There is truly almost nothing Sylvester Stallone has not done in his career. An actor/director/writer/producer, he has starred in all genres, from his well-known action films to thrillers, comedies, dramas and sports movies, even musicals. Yet Sly’s acting ability seems to be one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. It didn’t start off this way and with his Golden Globe nomination for Creed it certainly won’t end like this, either.
In 1975 Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, a 29 year old aspiring thespian from New York, with a handful of movies under his belt – he had played a subway thug in Woody Allen’s Bananas, a dancer in Klute and a youngster in the Jack Lemmon film The Prisoner of Second Avenue. He also had a starring role in The Lords of Flatbush, and supporting ones in Farewell, My Lovely, Capone, and Death Race 2000. On TV he had made guest appearances in the series Police Story and Kojak. Then on March 24 – or so the story goes – he watched the Muhammed Ali-Chuck Wepner fight, went home and wrote a screenplay called Rocky in three days and 20 hours. Stallone then shopped the script around with the intention of playing the lead character, and eventually was paid $350,000 for the rights by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. But they had their own ideas for the lead role, including Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds. United Artist was to finance the film but Stallone refused to sell unless he played the lead. Remembers Eric Pleskow, then the head of UA: “I get this call from the producers saying they found this script but the guy who wrote it wants to star in it. So I said ‘what’s the guy’s name?’ Stallone. I go ‘Stallone (pronouncing it the Italian way Sta-loh-ne)? Never heard of him. Sounds like an Italian dessert.” The Italian dessert persisted and after a substantial budget cut it was agreed he could be the star. Rocky was made in 1976 for just over one million dollars in 28 days and grossed $225 million. It was nominated for two Golden Globes (Best Actor and Best Screenplay) and ten Academy Awards in 1977, including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nominations for Stallone. He became the third man in the history of Hollywood to receive these two nominations for the same film, after Charles Chaplin and Orson Welles. Rocky won three Oscars including Best Picture and the actor/writer was up onstage along with the producers to accept it. The name Stallone would forever be linked to this film and never again be mistaken for an Italian dessert.
Stallone followed this incredible success in 1978 with his directorial debut Paradise Alley, a family drama in which he played one of three brothers who enter the world of wrestling. He also acted in Norman Jewison's F.I.S.T., a social drama in which he plays a warehouse worker, very loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa. He then directed the sequel to Rocky. The subsequent success turned Stallone into the franchise king: including Creed he has made seven Rocky films from 1976 to 2015. Four Rambo films, in which he played the title character from 1982 to 2008; and three The Expendables films from 2010 to 2014 in which he even hired his former number one competitor in the action world, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Imagine if Arnold and I ever made a movie together” he had said only three years prior to The Expendables: “It’s like Garbo talks.“ It happened and led to another worldwide box office success.
Sly had become an undisputed mega player in Hollywood but when it came to recognition for his acting abilities he got a raw deal. It may have been his signature slurred speech, stemming from a birth defect that paralyzed the lower left side of his face. Or the fact that critics had forgotten how good he was in the movie that started his career and many subsequent film roles in the face of him becoming such a huge action hero. A small reminder of his talent came with the low budget crime drama Copland in 1997. But it took the vision of a 29 year old African American director named Ryan Coogler to not only resurrect the Rocky franchise but to also revive Sly’s acting career in the biggest way possible.