by Kasey Caminiti | June 2, 2014 7:49 am
Tell someone that you’ve just met Sylvester Stallone, and the first question is always the same: How’d he look? The thinking isn’t malicious. It’s just that Stallone helped define masculinity for a generation of men, perhaps more so than any actor since Steve McQueen. He understands that we are complicated, that we are all two sides of the same coin: Rocky, the sensitive, wounded warrior in search of love and approval, and Rambo, his polar opposite—a veined-out, one-man army and hero of the Reagan years.
We’re scheduled to meet at the Peninsula Hotel, which makes perfect sense. Stallone is timeless. And this place is, too; it’s all pastel colors, floral prints and oversize bread baskets. Stallone enters the dining room right on time, dressed in a black, military-style dress shirt that strains to cover his still-hulking frame. He walks with the slow gait of a returning champion as he takes in the room. You actually have to stop yourself from shouting, “Yo, Rock!” as he wraps his massive hand—like a giant slab of concrete—around yours.
So, how does he look? Fucking fantastic. Like a Picasso painting, with a nose slightly off-center and big, sympathetic eyes. His wrist is so thick, his oversize IWC watch still somehow looks like a toy. His hair is salt-and-pepper—more natural than the oil-slick he sports in The Expendables, a surprise hit franchise about aging mercenaries that has earned some $580 million dollars at the box office worldwide. (A third installment is due out this summer.) Stallone broke his neck filming the original in 2009 after he was accidentally thrown into a pile of bricks. The injury required something like seven surgeries to heal. This is 67.
Yes, 67. If you’re surprised he’s still kicking ass at the age some men start wearing diapers, you haven’t been paying attention. When hasn’t this guy been underestimated? Stallone, a man you probably thought was illiterate, earned Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay and best actor in the same year, for Rocky. He’s only the third man in history to have done so. (Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles were the other two. How do you like them icons?) Rocky may be a fictional character but he’s still the Patron Saint of Philadelphia. The steps he climbed in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—known to all as the Rocky Steps—are hallowed ground. There may be other iconic stars from the ’80s, but there’s no public landmark named after the Terminator.
Without question, Stallone’s at an unlikely, yet fascinating, point in his career. He’s at that age where his films, like Judge Dredd and Death Race 2000, are being remade. Rocky, meanwhile, is now a Tony-nominated Broadway musical (Stallone came up with the idea with longtime producing partner Kevin King Templeton). Yet he hasn’t changed with the times so much as bent time to his will. Last year’s Grudge Match, about aging boxers, proved he could laugh at himself, but you’ll notice he left the Viagra jokes to Alan Arkin. That’s ’cause Stallone’s still got it. The Expendables may be the Geriatric Avengers, but dude’s very much on the frontlines.
For all his success, there’s pain there, too, lurking beneath his taut, tattooed chest. For a window into his soul, look no further than his paintings. Yes, Stallone is an artist, exhibiting his work last year in a solo show at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. One piece, entitled Champion Due, shows a weathered, tired boxer in the center of a ring with blood-red tears streaming down his cheeks. Stallone wears his heart on his sleeve, then wipes it all over the canvas.
“A little Campari today?” the waiter asks as we sit down. Apparently Stallone’s a regular at the Peninsula. He even lived at the hotel for two years in the late ’90s while he was searching for the right house.
“Bring me a little iced coffee,” Stallone says, perusing the menu. “I’m gonna have something light,” he adds. Perhaps. But the conversation is anything but.
Sylvester Stallone has been famous for so long you’ve forgotten parts of his story. The Rocky years were followed by the Planet Hollywood years and then the Exile, when the work dried up. Stallone leans in, happy to reminisce, telling me about the time he met John Wayne at the People’s Choice Awards in 1977. In as sure a sign as any of how different awards season is these days, Stallone tells me he dressed himself for the event. In a tuxedo he rented.
“I was in this stupid tux and ruffled shirt,” he says, ordering a bowl of chicken soup. “Here is the guy, coming across to me. Let me introduce myself. My name is John Wayne. Welcome to Hollywood.” The moment was so seminal, Stallone still has a photo of it on his iPhone, in a folder marked “Celebrities.” This digital detail speaks volumes: Despite all his success, this guy still thinks of himself as an outsider. Years later, at the opening of a Planet Hollywood in the south of France, Stallone took a page out of Wayne’s book. “This story is not meant to embarrass anybody,” he tells me. “But I said, You know what, there’s Johnny Depp and Leonardo. They’re just hanging out. I walked across the room: ‘Hi guys, welcome to the business. You’re doing a great job.’ ” The young, would-be stars forced a smile and returned to their conversation. “They went, ‘OK,’ ” Stallone says, with a laugh. “They were shy. I’m sure they appreciated it.”
Stallone’s voice is like an old gravel road; rough and winding, and who knows where it will take you. His stories are dispatches from another time (a better time?) in history. As if on cue, Larry Flynt—the 71-year-old political provocateur and founder of Hustler magazine—passes us. Stallone flags him down. “Larry, hi. It’s Sly!”
“Hello brother,” Flynt says. “Behaving yourself?”
“Are you crazy?” Stallone says. “Life’s too short for that, my friend.”
NEXT: “People were appalled. I mean, appalled.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
“If you know what you’re worth, go out and get what you’re worth.” That’s a line from 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the sixth (yes, sixth) film in the series. It had once been Stallone’s motto. Yet somewhere along the way he’d forgotten it.
He divorced his first wife in 1985; his turbulent second marriage, to actress Brigitte Nielsen, ended less than two years later. Roger Ebert had once predicted Stallone would be the next Brando. While he put on more than 30 pounds for 1997’s Cop Land, his performance largely went ignored. Stallone weathered a series of commercial disappointments in rapid succession. I mention that he seemed poised for the kind of career resurrection Quentin Tarantino specializes in.
“Tarantino did call,” Stallone says. “I was foolish. He called for Jackie Brown—the De Niro part. I said, I’m not sure I can pull this off.” Years later Tarantino tried again with Grindhouse, offering him the role Kurt Russell eventually played. “First, I think it had been offered to Mickey Rourke,” Stallone says, “then he offered it to me. I said, I don’t know if I can pull this off with the girls and whatever.” Stallone was flailing. In 2003, he played the fourth lead in Spy Kids 3. He did two episodes of Las Vegas, the NBC series starring Josh Duhamel. By his own admission, he was not fun to be around.
“I believe we suffer two deaths,” he says, his hands clasped together on the table. “If you feel you’re a creative person, you die twice in this life. And the creative death is a horrible one that can linger for 30 years. You realize you’re done. And you have no outlet for it. It’s a horrible thing. I was saddened by the prospect that I was probably the architect of all of this.” He adds: “We’re all very flawed. And we all think we can get over our flaws. But we can’t. We can manage them. But we are who we are.”
In a way, that’s what makes The Expendables so genius. “We are who we are.” Stallone once again had to write himself out of a hole, betting on himself when no one else would. The Expendables is, ostensibly, about a group of mercenaries who—forget it, it doesn’t matter. The plot (such as it is) barely coheres. It was a hit because audiences wanted to see Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger together on-screen. It was like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but with dynamite. For his part, Stallone likens the film to a reunion tour featuring Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and the Righteous Brothers. In other words: These relics were greater than the sum of their parts. (Sample bit of dialogue: Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back”; Willis scowls, “You’ve been back enough. I’ll be back.”)
Says Terry Crews, an NFL-star-cum-action-hero who appears in The Expendables: “He’d write monologues for all of us. Then it would come time to shoot it and he’d throw it all away. He’d say, ‘Man, they don’t want to see us say all this stuff. But what you just read? That’s what you’re thinking while you’re shooting.’ ”
While the blockbuster seems like a no-brainer now, studio executives balked, as did some of Stallone’s own compatriots. Jean-Claude Van Damme basically accused him of slumming when Stallone tracked him down in Thailand to offer him a role in the first film. Van Damme said: “Sly, I think you are above this. Why are you making this movie?”
“I said, ‘Well, I think it’s financially sound, and it’s what we do, Jean-Claude.’ He goes, ‘I believe you are at the point in your life where you should play a priest in East L.A. helping young people,’ ” Stallone says. “I go, ‘A priest? Does he carry a gun?’ ” The two had words. Stallone called Van Damme “an idiot.” Van Damme must have had a change of heart. He played the villain in the sequel.
Of Stallone, Crews adds, “He truly has shown what faith is: You gotta go when everybody says no.” A fourth Expendables is now in the works. (Stallone says Bill Clinton would be his dream cameo.) Which begs the question: How much longer can this go on? And what’s left for Stallone to prove?
Do you ever think, I’m too old for this shit?
“Trust me. Every day I feel it. I fucking hate it. But there’s no getting around it, you know? I just should not have done so many stunts. But now I warn kids: There’s a check coming due.”
It doesn’t seem possible that you’re turning 68.
“It’s very possible. Get those cataracts out of there.”
What’s it like to see yourself on-screen now?
“I don’t like it. Believe me. I only wish I could do every movie coming out of the sun. And I’m backlit. I’d love to do a desert film. That would be the greatest movie.”
Are you vain?
“I used to be vain. And very competitive. ‘Arnold has size. I can’t get that size. I don’t have the genetics.’ I tried to get more definition. Finally it got to the point where you’re getting [voted] Best Abs in movies? I don’t want to get Best Abs. That’s not the title you want. I guess I think of myself as a filmmaker.”
That’s vintage Stallone—putting a fine point on the changing face of masculinity nearly 40 years after Rocky first premiered. Is Best Abs something men are supposed to aspire to?
Today, Stallone is busier than he’s been in years. He and his wife, Jennifer Flavin, have three daughters—ages 17, 15 and 12—and he’s heavily involved in their lives. (Like any dad, he laments their increasing obsession with social media. Though, considering he once got into a Twitter feud with Bruce Willis over a salary dispute, he doesn’t have much ground to stand on.) When asked about the secret to marriage, he says, “ending fights quickly. Going to bed angry builds up scar tissue. And as you know, nothing grows on scar tissue.”
Surely he’s enjoying his victory lap around town. Stallone’s done eight films since 2010. There’s even talk of a Rocky spin-off, of sorts: Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler is working on Creed, about the grandson of Apollo Creed stepping into the ring. (Rocky would train the kid, and Stallone is game—should the script come together well.) But perhaps there’s something else at work here. Maybe Stallone is running from mortality, too. The topic’s always been on his mind. Even as far back as 1978 he told Playboy, “If I slow down, the omnipotent clock is going to catch me and cut me to pieces with the second hand.”
“You can panic,” he says now. “Or you can just surrender to it and realize it’s an inevitability.” In other words: Of course Rocky is now a musical. Just as Studio 54 is now a scrubbed-clean Broadway theater. Life hasn’t stood still for Stallone, or any of us.
When he’s feeling contemplative he turns inward and focuses on painting, which he once referred to as his “first love.” Look closely at his work and you’ll frequently see a clock somewhere on the canvas. “Father Time,” he says, adding, “We do two things in the world: We race. And we fight. When Rambo said, ‘War is normal. Peace is an accident,’ I’m sorry to say, you know, that’s true.”
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