, they’re going down with it. And it was like a big balloon going down, an entire neighborhood starting to deflate. So, one day, I took a walk down there and, man, I tell you. I met or four women on the corner and they might have had four teeth between them. The were a mural of homemade tattoos, and they had cauliflower ears that looked like matching sets of raw oysters. And all that hit me. All of that. It ended up in Rocky. But I still hadn’t thought of writing. That was later.


A younger Stallone moves through a variety of bucolic Swiss scenes. He is a weight lifting instructor, a jock, living in an all-girls school in Leysin. The mountains look as if they had been scrubbed that morning by a half-million industrious Swiss.

STALLONE: [Smiling.] My mother had a lot to do with what happened. She was always a woman who was out of place and time. She was a very flamboyant person and still is. But she married my father and was forced to live in a very provincial town in Maryland, and I think a lot of her of frustrations for the theatre, and the life of the celebrity, returned to me. So, from early on, I became what is known as an incorrigible child. I wasn’t cool; I wasn’t a bully. But I did the thing with the air out of the tires, the stolen hubcaps, fights here and there. But nothing like throwing gasoline on a woodchuck —that wasn’t my style. But then I went to Switzerland. I got there because my mother was a great con-artist and she got me in as a physical instructor. This was in a school for extremely wealthy and professsionally spoiled children. The Shah of Iran’s kid. The kids from the Hershey fortune, the kid whose father owned the Kimberly mines. The town was like one of those small objects you buy at the zoo for $4 and you turn it over and the snowflakes come down. I didn’t want to ski. I just wanted to get loaded and play pinball machines. Essentially, I was the imported American sheep dog for these little lambs, these girls. I mean it. My room was strategically located at the end of the dorm, and I was supposed to keep away these hordes of marauding mountain climbers. I mean it, they would come from England and Scotland and these places and, during the day, they would climb mountains, and at night it was like Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. They would climb the frigging building to get to these girls. It was my job to chase these guys away and yell profanities, like, ‘I’ll get your mother for this!’ and crap like that. Until I realized it was more profitable the other way. I mean, one of the girls would say, ‘Listen, for 100 francs, maybe you could go blind for five minutes …’ By the end of that year, I had gone blind so often I could pay my own tuition — $6000 — and Prince Paul of Ethiopia and I had become such good buddies that we opened a clandestine, after-hours secret hamburger restaurant. I came back later like the most gauche American tourist. Ten watches, you know … But something happened there: they needed a body for a play. A warm body. I mean, if you could breathe, you got the part. It was Biff, in Death of a Salesman, and I realized, hey


The images of snow, pine, mountains, rich girls, pinball, and Swiss watches dissolve into the flat, hot beaches of Florida under a scalding sun. Stallone moves through the campus of the University of Miami.

STALLONE: When I came back to America. I went to a place that was just the opposite. What is Florida? One inch above sea level? [Pause] Boy, was that bad. I learned it is actually possible to function without brain waves for two years. I was signed up in acting classes, and they said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep your night job. You don’t have it. They don’t need surfers on Broadway.’ In classes they would do scenes. But I didn’t want to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar Named Desire. Everyone who came in the door was Brando. He’s three feet tall and he’s doing Brando. Another guy is nine feet tall, with one arm, and he’s doing Brando. Everyone is doing Brando there. But I had started to think that the proof of whether you’ve got a real artistic bent is whether you can write your own material and perform it. Well, I wrote some things, and they immediately took offense. They said, ‘Forget it. You stink. Why don’t you try for a scholarship in Pool Service or something?’ They said it was all over. So I hung around a while and then went home.


Stallone now moves through a darker landscape: fire escapes, dirty streets, a walkup apartment, roaches, and booking offices. We see him move through audition after audition. We also see him start to write.

STALLONE: After a while I just jumped in my ’61 Hupmobile, or whatever it was — something brown with four wheels. I head for New York and just molt for four months. Then I had my first audition. It was for Sal Mineo, for Fortune in Men’s Eyes. And he says, ‘You’re not cool enough for this part. You’re not tough enough.’ [Pause] Here’s a guy I could actually maneuver into a square knot, and he’s telling me I’m not tough enough. Well, the rejection process started weakening my confidence. I was 22. I was realistic. I would say to my friends, ‘What happens if you are going to fail? Did you ever think about failure?’ They’d say, ‘No. No. I can’t bear it. It’s impossible, man, it’s not … no way!” Right then I said to myself, They have no options. But the only option I had at that point was writing. [Pause] I said to myself, I am failing at acting; I might as well fail at writing, too. I might as well make it a Triple Crown of failure. And I started to write. It wasn’t as difficult as I was told it would be. I was always fairly glib. The William Morris Agency took me on — as a writer. They wouldn’t touch me as an actor, although I would go up there with a big hat, a poncho, anything to show I wasn’t a bookmark. But they said, ‘no. He’s a writer. Writer mentality.’ So rather than do a swan dive out the 19th floor in frustration, I decided to be a writer for a while. I must have written a million words; two novels, in a Dos Passos style, very quick, lot of dialogue, not much description of why a door is peeling. They weren’t too good and I started writing nothing but scripts and learning all the time.


Stallone looks like a Salvation Army reject, turns into 56th Street, stops in front of posh French restaurant.

STALLONE: The second script I wrote was called Promises Written on Water — how’s that for pretension? It was a title that had nothing to do with the story, but I liked the sound of the words. You know. I was 23. Anyway, Otto Preminger was going to option it and he invited me to lunch at this upper-crust French restaurant. I had never been in such a place. They didn’t even want me to walk in front of the place, I’m in such bad shape by then. I mean I’m living in some rundown hotel where everyone is short. I don’t know why, but they are all short and carry canes … So I went in there and met with Preminger. And, after a while, he said, ‘I would like to do this script. Now, as a writer what would you want a week to do the rewrite?’ My esteem was so low — my clothes smell, and I smell — and I think about it, and I say, “Seventy dollars?” Well, his chocolate mousse shot out of both nostrils. He said: ‘Vot? Seventy dollars?” [Laughs] Well, that was such a turnoff to him that he never did option the screen play. [Laughs] And, you know, I was pushing! I would’ve settled for 40.


We see Stallone move through a variety of jobs: chopping fish in a market, working in the zoo at Central Park, standing outside Walter Reade’s Baronet Theatre in an usher’s uniform, taking a few bucks to slip people in to see M*A*S*H*. He sells a couple of scripts to TV’s Touch of Evil series. Then we see him begin to get very small acting jobs: in Woody Allen’s Bananas, in Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jack Lemmon. And he gets his first starring role: in Marty Davidson’s Lords of Flatbush. He is beefier than he is now, playing a leather-jacketed punk with great swagger and street style.

STALLONE: I just had withdrawn into my apartment in New York and said to hell with it, I will write for other people. And that’s the way it was. [Pause.] Until a friend called me up one day and asked me to help him audition for this picture, The Lords of Flatbush. So I helped him. I got the role and he didn’t. So I scraped the paint off the windows and let the sunlight in. I got my phone connected. Then, when Lords of Flatbush came out, I thought, Hey, I should at least get a walk-on on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But nothing! Zippo. Zippo. [Pause.] So it was another two years of hot and cold running rats, and roach souffles. But I kept writing. My wife, Sasha, would type them. It was like a factory. I just kept at it. I think weight lifting helped give me the concentration, the discipline, and I kept going.


But we see Stallone start to get some jobs: he plays Frank Nitti to Ben Gazzara’s Capone ; he is in Death Race 2000. He leaves New York and settles into California. Still writing. He and his wife live in a tiny apartment, in the land of swimming pools, studios, Hollywood trade papers, and thwarted hopes. We see him finally, at one point, holding a finished copy of his latest script. It’s called Rocky. This is July 1975. Violins begin to build.

STALLONE: I had formulated the story in my mind for several months, so it didn’t take me long to put it on paper. Three or four days. I knew where I was going. I mean, I had already written it 10 times up here [Taps his head.] I knew the time was right for a film about heroes, and the ring was the place for — well, they’re like the modern-day gladiators. And I brought it over to Chartoff and Winkler and I find myself sitting with Gene Kirkwood — he ‘s a producer who just went to work for them — beside the pool, and he ‘s reading it. He flips every page and he says terrificterrificterrific, terrific, terrific, you hear “terrific” 126 times. I’m just waiting. And he finishes and says, ‘Never make it. Bad. It’s a good script, but it’ll never get made.’ [Pause.] I was waiting for that and, of course, I was gonna drown him right there. Just tie him to his beach chair and submerge him. But he ran it into Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. I knew their reputation. They were very tough, astute businessmen. Give me facts, give me figures. So I gave them the script and they gave me a figure. The figure was around a hundred grand. He breathes out hard. At that time, I had about $106 in the bank. And we had a baby on the way and a dog who was beginning to eat my television. So the script went around to several of the important people at the United Artists hierarchy and they said: ‘Okay we like it — Burt Reynolds is perfect !’ It was like someone put my heart through a wringer. I said, You don’t understand, I wrote this for me, I tailored it, I sent this script to a perfect Italian tailor, perfect dimensions. It’s me. No. It’s all me. No. It’s mine. [Longer pause, remembering what happened, savoring it.] Another offer came back. $180,000. Right away, the eye fell out — bong! — the ear filled up, my body started to function very oddly with these figures. A hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Christ … Then an outside source, who will remain nameless because of embarrassment, wanted Ryan O’Neal in it, and offered in excess of $250,000, close to $300, 000. For a script! [A beat.] But what do I play in it? Well, you play nobody. You play a memory. You disap­pear. You take a vacation to Colma and that’s it. You just take the money and run. And I knew if I did that, then the whole thing I wrote about in the script was totally false, too. The picture was about taking that golden shot, in the face of adversity. So I hung on and hung on and hung on, and they realized that this guy’s not gonna give it up. Finally, they said, ‘Well, if you can make a movie for a million, not a penny more … ‘


So, they make the film. We see Stallone working with director John Avildsen, a scrappy bantam of a man who in Stallone’s phrase “could get knocked out by a punching bag,” but fights for every foot of film. We see Stallone in a gymnasium in the San Fernando Valley, training to get in shape for the actual shooting. We see Avildsen and Stallone reject the conventional staged fights of the stuntman, and Stallone choreographing the entire climactic fight: punch by punch, on 14 pages of tightly written script. We see them shoot four and-a half days of exteriors in Philadelphia, and then a return to Los Angeles for interiors, the only way to make the grueling 28-day shooting schedule. Off-camera, Stallone fights every day with producer Bob Chartoff and then paints his portrait, in harsh black and white; the picture now hangs in Chartoff”s office. For two straight days, 12 hours a day, they shoot the film’s final fight, in which Rocky, the unknown club fighter called “The Italian Stallion” gets a shot at the crown of an Ali-like heavy-weight champion of the world. Finally, the film is finished And it is shown in screening rooms in California, and at a sneak preview at the Baronet, where Stallone was once an usher, and the crowds love it. It’s one of the best boxing movies ever made — maybe the best — but it has other qualities: heart, humor, intelligence, optimism, and a superb performance by Stallone. The word is every­where. Stallone is a star. A new star. As big as Brando, maybe. And a writer, too Maybe even a director. But big. The picture will be huge. The violins build and build. And we


Stallone is now going through another of the many interviews that will be part of his life in the years ahead In a series of cuts, we hear him talk on a number of sub­jects.

SCREENWRITING: I believe that writers are the whole backbone of the movies. They are the Whale. A great actor can’t carry a bad script, but a great script can carry all unknown actors.

TELEVISION: TV has really hit puberty. The hair is beginning to grow and curl, the testicles have just about dropped. I think it’s going to get a little mucle now.

THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN MOVIE RENAISSANCE (DeNiro, Coppola, Scorsese, Pacino, Vaccaro): Look, I’m only half Italian. But, do you think it’s pretentious to say that Italians as actors and artists tend to be more passionate than their Anglo counterparts? They seem to have a different energy. Jesus, I don’t want to offend anybody, but they just seem to be the symbols of today’s man — today’s urban man.

OTHER ACTORS: If I’m ever in a position to do anything about it, I will always go with unknowns. ‘Cause there’s nothing more shattering than to know that you’re ready, you’ re primed — it’s like you’re ready for that major fight — and it’s being canceled and canceled and canceled. That’s like Purgatory. You end up in this vortex of self-destruction, with a chafed elbow, leaning against some bar. Telling about how it could have been. “I could have been a contender …”

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: I’m going to promote the film until February, and then I’m going to do this film — about Edgar Allen Poe — which is in a classical category. It will once and for all get me out of the goon category. I hope. The goon category isn’t bad. But I just don’t want to be cemented into that category forever. It’s like The Cask of Amontillado. Aaaargh …

It is late now. Stallone appears talked out. He gets up, looks out into the lot, and sees Robert DeNiro walking by, with tissues under his chin to keep his make-up from smearing his shirt. DeNiro is making New York, New York, on another part of the M-G-M lot. Martin Scorsese is directing him and Liza Minnelli. Stallone smiles. He doesn’t comment. He turns, the eyes twinkling.

STALLONE: You know what I want to be? Boy From Hollywood Makes Good! I’m serious. I live here now. It’s always Boy From Washington, D.C. Guy From Idaho Makes It In Tinseltown. [Laughs.] I want Boy From Hollywood Makes Good.

He smiles. John Avildsen is waiting in the other room. Irwin Winkler steps in to say hello. They all look pleased. There are posters commg for Rocky. Good news about previews. Stallone laughs as we


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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 8, 2020