Sylvester Stallone has been many things over an illustrious career: a fighter, a soldier, at one point a football-playing prisoner-of-war escapee. Now, at the ripe old age of 70, here’s a few things insights into the man himself, with quotes from the man himself (mostly taken from a live audience Q&A in London, in 2014).
1. First Blood was "literally cursed"
“First Blood was quite an interesting odyssey. That movie was cursed. Literally cursed. There were 17 different screenplays. There were some very, very good screenplays. Even Broadway screenwriter David Rein took a shot at it. The book itself, Rambo, is quite… well, when he came back [from Vietnam] Rambo killed over 100 people. You couldn’t stop him; he was evidently damaged. In the book, Trautman was Rambo’s father figure, and the sheriff actually was kind of a version of Rambo: he had been in the Korean War but he was jealous because the Korean War veterans didn’t get the same appreciation, and there was all this hullabaloo about Rambo and the Medal Of Honour. So anyway, I looked at this and nobody wanted to do it. It had been through Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Jimmy Caan, Burt Reynolds, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino… the list went on and on.”
2. Kirk Douglas wanted to kill Rambo
“[The plan for Kirk Douglas to appear in First Blood] snowballed into something I didn’t expect. He said, ‘Okay, I’d be happy to play Colonel Trautman.’ And on the first day of the set he comes out and says, ‘I can’t do the script.’ I go, ‘It’s the same script that we’ve been doing.’ He goes, ‘We agreed on some changes.’ I said, ‘We can’t [make any more changes] – we’re into the film… but anyway what were the changes?’ He said, ‘Here’s what I’d do: at the very end of the movie I should kill you. The audience sees a cop car driving away and as it disappears into the fog a hand reaches up in the rear view mirror. The camera turns up and we see me. Then it turns a bit higher and I am wearing your headband.’”
3. He doesn't want to be viewed as a meathead
“It all depends on what day of the week it is. You know, it can be one of those days where it really bothers you, then next it’s different... Right now, I sort of have it together a little bit, but it’s odd. Because of all the Rockys, people assume you are Rocky and you’re still thought of as this muscle-head and so on and so forth. I think that if I looked like a writer it might help. I should go around wearing thick glasses and being very withdrawn.”
4. He wrote Rocky out of desperation
"I was watching Mean Streets and other movies where there were different characters I knew I could play. Then one night I saw a fight with this fella called The Bayonne Bleeder against Muhammad Ali, and he was, you know, really kind of a bum. He got to the ring though, and he was tough. Then he got knocked down 15th round and I went, ‘There’s my story! That’s it, that’s a character.'"
"So I went home and I wrote like a maniac between that day and night. Coffee, dog at my side… and I came up with the Rocky idea. Now the script was maybe only 15 per cent good, but it was done. Then I started working on it and working on it and when I walked into an audition, an acting audition, and didn’t get it, on the way out I just said something different to normal. I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I write a little bit.’ They go, ‘If you have anything bring it around.’"
I had just sold my dog because I couldn’t afford it, and here’s $60,000 offered to me for a script.
"They read the screenplay and said, ‘This is pretty good. We can do this.’ For the first time they said, ‘How much more can you type?’ Adding, ‘But we don’t want you.’ So I say no and went home. They say, ‘Okay, $60,000.’ Wow. I had just sold my dog because I couldn’t afford it, and here’s $60,000 offered to me. So I went home and it was so hot… I remember it was really bad, the heat, that my wife got a nosebleed because it was so hot in this apartment in The Valley."
"Then the offer was up to $200,000. ‘You gotta do it, I’m telling you, you’ve got to do it,’ my wife was saying. That’s about five times as much in today’s money. Then it got to $360,000. You talk about crossroads… And I know if I took the money – which was probably a million dollars, maybe a bit more now – I could’ve been very, very, happy, no question, but I would’ve hated myself. I really had to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go for it.’"
"So they said, ‘Okay look, we don’t want you but we’ll take you.’ But there were about five clauses in the contract so they could fire me during the first week. The first scene was a very dramatic one at the dock and they said, ‘Maybe we could keep on him on for a while…’ And that’s how it happened. But I knew that if I gave it away my life would’ve been over. I would’ve been spent. So it’s that crossroads moment where you have to say, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’"
5. The failure of Stallone's Rocky follow-ups hit him hard
"It really crushed me. I was going to do a film called The Driver, and they were gonna offer me a fortune for that, so much money back then, and I wanted to do Paradise Alley for about one tenth of it. But it didn’t work, and there were a couple of reasons for that. The studio was sold and had changed hierarchy, so nobody wanted to inherit someone’s baby, so in the end it was really bad.
"Okay, I walk into the theatre to see Paradise Alley, and there are two people, and one’s asleep. Two people! Opening week! It really was a humbling experience. You can’t go back when it’s done. I loved Paradise Alley. I really did.
"I didn’t want to do Rocky II at all as a director, I really didn’t. I just wanted to act in it, so I wrote the screenplay and everyone said, ‘This is horrible, this is horrible.’ So the director goes, ‘We want Rocky to do drugs and do the Playboy Mansion thing.’ So he basically said, ‘This is horrible, we quit.’ So the producers quit too. I was left with it and they said, ‘Do you wanna take a shot at directing it?’ I go, ‘Okay. I’ll direct it.’"
6. The Rambo movies got a bit out of hand
“The first film was shot in a way that I call ‘eavesdropping’. The lead character doesn’t do grandstand speeches; he isn’t clever or witty… he’s just a survivor. In Rambo II, he could do everything: he could go underwater, shoot a bow and arrow. He was a superhero.
We were in the desert, and that’s why I’m so red these days – I got so burned, I ain’t never coming back.
“Then III was an incredibly brutal movie. We were in the desert, and that’s why I’m so red these days – I got so burned I ain’t never coming back. I have never been in a more dangerous film. I mean, there’s just explosion after explosion and there’s no CGI. There are horse falls and it’s all real. Then in the last one, I tried something. I thought, ‘I’m gonna make this as real as possible. I’m gonna show people what a real action film is. I won’t try to be cute or moral. I’ll just show what civil war is really all about.’
“The civil war that was taking place at that time in Burma, that was the longest running civil war of all time, taking 65 years, and the atrocities you see in the film are real. As a matter of fact, it’s worse than what I showed. I love that movie, I really do, because that’s the one where you say, ‘I’m not gonna do violence-lite, I’m gonna do the real thing.’ If you’re gonna do it, do it. I don’t wanna stay away from it. So I was really happy with that film.”
7. He was reluctant to sign on for Creed
"I was dead set against it… I just didn't ever see taking this character into this realm. Finally my agent said, 'For a guy who played Rocky, you're kind of a chicken." (As told to the LA Times.)
8. He has written a lot of plays
“When I was at college for four years, I was an usher. I wanted to go out and audition during the day, then I worked as an usher at night. $38 a week, but I got to study films. And I would watch, for example, Easy Rider, 60 times. I was there every night. Then I would take the tape recorder, tape a scene then listen to it over and over. Then I would try to re-write the scene in my hotel room or wherever I was living just as an exercise. I wrote 33 plays that were absolutely horrible. The leads would cry, fall and whisper in the same breath.”
9. He put up his own money to make Cop Land
"With Cop Land, I was at that point where again the criticism started to bother me, that I was a meat head - this despite Rocky only having six minutes of physicality and the rest just talking. I basically put up my salary to fund the movie because I wanted to prove the point that I wasn’t just a meat head. I wanted to work with really good actors, with all these wonderful actors. It served a purpose. I wish it had been more successful, but it was just something that I’m so glad I did because it made me realise what I want to do in the future."
10. Jason Statham is his favourite Expendable
“[Jason Statham and I] have just a great rapport together. Very often he is very straight, but when he smiles and jokes around he’s good. You might make it in this business, pal. Keep smiling.”
11. He's not up for TV yet
“I like good TV directors and great writing, but there is one thing that would stop me doing it: the poor guys doing dramas, they work twelve or thirteen hours a day. I don’t if I could work a set all day. But I’d love to do a couple of guest appearances. That said, I would have taken over The Sopranos. (Laughs)”
12. He came up with Mr. T's "I pity the fool" line
“Mr. T wasn’t Mr. T! Mr. T was Mr. Bodyguard, at a fight in 1977, walking out of a room with a big suit and a Mohawk, feathers and gold chains around his neck. I thought, ‘I am writing a movie about this dude.’"
"I asked him, ‘Can I see you throw a punch?’ He threw one, and I made a note: ‘Not coordinated.' I told him, 'I’m going to call you… Clubber Lang!’ True story. Did I write everything Mr. T said? ‘I pity the fool’? I wrote that. I wrote everything! Rocky is one series where I have to say I wrote every period, every comma, every word.”
13. He regrets turning down Romancing The Stone
"I turned down this thing called Coming Home, which eventually won Oscars for everybody. Jon Voight, about the Vietnam war, and that would have been interesting because, of course, I did Rambo. And with Coming Home you would have seen both sides…"
"I turned Witness down, with Harrison Ford, which is great. I’d never had a love affair with an Amish chick. The third thing was picking between Rhinestone and Romancing The Stone and you know which I ended up going for… (Laughs)"
14. He's not perfect
"I abused power. I was an authority on everything. If you had a disease to cure I'd tell you. If you wanted the history of movies I'd tell you. I became insufferable! I look at some of my interviews now and I wish I could go back and punch myself in the face. The press turned against me.
"I kind of made Rocky III autobiographical. I had become really egotistical, much more vain than I had been. That's what happened to Rocky. That's why you go down in flames: you're protected by agents and no-one tells you the truth. It costs Rocky everything and he had to rebuild the eye of the tiger."