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On the Sly

Sylvester Stallone—just as much an action hero today as he was in his Rocky youth—reveals how he’s still fighting for (and winning) America’s heart

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Stallone’s origin story is so fantastical it seems like something that came from a comic book. His New York feels both more dangerous than now yet also wildly innocent. Stallone once slept in the Port Authority for three weeks before he got in a fight over a bench and was arrested. When Stallone penned Rocky, he was living in a walk-up on 56th and Lexington. His rent was $71 a month, which he could barely afford; he lived off of $30 a week in unemployment benefits.

“There was an old crumbling building,” he says. “It sat above the subway. It was literally crooked. It was basically a haven for homeless and hobos. You’d step over them to get into your room.” He was married at the time to an aspiring actress, Sasha Czack, and the couple would often wake to the sight of cockroaches drowning in the toilet bowl. Their electricity had been cut off, and Stallone recalls writing Rocky by candlelight. He references Edgar Allan Poe’s work ethic. (Illiterate? Hardly.) A bidding war broke out over the script, and Stallone was offered $315,000 to sell—a fortune at the time—but no one wanted him to act in the thing. Cockroaches be damned, Stallone rejected every offer until he found a buyer willing to take a risk on an unknown. In the end, he was paid a paltry $20,000 for the script—the Writer’s Guild minimum at the time. But he got his shot at the title fight.

It’s a cliché to call his a Cinderella story, but it’s true—right down to playing dress-up. Stallone wore a now-chic leather jacket over a white cable-knit sweater to the 1976 premiere of Rocky. When it came time for the Academy Awards, Rocky was nominated for best picture in a category that somehow included All the President’s Men, Network, Bound for Glory and Taxi Driver. Talk about a good year. There’s a famous photo of Stallone and the producers of Rocky right after they won the top prize. Stallone, all smiles, has his fist raised above his head. You’ll notice he’s not wearing a bow tie.

Sylvester Stallone at the Academy Awards

Sylvester Stallone at the Academy Awards

Stallone explains: “We were pulling into the driveway where the Oscars were being presented. It was a rented tux. The tie explodes on the way and the driver goes, ‘Wanna borrow my tie?’ I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think it’ll matter.’ I flipped my collar out. At that time it was the Italian style. It was as though I had walked in wearing the scarlet letter and I had scarlet fever. People were appalled. I mean, appalled.” Imagine the stir he would have caused if he’d shown up, like Jared Leto, with ombré hair.

Fame came fast, and hard. There were evenings at Studio 54. And white suits. And floor-length fur coats. So many fur coats. Stallone was working nights at the time on a movie called Nighthawks. “The sun would go down,” he says. “My lunch break would be from one to two. I would go to Xenon or Studio 54 every night.” To be clear, Stallone went to Studio 54 for lunch. 

“It became like a country club,” he says. Mick Jagger, Halston, Martin Scorsese, Norman Mailer—he hung out with them all. Stallone sets the scene: “There was a giant spoon on the ceiling and you’d see the moon and the moon would take a gigantic dose of cocaine. And it would trickle down and sparkle and people were dancing and you’d look around and there’s Bianca.” The VIP room was in the basement. That’s where Stallone became friendly with Andy Warhol, who went on to paint him several times. “Andy always had his camera, which he would fire from the hip as though he was a gunslinger.”

Talk about whiplash. Stallone had earned just $1,400 the year before Rocky came out. Now he was hanging out at the Factory until five in the morning? It was too much. He gave a bunch of interviews, and he started to hate the sound of his own voice. “I would pontificate on everything from tuberculosis to time warps”—topics he knew nothing about. “I was trying so hard to distance myself from the Rocky image.” It all came to a head in a July 1982 Rolling Stone cover story. The cover line read: “The Trouble With Sylvester Stallone.” “In the pictures,” he says, “I’m just sad-looking. My interview was so boring, the writer said he was suffering from AWOL—Asleep With Open Lids.” When Stallone sat down to write Rocky III, the story came easily to him. It was a story about Rocky becoming an ego-maniacal, self-obsessed dick. And it was autobiographical.

If an interview from 1982 still haunts him—and Stallone quotes the article freely from memory—you can imagine the unseen scars he carries from a contentious relationship with his father. At 11, Stallone broke his collarbone jumping off the roof of his house. He was kicked out of a handful of schools. “You weren’t born with much of a brain,” his father told him, “so you better start using your body.” The line was so damaging, Stallone wrote it into the original Rocky. 

Stallone’s father, an Italian immigrant, moved the family from New York to the DC area in 1950, where he opened a beauty school. “The name Stallone means horse or stallion,” he says. “They were horse people, but peasants. He was going to break away from the Stallone mold. He became a beautician.” Stallone laughs. “He was about as much a beautician as I would be a biophysicist. He had thick hands, like mine. Like baseball mitts. He was Rambo.”

Was he around to see your success?

“Yes, he was. And he was conflicted by it.”

How so?

“He had aspirations and dreams, too. If two normal parents all of a sudden give birth to Tom Brady and go, God, where did that come from? But if you’re a tough guy and your son is playing tough characters, you go, ‘I could kick my son’s ass… Why didn’t I get all of that?’ ”

Did he come to the Oscars?

“He didn’t show up.”

You invited him?

“Yeah. It was a real rough relationship. He taught me to be very combative. Rejection can really turn you into a winner, or it can expose you as a real loser. I was in the rejection business. Show business is that. My father, because he was so difficult, made me very, very resilient. And spiteful. In other words, I’m gonna do it in spite of you.”

Stallone pulls out his iPhone to show me another photo. There he is as a young man in Hell’s Kitchen, wearing a wide-lapel shirt, sitting on a pile of bricks. “I was born in that room,” Stallone says, pointing to a run-down brownstone in the background. “You can see the neighborhood I came from. I keep photos only to remind me of the journey. I feel like our memory fades. And you are what you are.”

NEXT: “We do two things in the world: We race. And we fight.”

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