“You have to grab life by the throat and squeeze before it grabs you by your neck and breaks it. Own your destiny.” – Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone celebrated his 7oth birthday this week, which means it's the perfect time to celebrate him as one of the best cinematic action heroes of all time. Although he is best known for portraying boxer Rocky Balboa and Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, his acting filmography alone includes over 70 roles in movies and TV shows. To say that his prolific 40-year career as a writer, actor, producer, and director merely influenced the action genre landscape is a grand understatement. Stallone is the definitive paradigm of a beloved superstar who inspired many, many underdogs (like himself) to get up off the ground and stand tall.
“But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” – Rocky Balboa
Stallone’s own story is that of an underdog with humble beginnings who rose to fame and came out on top through his own volition (much like Rocky). Sly, as he prefers to be called, was born on July 6th, 1946 to a family of Italian immigrants in New York, New York. His trademark mumble was caused from complications during birth that cut nerves in his cheek, paralyzing the lower left side of his face and affecting his speech.
Stallone had a bit of a rough childhood - having spent time in foster care due to his parent’s tumultuous marriage, moving to Silver Springs, MD and then to Philadelphia, PA, and being kicked out of multiple schools for behavioral issues. Life finally settled down when he attended a school for troubled youth in Philadelphia and eventually went on to study dramatic arts at the University of Miami. He returned to New York to pursue his acting career, taking jobs like cleaning up the lion cages at the Central Park Zoo and even starred in a low-budget porno The Party at Kitty and Stud's (1970) and the ridiculous role of Machine Gun Tommy in Death Race 2000 (1975) to make ends meet. It was during this time of struggle that Stallone wrote a script about a rough-around-the-edges boxer from Philly who refused to give up until he won - bringing us to his most influential and critically-acclaimed role as Rocky Balboa.
“People accept Rocky Balboa as authentic. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and asked about my boxing career. It's like they really want to believe that Rocky exists. You know, I'm amazed by all of this. At one time I thought people would get over their fascination with the character and move on. Didn't happen. After 30 years, Rocky has taken hold to a degree I never could have imagined.” - Stallone on Rocky Balboa (2006)
Stallone inadvertently created his own best friend and one of the most successful franchises in film history with the very first script that he wrote. Rumor has it that he refused to sell the script unless he was set to star in the film. Thankfully he found two producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, willing to do just that. Rocky, directed by John G. Avildsen released in 1976 and instantly became a critically-acclaimed, award-nominated, box-office hit, paving the way for the main characters 39-year-long boxing saga in Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), Rocky V (1990), Rocky Balboa (2006), and Creed (2015).
When we first met Rocky, he was stuck working for a loan shark, doing underground fighting in shady clubs, and constantly being called a bum, a nobody, a waste (mainly by his trainer Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith). His tough training routine gave us both memorable and inspirational scenes: brawling bare-knuckled with raw meat where Paulie (Burt Young) worked, jogging through the Italian market in South Philly, and triumphantly running up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps with both fists reaching towards the sky. In his first main event, Rocky fought against pro boxer Apollo Creed. Fighting toe to toe, a bloody, broken, and bruised Rocky refused to stay down. The match finally ended up with a split-decision loss, while our champ called out for the love of his life, “Adrian! Adrian!” For him the grand prize wasn’t a title, it was proving to himself that he was a worthy contender.
The last time we met Rocky, he was working alongside Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son and aspiring boxer Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) in Creed (2015), written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station). As the seventh installment of the series, Creed received high praise from critics, who called it the best Rocky film in years. The story follows Adonis as he walks away from his career in finance to pursue his dream of boxing, against the wishes of his father’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who raised him.
Donnie heads to Philly to track down Rocky Balboa - two-time world heavyweight champion and Apollo's rival-turned-friend who reluctantly becomes Adonis' trainer and mentor. Going into his first main event against world light heavyweight champ Pretty Ricky Conlin (Tony Bellew), many parallels to Rocky’s first fight are observed: Adonis wears a pair of star-spangled shorts just like Apollo, he goes toe-to-toe with his opponent refusing to stay down, and the fight ends in a split decision with Donnie proud that he has proven himself. The movie ends with the aging (but still fighting, even if not in the ring) Rocky and new boxing star Adonis “Hollywood Donnie” Creed climbing up the iconic “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Stallone was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his impressive return performance as Rocky - his first Oscar nomination since the original film. He won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor, Critics' Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture - his first Golden Globe.
"You know what you are. What you're made of. War is in your blood. Don't fight it. You didn't kill for your country. You killed for yourself. God's never gonna make that go away. When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing." - John Rambo
The Rocky sports saga clearly launched Stallone into super stardom, but he also became the number one action hero throughout the '80s and '90s thanks his various macho roles, most notably as disillusioned Vietnam War veteran John Rambo in First Blood (1982), directed by Ted Kotcheff. The film follows the struggles of a broken man suffering from survivors’ guilt after returning home from the Vietnam war. As a former Green Beret, Rambo is highly skilled in combat and can kill with just about anything he can get his hands on. He’s pursued into the wilderness by local authorities who banished him from the town of Hope and triggered a whole lot of PTSD by torturing him. Rambo, feeling betrayed by his own country, starts an all-out war.
The movie was a surprise hit that polarized audiences with its commentary about the Vietnam war, which was still relatively fresh in the American public's psyche. Political viewpoints aside, the film was a worldwide smash, and a sequel soon followed. John Rambo resonated with many audiences on a personal level and tackled looming contemporary political issues. The intense, bloody action series continued with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), and Rambo (2008).
During the mighty reign of Sylvester Stallone, he also turned down famous action hero roles such as John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (1988), Superman (Christopher Reeves) in Superman (1978), Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and even Sean Archer (John Travolta) in Face/Off (1997). He dabbled in comedy with the hope of extending his range, but instead gave us his worst film to date, Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot (1992). Speaking about his short-lived comedy career, Stallone said:
“I made some truly awful movies. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) was the worst. If you ever want someone to confess to murder just make him or her sit through that film. They will confess to anything after 15 minutes.”
“I enjoy comedy very much, but it just wasn't right for me. Sometimes it's better to just stay focused and do what you're really passionate about.”
With that in mind, Stallone continued to do what he does best and gave audiences many more testosterone-fueled performances, including tough guy street cop Lieutenant Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti in Cobra (1986) , Lincoln Hawk in Over the Top (1987) (a trucker and arm wrestler who attempts to reconcile with his estranged son by winning the world arm wrestling championship), Sheriff Freddy Hefflin in Cop Land (1997) (a half-deaf New Jersey detective that gets tangled up with the mob and dirty NYPD officers while trying to save his small town), and more recently Barney Ross in The Expendables (2010) (a hardened leader of a band of rugged mercenaries hired by Mr. Church to assassinate a Latin dictator).
Now that Sly has turned the seasoned age of 70, we’re wondering what’s next for him in Hollywood. He just wrapped up production on Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in an unknown role, and announced an upcoming role in the biopic Scarpa, as a former capo and enforcer for the Colombo crime family. We're hoping we meet Rocky and Rambo again, of course, but whatever projects he decides to takes on next, he will be forever recognized as a worldwide box-office superstar with a 40-year film legacy. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, be sure to run up the Rocky Steps and pose for a photo op in front of the bronzed Rocky statue in front of the Art Museum. You’ll feel like you can fly - just like he did. Happy Birthday, Sly!