Stallone in Tampa, 1976
Let me start off my saying that Sylvester Stallone and I are not friends. Though we’ve spent countless hours together in the dark, it’s been almost four decades since we last spoke. But as Oscar night is almost upon us, and Stallone is nominated, I thought it would be a good time to talk about my favorite films of his and share the memory of when we first met.
I’ve been in the movie “biz” since the mid-1970s. I started out as a theatre usher when I was 16. In 1976 I was a junior in high school. I joined the staff of the school paper under the guise of wanting to write reviews. In all honesty, the main reason I joined was because the time we were allotted to work on the paper was right before lunch time. Many times, we would have to leave campus, under the guise that we were going to try and sell advertising. But actually it was a great excuse to pass up the school cafeteria and pay a visit to Steak and Shake, Subway or Arthur Treachers. For those of you under the age of 40, Arthur Treachers was a very popular Fish and Chips restaurant chain, long before Long John Silvers showed up. To my knowledge, there is only one Arthur Treachers left, located in the food court of the Christiana Mall in Delaware. But I digress…
In late November of 1976, I was contacted by Steve Otto, who was the film critic of the Tampa Times. Steve was a former graduate of my high school and had been quite helpful whenever I had a question. There was an upcoming press junket scheduled for Tampa to highlight a new film coming out called Rocky. Would I be interested in accompanying him? Would I have to miss school? Heck yeah! For those who aren’t familiar with the event, a press junket is a gathering of film critics who get to see a film early and then spend time with some of the talent. Most of them take place in New York or Los Angeles these days, though on occasion there are still some regional ones, especially to get the word out on smaller films.
Steve and the others in attendance had seen the film a week before so they had their questions prepared. I hadn’t, so I just sat quietly and listened. First up was actress Talia Shire, who I recognized from The Godfather Part II. She was very polite and answered every question with a smile. After she had answered every question put to her we were told that “Sly will be here shortly.” Sly? Who the hell is Sly? A few minutes later one of the reps brought in a guy who seemed to be nervous. The first thing I noticed was that he was shorter than I was. As he sat down behind a long table the rep said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the writer and star of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone.” For the next 30 minutes I listened to Stallone talk about his life. How he felt connected to the character of Rocky Balboa because, like Rocky, his life was changed by a stroke of fate and some amazing good luck.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here is a quick rundown. On March 24, 1975, Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali took on a boxer named Chuck Wepner. The fight was held at the brand new Richfield Coliseum in Ohio. Wepner, nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” due to his ability to take a punch, was a true underdog. Before the fight, Ali declared that he would win in three rounds. Surprisingly, Wepner stood toe to toe with the champ, finally losing by Technical Knock Out with nine seconds left in the 15th and final round. The fight was televised via closed circuit and in Los Angeles, one of the people watching the fight was Stallone. A writer as well as an actor, Stallone was inspired by Wepner’s courage and sat down at his typewriter. Three days later he had the first draft of Rocky.
When the script was circulated around Hollywood, producers jumped over each other in an attempt to purchase it. But there was a condition. Whoever bought the script had to agree to let Stallone play Rocky Balboa. The studios were appalled. They wanted the script so they could feature Ryan O’Neal, James Caan or Robert Redford. The bidding got as high as $350,000 but Stallone held firm. Finally, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler agreed to his terms. Stallone was paid a total of $25,000 for writing and acting in the film. But, like Rocky, his 100-1 shot paid off.
As the press event ended Steve and I walked up to Stallone and said hello. I told him that I, too, was an actor and I hoped to one day be in the same position he was in. He reached into a folder and removed a photo of himself. On it he wrote, “May your dreams come true.” And he signed it “Sly.” My first autograph, which I still have and cherish to this day.
Of course, Rocky went on to make over $100 million – very unheard of at the time – and won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Stallone was nominated both for his screenplay and for Best Actor, losing the script award to Paddy Chayefsky and the acting award to Peter Finch, both from the film Network. The only thing he took home that night was a new notebook and a gold pen, given to him by Chartoff and Winkler, who told him, “now go home and write the sequel.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Here is a list of my 10 favorite Sylvester Stallone films. Some you may agree on while others you may scratch your head. Scratch away, my friends. It’s MY list.
Where it all started. For a long time this film battled with Jaws for the honor of my favorite film. I saw the film many times while it was in the theatre and listened to the soundtrack album constantly. In fact, if you play the music heard during the fight in the film I can tell you almost punch for punch what is happening on screen. The script is top notch and contains some great lines. My favorite line in the film takes place after the fight, when Rocky is being peppered by questions. Calling for his lady love, Adrian, Rocky doesn’t want to acknowledge the reporters surrounding him. Finally he snaps, “Oh come on, I’ve had enough things in my face tonight.”
The studios lined up at Stallone’s door in the hopes that he would make his next film with them. The winner was United Artists, who signed Stallone to play Johnny Kovaks, a fictionized version of Jimmy Hoffa. Stallone also earned a screenplay credit, though, according to co-writer Joe Eszterhas, he didn’t write a word. There is a great telling of the story in Eszterhas’ book, “Hollywood Animal.”
This is Stallone’s directorial debut, working on a script he wrote. The story deals with the Carbone brothers and their lives in New York’s Hells Kitchen. Entertaining as hell and featuring Stallone himself singing over the end credits.
The first appearance of John Rambo, who here is a much more vulnerable than the later Rambo movies. Stallone did extensive work on the script, including changing the ending of the original novel, in which Rambo dies.
Technically this is a Stallone film in name only as he co-wrote and directed it. The film stars John Travolta as Tony Manero and is a sequel to Saturday Night Fever. However, Stallone does appear in the film as the fur coat wearing gentlemen Travolta bumps into while walking on the sidewalk. One of my “films I like that no one else does,” I really highlight it to point out how cognizant Stallone was of the Broadway theater scene. In the film, Tony stars in a new spectacular show called “Satan’s Alley.” Stallone somehow was able to predict that Broadway would soon be a place where shows were HUGE and over the top.
The second film on my “films I like that no one else does” list. In it, Stallone plays a New York cab driver who becomes the man in the middle of a bet between country singer Dolly Parton and her sleazy manager, played by Ron Liebman. Here Sly gets countrified and I still laugh every time I hear him pronounce the word “dog” and making it sound like it has two syllables: “Da-og.” On the down side, Stallone’s singing is best summed up by co-star Richard Farnsworth, who, after hearing Sly tackle a song, replies, “why that was scary, son.”
TANGO & CASH
Whoever dreamed of teaming up Stallone and Kurt Russell was a genius. This is a fast and fun film with some great writing and on-screen action. Extra points to Sly for having a sense of humor. When one of his fellow law officers chastise his style, saying “he thinks he’s Rambo,” Ray Tango casually replies, “Rambo is a pussy!”
Stallone gained 40 pounds and worked for scale in this drama and, in the process, held his own on screen alongside actors like Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta.
After the disappointment that was Rocky V, Stallone resurrected his most famous character and gave him back his dignity.
Stallone turned down writer/director Ryan Coogler’s request to play Rocky Balboa again for several years before he finally said yes. In doing so, he becomes the sixth actor to receive (2) Academy Award nominations for playing the same character. If there is any justice, on Sunday night the Oscar will be going home with Sly. I warn you, if you’re sitting near me, please have some tissues handy. If Stallone’s name is called I do believe I may shed some tears of joy.