Edited by David Castell
In the land of opportunity, everyone loves a success story. And Rocky, voted Best Film in last month’s Oscar ceremony, isn’t just a story of a boxer who punches his way to the top. It’s a tangible tribute to the gift and determination of the writer/actor who fought to get the story on the screen, against odds that even Rocky would have found daunting – thirty year-old Sylvester Stallone.
But the rebel kid from Hell’s Kitchen was determined to succeed. He had been an academic failure (“I wandered through fourteen high schools and five colleges without getting a degree. I was really not meant for school.”), taken and lost a dozen part-time jobs, from zoo attendant to pizza demonstrator, most memorably as a theatre usher with the powerful Walter Reade organization. One evening, Stallone approached a man queuing to see M*A*S*H and offered him a front row seat.
“It’ll cost you ten dollars,” said Stallone.
“It’ll cost you your job,” said Walter Reade.
After which experience, Stallone decided that making movies might be more fun than selling tickets for them.
We first spotted him as the gangster waiting in the wings for the main chance in Roger Corman’s production of Capone. He had a minute role in the Neil Simon comedy The Prisoner of Second Avenue. He was the psychotic Machine Gun Viterbo in Paul Bartel’s black comedy Death Race 2000. Then came a leading role in The Lords of Flatbush, critically acclaimed but doomed to go the rounds as a second failure.
Stallone (“Sly” to his friends) couldn’t see himself as the matinee idol of the ’70s, so he diversified into writing. Having contributed substantially to the script of The Lords of Flatbush, he turned his hand with some success to writing for television. The scripts sold, but Stallone wanted one more crack at movie stardom. “With The Lords of Flatbush under my belt, I found a manager and went to Hollywood. I imagined I’d get offered scripts by the dozen. All I got was a tan.”
Deciding to write himself the star part that nobody else was itching to offer him, Stallone sat down and produced Rocky in three days and three nights. Immediately the offers poured in. Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler were the producers with the fiercest determination to see the script filmed. But they were horrified at the idea of their writer taking the title role. They suggested James Caan. Stallone suggested himself. They suggested Burt Reynolds. Stallone suggested himself.
They offered Stallone a quarter of a million dollars to go away and leave the casting to them. He offered to do the part for nothing.
“As far as I was concerned, this was the only shot I’d get. There was no way that it could turn out badly, I had to be good,” he says. Eventually the producers and director John G. Avildsen relented under Stallone’s steamrolling. The actor shed the excess weight he had put on for The Lords of Flatbush, screened every boxing movie ever made, started working out in a gym and watched videotapes of fighters like Rocky Marciano. “I had to teach myself to be a flat-footed steam engine who took ten punches to give one.”
As a reward for his determination, Stallone won two Oscar nominations – as best actor and best scriptwriter. Although he won in neither category, he had the pleasure of seeing Rocky punch its way through, not only to being a box-office champion, but also to being the Academy’s choice as Best Film.