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“Rocky: The Cat-Like Nine Lives of Sylvester Stallone in Hollywood!”

Kino: Rocky, USA, 1976

Sylvester Stallone went from sleeping on the streets in 1976 to becoming one of Hollywood’s newest millionaires thanks to one movie: Rocky. The story of overcoming the humblest boxer in cinema changed his life forever. And not only on that occasion.

Throughout his long career, the boxer was always present, pulling him out of financial, personal, and professional ruin on several occasions. Without knowing it, that character that Sly wrote in three days and 20 hours became a kind of angel of the night guard.

In previous years he had barely worked as an extra, debuting alongside Robert Redford and Gene Hackman in No Place to Hide (1969) or Capone (1975), among others. But in none of them did he stand out by playing only dancers, bad guys on duty, or extras. It was at that time that he was in total ruin. He was evicted from his apartment, he slept on the street and in the New York bus terminal with no money in his pockets.

Desperation even led him to participate in a scene in the softcore pornography film that would later be titled The Italian Stallion (1970) – to take advantage of the rise of Rocky’s nickname. Who or what inspired Stallone to write Rocky in less of four days no one knows. There have been rumors that point to the influence of the Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner fight in 1975 or the biography of Rocky Graziano. But Sly has denied this in the past (although Wepner sued him and they settled out of court).

But Sly was convinced that he had created a character that had cinematic potential. It was his ticket to Hollywood. His one-way ticket to the select universe of leading actors. He didn’t want anyone to perform the script, and he had to accept a budget cut to convince producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff to let him perform it in exchange for selling them the story. They ended up accepting… although they had in mind Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Jimmy Caan, Ryan O’Neal, or Burt Reynolds.

Rocky’s Tremendous Success

The result was a hit of such magnitude that it catapulted Stallone to immediate stardom, making him an instant icon of sports dramas. It cost a million dollars to make and grossed $225 million at the worldwide box office. Critics and the industry joined the public’s approval, receiving 10 Oscar nominations, including best actor and original screenplay, and winning the statuette for best picture.

Sly went from being a frequently unemployed extra to Hollywood’s hottest newcomer and earning $2.5 million, when he had just turned 30. “He was the luckiest man in the world,” Stallone told Variety a few years ago. “In that year before I did Rocky, my total earnings for the entire year were $1,400. He earned $35 a week working as a bouncer (or security guard). It was about $100 a month.”

The first script he sold to MGM for $35,000 when he had $100 in his bank account and had sold his mastiff dog to pay the rent. (Don’t worry, he got it back with the winnings.) The second for $75,000 and the third for $120,000. And they were all a success.

And so he made his way with other characters like Rambo, whose first film was released in 1982, expanding more sequels. By 1990, 14 years after Rocky, he already had three installments of the Vietnam soldier behind him and another five of the fashionable boxer. Stallone had crowned himself an action hero, competing against another icon of the time such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rocky’s Demise and Stallone’s Downfall

Eventually, as time went by, they became great friends. But the disappointment that Rocky V (1990) caused by turning the character into a depressed, marginalized, and vain figure changed everything.

Because Stallone ended up spending the next 16 years waiting for someone to take a chance on Rocky again. That same actor who had been capable of creating successful franchises and leading other productions such as Cobra (1986) or Tango and Cash (1989), suddenly saw how his career experienced unexpected ups and downs. The actor and director began to fall into oblivion. Rocky had been his one-way ticket to the firmament of the stars, but it was also the one back to the most painful hell in Hollywood: rejection and oblivion.

There can be nothing worse for an actor who rises to fame than being dumped by the very industry that gave him wings because he starts to be worthless at the box office. And that happened to Stallone. Rocky V was the first disappointment of his career -although many more would come- with the disapproval of critics and the poor reception from the public. His failed attempt at him in comedy with Stop or my mom will shoot! (1992) only made things worse, and although he enjoyed other successes such as Total Risk (1993), The Demolisher (1993) or The Specialist (1994), it was the international audience that continued to bet on his films. In the US, the public began to turn their backs on him. And so, Hollywood did the same.

Given the bad choices and the lack of success, his CAA agents and his manager left him alone, renouncing his services (although they later signed him again). “It was the year 2002 and there was nothing for me in six years,” he told Variety, stating that he now understands the decision his representatives made at that time.

Stallone believes that the pitfall of his career happened because he was not careful with his choices. “I think it happened because I wasn’t as diligent as I should have been in making certain decisions in my career,” he said. “For example, I made a movie called D-Tox, it had a good cast but a week after starting it the producers decided to change their tactics and from that moment it had a gray cloud. It was stored away for two years and that was the beginning of ‘Stallone Is Finished.'”

The Redemption of Rocky Balboa

The 76-year-old actor recalled that the poor reception of Daylight (1996) and Cop Land (1997) only made things worse. He believes those failures “promoted the view that my time had passed.” But Rocky came to the rescue.

Although the industry did not want to hear from him again, Stallone had not forgotten the character he qualifies as “a brother” in his life. He wanted to bring it back to cinematic life with one final redemption.

“But when you’re a 60-year-old actor who wants to play an old boxer after a sequel that flopped 15 years earlier, you have zero chance,” Sly recalled. No one wanted to do it. The then head of MGM, Alex Yemenidjian, rejected the idea. How did you convince them? Selling it as a story of pain and loss.

“He has finally lost his love, which means the end of the equation for him. The only way he knows how to deal with it is through fighting.” Rocky VI became Rocky Balboa and was a success in 2006. Rocky saved him again, and what is most striking is that the experience was even more important to Sly than the one he had with the first Rocky.

“The fact that Rocky won once again was more iconic to me than Rocky I. This one was tough. There was no element of surprise, he was over the right age, and…”

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