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And cut! Sylvester Stallone’s journey from soft porn to «Rocky»

«Rocky» is over forty years old and remains one of the best sports movies of all times. The man behind this cinema classic has lead a life that’s worth a movie of its own: Sylvester Stallone.

«Rocky» hit the cinemas in 1976. It's a story about courage, willpower and believing you can achieve anything you want. It's the story of an underdog nobody believes in. But he fights and wins.

«Rocky» reflects the life of Sylvester Stallone. He might be a global icon today, but in 1976, his life was anything but easy. Stallone started off in the gutter, was on the brink of resignation and doing shady business – and he ended up at the very top of the world.

This is his story.

The childhood

Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone was born in New York in 1946 to an Italian-American family. Due to complications during birth, two delivery forceps had to be used, which caused nerve damage to the baby boy. Stallone's lower left half of the face remained paralysed. Teachers and friends advised him not to pursue an acting career.

His father, a hairdresser, was forced to change his original Italian family name «Staglione» into a more English-sounding name to avoid being confused with members of New York's underground scene. His mother, an astrologer, sent her flat-footed son to a tap dance school at the age of four. In 1955, his parents got divorced.

Sylvester Stallone, date unknown.

Stallone grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. His grades at school were so poor that his mother made him take up a summer job at her own beauty salon at the age of 16. At 18, Stallone was a successful football player and trained for two years at the American College of Switzerland in Leysin (VD). Back in the US, he enrolled at the University of Miami and attempted to become an author.

Having learned how to write film scripts, Stallone decided to leave university at the age of 24 before graduating. He decided to become an actor – a decision that almost ended in bankruptcy and crime.

Years of misery

Driven by pure desperation and need for money, Stallone took on his first leading role in the softcore porn «The Party at Kitty and Stud’s» in 1970. In some countries, this film goes by the alternative title «The Italian Stallion» – a name Stallone takes up again in «Rocky».

The trailer to Stallone’s soft porn movie was released in 1970.

Shooting «The Party at Kitty and Stud's» took two days. Stallone's wage? 400 dollars. Not enough. A few weeks earlier, his apartment had been vacated because he'd failed to pay the rent. He'd been living on the streets for more than three weeks when he saw the soft porn film role advertised at the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. Many years later, he said in the September issue of Playboy magazine:

I was starving when I did it. I mean, I was desperate. You know, when you're hungry, you do a lot of things you ordinarily wouldn't do. In a way, though, it was either do that movie or rob someone.
Sylvester Stallone, Playboy magazine, September 1976

But his situation didn't improve. It got worse. He was 26 years old, broke, owned two pairs of trousers that hardly fit him, shoes that had holes and his «dreams of being successful were as far away as the sun».

But I had my dog, Butkus, my best friend, my confidant, who always laughed at my jokes, and put up with my moods, and was the only living thing that loved me for who I was!
Sylvester Stallone, Instagram, March 2017

Shortly later, he was forced to sell Butkus for only 50 dollars because he could no longer afford to buy dog food. Stallone stood in front of a liquor store for days until someone agreed to buy the dog off him.

Sylvester Stallone and Butkus, 1972

Stallone was at the very end of his rope.

The fight

Change of scene: In March 1975, the title fight between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali took place. At the time, Wepner was a no-name boxer who could take quite a few hits. He usually ended fights defeated and with a bloody face. He wasn't successful, but his will and perseverance made him popular. So popular that he was given a title fight against Ali.

Everyone was convinced Wepner wouldn't last three rounds. But he went into isolation and trained during nine weeks. To everyone's great surprise, Wepner held his own in the fight against Ali: In the ninth round, he even scored a direct punch into the ribs of legend. The referee started to give Ali the count. Had the no-name just beaten the World Champion?

Minute 4:50. The moment when Ali suffered a knockdown for the third time in his career – against a no-name.

Ali got up when the referee reached number 7. The fight continued. In the end, Wepner lost – in the fifteenth and final round and by technical knockout. He may have suffered one more defeat, but he left the ring with his head held high and at his own strength. Wepner became an overnight sensation and won over the masses.

Wepner fighting Ali

Stallone was sat in the audience at this memorable fight. He was so inspired that he handed in the finished script for «Rocky» three days later. He basically exchanged the names Muhammad Ali with Apollo Creed and Chuck Wepner with Rocky Balboa.

The eye of the tiger

Stallone tried to sell the script to film studios with himself in the leading role. United Artists offered him 125,000 dollars, but wanted to hire Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford instead of Stallone.

Burt Reynolds, 1976
Robert Redford, 1976

Despite being in desperate need for money, Stallone refused this offer. He was adamant in playing the leading role himself. The studio bosses increased their offer to 325,000 dollars. Stallone rejected again.

Finally, the studio bosses gave in. But only under one condition: Stallone had to accept a total wage of 35,000 dollars. Stallone agreed, but negotiated to receive ten percent of all box-office earnings.

That was the turning point. And Stallone knew exactly what he wanted to do next: Immediately after signing the contract – and before filming began – he tracked down the stranger he'd sold his dog to and bought Butkus back for 3,000 dollars. The film was then shot with a budget of only one million dollars in 28 days – and Butkus even made it into one of the scenes.

Sylvester Stallone and Butkus, 1976

The legend

«Rocky» marked a milestone in film history. It earned over 225 million dollars and was nominated for ten Oscars, including Stallone in the categories «Best Actor» and «Best Original Screenplay». «Rocky» won the Oscar for «Best Picture», «Best Director» and «Best Film Editing». Almost forty years later, Stallone was again nominated for the Oscar. This time as «Best Supporting Actor» in the movie «Creed». Of course, in his role as Rocky Balboa.

There's one scene that everybody in Western culture remembers: Rocky in a grey tracksuit ascending the steps to Philadelphia's Museum of Art. And Bill Contis’s title melody playing in the background. He arrives at the top and lifts his fists up into the air – his intense training has payed off. For part three of the film series, a life-size statue of Rocky was built. The initial plan was to remove it once filming was over. But the city residents wouldn't let that happen.

Rocky belongs to Philadelphia. Philadelphia belongs to Rocky.

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User

Luca Fontana, Zurich

  • Editor
I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»

7 comments

3000 / 3000 characters

User l.ridolfo

Danke Luca. Ein sehr schöner Bericht. Eine Geschichte die zeigt, das man nie aufgegen sollte. Luigi

29.11.2018
User Captcha

Schöner Artikel. Habe diese Geschichte vor Jahren mal gelesen. Eine unglaubliche Geschichte, die schon selbst einen Film wert wäre.

29.11.2018
User Atalantanaa

Journalistische Champions League - der reisserische Titel ist ja mal ein Eye-Catcher ;).

Sehr gut geschrieben; ich habe die Filme bisher nie gesehen, werde das aber nach dem Lesen dieses Artikels nachholen. Klingt sehr spannend und ich denke, dass eine Verfilmung von Stallones Leben (ob jetzt Spielfilm oder ehe Doku mässig) sehr spannend wäre.

Danke!

29.11.2018
User Anonymous

Rocky 1-4 haben mir sehr gut gefallen danach ging es bergab.

01.12.2018
Answer
User Anonymous

Interessanter Bericht. Im Gegensatz zu Jean-Claude Van Damme und Steven Seagal die nur noch Unterirdische Filme machen, ist Sylvester Stallone auch weiterhin erfolgreich.

01.12.2018
User Anonymous

sehr guter Schreibstil! - quasi der Rocky als Editor - :-)

29.11.2018
User simon.laube

wepner hat stallone übrigens später verklagt weil dieser sein leben verfilmte ;)

30.11.2018