Sylvester Stallone was a frustrated young man in 1974 when he left for Hollywood to pursue a career in the movies. In New York he had been one more unemployed actor. Now he resigned himself to becoming one more unemployed screenwriter. In a year, he says, he wrote half a million words, cranking out scripts under a variety of assumed names: Q. Moonblood, W.G. Lake, J.J. Deadlock. "Sometimes a name can be so ugly, it works," he says. "Hum-phrey Bo-gart...Mar-lon Bran-do...." There is the slightest of pauses. "Syl-ves-ter Stal-lone...."
His first scenario—improbably titled Cry Full, Whisper Empty in the Same Breath—was about a rock singer who can't stop eating bananas. In those days, nearly everything Stallone wrote ended in death. "I hadn't yet realized you have to die in the middle of the movie and be reborn at the end," he says. Stallone hadn't yet invented Rocky.
He eventually sold a treatment called Hell's Kitchen for $200. Hell's Kitchen was the story of the three Carboni brothers, who, Stallone says, represented three aspects of his personality. One brother was an entrepreneur, the second, a hustler, and the third, a wrestler. Two movie producers who saw the script liked it so much that they wondered if Stallone could do another screenplay in the same genre. Stallone started writing.
When he was nearly finished with the story, Stallone went to see the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight on closed-circuit TV in 1975. Wepner was a 35-year-old bleeder who was in the ring with Ali mostly because he was white. Wepner almost went the distance. He even knocked Ali down, though it appeared to some that he was standing on the champ's foot. The fight was stopped with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. Wepner was defeated and bloodied, but unbowed. The audience went crazy. So did Stallone. He rewrote the screenplay that became Rocky in 86 hours. "This is it!" he shouted as his wife, Sasha, typed the script. "This is it!"
November 12, 1990
Stallone's first draft had been dark and cynical and full of profanity. His new script was a South Philly fairy tale with heart and purity and just enough cruelty for resonance. He assembled a cast of lovable caricatures from half a century of American cinema: Adrian, the shy, mousy pet-shop girlfriend; Paulie, her mooching brother; Mickey, the crusty trainer. Stallone turned Ali into a cartoon named Apollo Creed. The Wepner character drew his name from Rocky Marciano and the Spanish explorer Vasco Nú‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez de Balboa. Just as Stallone stumbled toward the timeworn Rocky formula, Balboa needed a guide to find the ocean he would discover.
So it is that America's best-loved heavyweight is older than George Foreman, less dented than Joe Frazier and at least an inch shorter than Mike Tyson. Fourteen years have passed since Stallone, 5'10" and now 44 years old, sent the conquistador out to fight the sun god in the original Rocky. By now probably more people have watched Rocky than any other boxer in history, and most of them have never even been to a prizefight. Many may never even have seen another fighter. A quintessential film hero, Rocky Balboa has become more real than real people. Coaches losing at halftime quote him for inspiration. Politicians behind in the polls invoke him. Underdogs everywhere love him. "Rocky became something I never intended," says Stallone. "He came alive. He walked off the screen and into people's consciousness."
The Italian Stallion is still boxing. The fifth Rocky will be released Nov. 15 by United Artists. Stallone is hinting no màs.
The question is: After five Rocky, has Stallone become the prisoner of his own myth? Stallone's thoughts on this are all balled up in his head. Sometimes he'll say, "People see me and see Rocky. I don't speak like him or act like him, and I certainly don't dress like him." But other times he'll say almost mystically, "The child has become father to the man." He likes to think he and Rocky have had parallel lives, that his own rogue-to-riches rise was as Herculean as Rocky's road from bum to champion. But Stallone was a middle-class kid; Rocky had it a lot tougher. He was broke in the original Rocky, and he's broke again at the end of Rocky V. Stallone, on the other hand, is today one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, reportedly commanding up to $25 million a picture. "The fact that I get paid for this is incidental," he says straight-faced. "A true fighter loves to fight, whether it's for five cents or $500,000."
A true fighter Stallone may be, but Rocky is not necessarily the story of his life. "It's the story of what he wanted to achieve," says Tony Filiti, his stepfather when Stallone lived in Philadelphia in the late '50s and early '60s. (Stallone's mother's marital affairs are too complicated to explain in a sports magazine.) "He always fantasized about being the world's greatest. He just wasn't sure at what."
You're gonna eat lightning and you're gonna crap thunder. You're gonna become a very dangerous person.
—MICKEY in Rocky
The most memorable fight of Sylvester Stallone's life was a street-corner prelim in which nobody threw a punch. Stallone was the new boy on the block. He had just run away from his father's house in a suburb of Washington to live with his mother in a tough section of Northeast Philadelphia. He was 15, a spindly kid wearing a military-academy sweatshirt and a lost-dog expression. He was walking around Holmes Circle when he ran into a guy named Pat Glorioso, who lived in the neighborhood. Glorioso made fun of Stallone's boys-school look and his skewed features—his droopy eyelids, his twisted mouth. Glorioso aped the speech impediment that made Stallone sound as if he were talking through an apple.
"Let's go five to the head," he said.
"What's that?" asked Stallone. The only game he had played in the suburbs was sandlot polo.
"The first guy lands five shots to the head wins."
Stallone said O.K. He dropped into a boxing stance.
Glorioso booted him in the groin. Stallone fell down and stayed down.
"I forgot to mention," Glorioso said, walking away, "kicking's legal, too."
Stallone finally pulled himself up and went home to plot vengeance. He taught himself to box. For months he practiced his moves—jabs, hooks, feints. I le did some serious weightlifting. This lasted a year, until he thought he was ready. Then he sandbagged Glorioso. "Come on over my house," Stallone said one day in school. "We'll have steak sandwiches, watch a little TV."
"Sure," said Glorioso. He walked home with Stallone.
"Come out back, and I'll show you the bomb shelter my mom's building," said Stallone. There was a hitch in his voice.
"Let's go five to the head," Stallone said, outback.
Stallone's guest seemed momentarily confused, then he shrugged. "Sure." And sure enough, he kicked again. Stallone grabbed the foot, held on and smashed a right hook into Glorioso's jaw. He let go of the foot, and Glorioso collapsed.
Nearly 30 years later Stallone still feels the hurt—"He'd humiliated me"—and relishes the revenge: "I just walloped him, laid him out." He laughs. He clearly loves to tell this story. "That's what Rocky's all about: pride, reputation and not being another bum from the neighborhood."
But Stallone's mother, Jackie, an astrologer and promoter of women's wrestling, says that when you deconstruct Rocky you'll find that his roots lie somewhere else. "Sly desperately wanted to play football, but his grades were so bad they wouldn't let him on the team," she says. "So one day I drive by his high school during practice and see him in a uniform, leaping up and down outside the fence. He's borrowed the uniform so everyone will think he's a player. I think, How pathetic! He just wants to be accepted, and he's acting like a clown."
Stallone snorts at his mother's story. "That's all made up," he says. "She tries to make up my whole past. She tells people she taught me how to box."
He smiles sardonically. He's pacing a tastefully appointed office at Warner Brothers in West Hollywood, his temporary headquarters while he is shooting Oscar, a gangster farce in which he plays a comic capo. He wears a well-cut, conservative suit, red suspenders and a long gold chain that may or may not be attached to a watch. He's on stage a little bit. His jaunty air weds sincerity with practiced self-mockery. He's sharp and smooth, exceedingly shrewd and very charming. He takes pains to demonstrate that he is a sensitive soul who paints, collects art, writes novels. "People think I've got the IQ of a hockey score," he says. "I'm supposed to be this primordial being who slurs his way through life. I've been called a master of the malapropism. What crap! My vocabulary is larger than 90 percent of the writers I've met."
He honed this vocabulary, he says, with a dictionary he bought at 19. He loved Edgar Allan Poe but couldn't decipher him. So he taught himself a new word every day and practiced using it. But Stallone doesn't depend on this accumulated data, he says, when he's writing or acting or directing. He relies on instinct rather than intellect. Art, he says, is like playing football in the dark: "You don't know when you're going to get tackled, so you just go for it."
Yet each Rocky has been charted with enough calculation to send a rocket to Neptune. "It's not true that I keep making the same movie over and over," Stallone protests. "The Rocky series is about the evolution of a fighter. Rocky V is a 20th-century Cinderella's fall from grace. He comes out of it with his dignity intact. He's somehow not incredibly embittered. That's why the movie's about him and not about me."
"A good snarl can give you what the Bible calls a psychological edge."
—MICKEY in Rocky II
The first image in the original Rocky is a close-up of a mosaic Christ. The camera pulls back to reveal the wall of a church, and in the middle of the church, a ring in which a savage prizefight is taking place. So, is Rocky the Christ story updated, repackaged in Everlast trunks?
"Well," says Stallone, "it is a religious allegory, but Rocky's not really Christ."
Is he an apostle?
"Yeah, maybe a lesser apostle. He's a wayward sheep, a criminal, a leg-breaker, the lowest form of human life. He's been given a gift, a miracle."
Nevertheless, in the Rocky films, Stallone genuflects at every station of the cross, from condemnation to burial. Before Rocky's first title fight with Apollo Creed, he runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, spreading wide his arms in a mixed metaphor of calvary and the Ascension.
So what about Rocky's blood brother, Rambo?
"He's an archangel," says Stallone. "He carries the sword of vengeance."
Young Sly wasn't born in a manger, but almost. The scene was a New York City charity ward in 1946. A forceps delivery severed a facial nerve, paralyzing the left side of his face. "I have a downturned smile that resembles a sneer," Stallone says, "unless I'm standing on my head." His mother was the daughter of Charles Labofish, a weightlifting district-court judge in D.C. who had once roomed with Charles Atlas, the original 97-pound weakling.
Jackie married a Sicilian immigrant named Frank Stallone. They lived in Hell's Kitchen, on Manhattan's mid-West Side, where Frank studied hairdressing and Jackie was a chorine in a Billy Rose revue. They worked so hard to get out of the neighborhood, Sly says, that they had little time for him and his younger brother, Frank Jr. Between the ages of two and five, Sly was boarded with a woman in Queens and picked up by his parents on weekends.
He always tried to get out of his crib. At three he did. He climbed down the fire escape, and a cop found him wandering around Hell's Kitchen and brought him home. After that, Sly ran away whenever he could. When he was five, the family moved to Maryland. Sly remembers riding his tricycle so far from home that he had to ring a fire alarm to get firemen to take him back.
He liked comic-book superheroes. He emulated them. He even tried to fly like Commando Cody. He found out he couldn't when he jumped 25 feet off a ledge holding an umbrella. He broke his collarbone.
Frank Sr. prospered in Maryland. He opened a chain of beauty salons, took up polo. It was an unusual choice of sports for a Sicilian immigrant, and Frank used his riding crop on young Sly. "I wouldn't say I was abused, but I was never praised," Sly says. Writing Rocky, he culled a line from his father's advice: "You weren't born with much of a brain, so you better start using your body." But it wasn't until Sly was 11 and saw Steve Reeves in Hercules that he started bodybuilding. He fashioned barbells out of cinder blocks tied to a broom handle.
Frank Sr. ignored Sly's bodybuilding and just about everything else his son did. Sly, believing he wasn't good at anything but failure, failed extravagantly. At 13, he stole his father's car and wrecked it. "I played chicken with cars," he says. "I even played it with trains." On a religious retreat his parents sent him on when he was 14, he says, a priest lit a candle to show how hot hell is. "Place your hand over the flame, and it will wither," the priest warned. Stallone volunteered. He says he held his hand over the candle until the priest yanked it away. "I'd rather be whipped than snubbed," Stallone says.
His parents divorced when he was 11. Jackie married Filiti, a frozen-pizza mogul, and moved to Philadelphia. Her main exercise was social climbing. Sly was shunted between mother and father. He was equally unpopular in the suburbs and the city. Schoolmates teased him about his paralytic sneer. "I was the original Elephant Man," he says. "I only learned to smile a couple of years ago."
He started calling himself Michael, after his confirmation name. When your name is Sylvester, everyone calls you Puddytat and Tweety Pie. "Automatically there'd be three fights," he says. "Automatic! I never went looking for trouble, but I had a deep sense of honor. I'd rather perish than live in shame." He had been to a dozen schools by the time he was 15 and been tossed out of most of them. "I don't want to sound like I'm crying in my soup, but I was segregated emotionally," he says. "I was an anathema, a total disappointment to my parents, coaches and girlfriends."
He was shipped off to Devereux Manor, a private high school in Berwyn, Pa., for adolescents with adjustment problems. He blossomed as an athlete. He fenced, threw the discus and finally made the football team, playing fullback. Unfortunately, the whole squad had an attitude problem. Nobody, including Stallone, would take orders. Even from the quarterback.
"Go left on three," he would say-
"Cause that's the play."
"I don't want to. Gonna make me?"
They either won big or lost bigger.
Stallone's mother finagled him into the American College of Switzerland—a school in Leysin that was, he says, "for extremely wealthy and professionally spoiled children." For spending money he worked part time as a gym teacher. He wasn't a skier, so during the winter he took a drama class instead. He played Biff in Death of a Salesman.
On opening night, the audience gave him a standing ovation. "I thought, This is it!" he says. "I've finally done something right! From here on in, I'm going for it."
He gave up his plan to become a cattle rancher in Australia.
Stallone returned to the States in 1967 to study acting at the University of Miami. In '69, three credits shy of a degree, he moved to New York. He hosed out the lion cages at the Central Park Zoo. He changed his name back to Sylvester. "I figured I was a failure with Michael," he says. "I might as well fail with Sylvester."
He got a few bit parts in the movies and landed a starring role, which he would later regret, in a pornographic feature called A Party at Kitty and Stud's. He found a job as an usher at Walter Reade's Baronet theater in Manhattan and there met Sasha Czack. After he was fired for trying to scalp tickets to Walter Reade himself, they headed for Hollywood. Sasha waitressed, Sly wrote. He worked hard to eliminate his speech impediment, reading Poe and Walt Whitman and Shakespeare into a tape recorder.
"Shakespeare was the greatest writer," he says. "You couldn't con him, and he had every character in his plays."
Which one was Rocky?
"I wouldn't want to say. It might be misconstrued."
"Uh-huh," he says sheepishly. "They've got the same masochistic streak and sense of self-loathing."
I'm sentimental. A lot of other people in this country are just as sentimental.
—APOLLO CREED in Rocky
The Bard never peddled himself and his work as a package deal. Stallone did. He wanted to play Rocky. The producers offered him $180,000 and told him to stay home. He only had $106, Sasha was pregnant with their first son, Sage, and Butkus, their bull mastiff, was hungry.
"Shove it," said Stallone.
The producers came back with $360,000 and Ryan O'Neal.
Stallone held out until he got the part. He got only $20,000 for the screenplay and $625 a week to play Rocky. But he also got 10% of the net. The studio budgeted a measly million dollars for the movie.
Rocky was shot in 28 days. It went $100,000 over budget and brought in $225 million in box receipts alone. It won Oscars for the best picture of 1976, best editing and best director (John Avildsen). Even The New Yorker's demanding Pauline Kael liked it.
Stallone didn't get an Oscar, but he was nominated for one. He played Rocky with a colossal goofiness that was impossible not to watch. His slow-on-the-uptake palooka was so convincingly sincere that movie audiences actually jumped up and screamed for him to win. It was the Bicentennial year. Rocky was the first of the post-Vietnam War heroes.
"Rocky's the ultimate warrior, almost immortal," Stallone says. "In each film, he's eventually overwhelmed by adversity and reaches the point at which he has to either go for it or acquiesce." But Rocky is as incapable of acquiescing as his creator. "We're unable to step backward from a challenge," says Stallone with characteristic understatement. "That's our salvation and our ruination."
Do other fighters pound raw meat?
No, I think I invented it.
—REPORTER and ROCKY in Rocky
The focus shifts in Rocky II. Stallone directed it as if he were caressing a lover. He was. It was himself. "I was insecure," he says. "I thought if I didn't show close-ups of myself, the audience would lose interest." Avildsen had shot the original in long and medium shots of Rocky slouching along beat-up Philadelphia streets. In his camera, Rocky was a loser. He got up from the canvas, but he didn't win the fight. Rocky didn't become a winner until Stallone began to direct.
Stallone was viewed as an oddity after Rocky, a one-shot wonder. He was out-pointed by the critics and ignored by the public in his next two roles. Nobody much liked him as the Jimmy Hoffa-like union leader in F.I.S.T. (1978) or the hustler in Paradise Alley (1978), which was his old Hell's Kitchen script reworked. The problem was, Rocky was so big that Stallone could hardly do anything modest. "Everyone wrote me off," he says. "I just wanted a shot at the title."
His personal life was becoming a Rocky horror show. He had some very public love affairs. He and Sasha separated. "I was basking in a newfound acceptance and notoriety, a babe in Toyland," Stallone says. "I expounded on things I knew nothing about—politics, social issues, religion. People expected me to live up to Rocky's ideals, which I couldn't."
He began hearing bizarre tales about himself. "Like I don't let anyone on the set go to the bathroom," he recalls. "Like I'm really 5'6" and never work with anyone taller. Have you seen my opponents in the Rocky films? They're huge." He shakes his head in disbelief and bewilderment at human fantasy.
His second son, Seargeoh, now age 11, was diagnosed as autistic. Stallone began to feel like Job, plagued by troubles. "I went into my backyard and cursed God," he says.
God took pity and recommended a sequel. And Stallone did it. Rocky II is a fairly simpleminded film about winning. Creed is goaded into giving Rocky another fight; Rocky hesitates but finally agrees to get into the ring. They knock each other down simultaneously. Rocky staggers up from the canvas first and is declared the heavyweight champion of the world. What else?
Many critics dismissed Rocky II as a secondhand car, repainted but with a very tired motor. Audiences loved it. Rocky II made $200 million. "You can't analyze Rocky's appeal," Stallone insists. "It's like trying to analyze the recipe of an apple pie."
But then the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter: You got civilized.
—MICKEY in Rocky III
In the opening montage of Rocky III, our hero smiles from the cover of Newsweek, does an American Express commercial and appears on The Muppet Show. His blood-and-sweat image has been reproduced on paper plates and candy wrappers. He poses with Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. You can't tell Rocky from Stallone. The line between them has vanished. Is the movie following real life or is real life following the movie?
"I wanted Rocky III to be a metamorphosis," Stallone says. "I wanted him to be totally rebuilt. I tried to incorporate all the hectic facets of my own life: how becoming this cause cèlèbre had made me change for the worse."
The movie, which came out in 1982, was about coping with sudden wealth and fame and the fear of losing it all. Rocky's main problem now is his own success. He has left the mean streets of South Philly behind. He's a tailored gent who lives comfortably in an immense white porticoed mansion in the suburbs. Wealth has softened him. He has lost touch with his roots. His hunger is gone. He's on top and stays there because his manager, Mickey, feeds him bozos. Rocky doesn't realize the only way to go is down. "His real opponent is himself," Stallone says.
Meanwhile, Stallone has been having trouble with his own identity. He can't get rid of Rocky. After II, he makes a couple of turkeys, Nighthawks (1981) and Victory (1981). He grows a beard so he doesn't look like Rocky. He makes off-color jokes on talk shows that Rocky wouldn't tell in the training room. He appears on Dinah! in a white canvas suit with flowers embroidered on it. He goes back to his wife. "It was almost like doing a sequel," he says.
By the time shooting begins on III, Rocky has become such a conceit for Stallone that he commissions a statue of himself to be erected atop the art museum steps he had climbed in triumph in I and II. He wants to film III's final fight scene in Rome at the Colosseum. His film ideas are becoming as grandiose as those of a Steve Reeves gladiator epic.
Rocky II was lunkheaded; Rocky III is ludicrous. The screen fills up with laddered abdominals, bulging biceps bound by ropelike veins, and beads of sweat like oil on a polished, well-tuned machine. Stallone had built himself a brand-new body. He was so proud that he could hardly take the lens off it.
Mr. T appears on the scene as the No. 1 contender, a bestial behemoth named Clubber Lang. He taunts Rocky into fighting him, against Mickey's advice. Clubber clobbers Rocky in Round 2. Presumably too embarrassed to watch, Mickey retires to the dressing room and expires. Services are held in a cavernous synagogue. After all these years of being Irish, Mickey dies Jewish. "It surprised me, too," says Stallone, as if he hadn't written the script.
Apollo Creed comes to Rocky's rescue. Apollo's roots are in Watts, and he takes Rocky back home to L.A. to learn how to fight with speed and rhythm and fancy footwork. Rocky learns to fight black. He rope-a-dopes through the return bout a la Ali and clobbers Clubber in the third round to regain the title. Mr. T joins The A-Team.
When the filming is finished, Stallone bequeaths his statue to the museum, with the understanding that it be left where it is, looking down on most of the city. After all, he believes, he made Philadelphia famous. Lots of Philadelphians believe it, too.
The local arts establishment is offended, calls the statue schlock, a movie prop. Philadelphians rally around this Hollywood tribute to a fake boxer. A Rocky Must Stay committee is formed. A Keep Rocky ordinance is submitted. The conflict ends in a draw, with the statue given a new home outside the Spectrum, the sports arena where Rocky won his mythic title in II.
"It doesn't even look like me," Stallone says. Which, in a way, is true. Stallone insisted the sculptor pare away some of his old paunch. "They can cut the head off, for all I care. It's just a classical statement of perfection in the Greco-Roman tradition. It's like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci." It's unclear if he means before or after they became Ninja Turtles.
Women weaken legs.
—MICKEY in Rocky
By the time Rocky IV is released in 1985, Stallone's muscles have become as taut and ballooned as Popeye's in a Thanksgiving Day parade. He has enlarged his pecs and his box-office receipts in two Rambo of the Jungle films. Instead of making modestly ambitious duds between Rockys, he now makes tortured Vietnam vetsploitation films. Rambo is Rocky in combat boots, with bazooka replacing palooka. He's a superpatriot fighting for his idea of America's honor when the country has become too wimpy to stand up to the Commies. In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Stallone has to battle American politicians and bureaucrats before he can settle down to slaughtering Asians as he frees POWs still held by Vietnam.
Rambo's ideological fervor rubs off on Rocky. "He's no longer just a fighter," Stallone says. "He's a political missile."
In Rocky IV the merely superhuman Rocky has to face giant, soulless, biochemically engineered Ivan Drago, a Soviet cyborg so evil he wears a black mouthpiece. Rocky agrees to fight Ivan the Terrible in Moscow on Christmas Day after the Red monster kills Creed in the ring. Stallone conceived of the film as a Cold War update of the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, with Russki robotics supplanting Nazi tyranny. And, interestingly enough, Stallone playing Louis.
Rocky won in III by becoming more black than a black; in IV he becomes more Russian than the Soviet. Wearing a Christlike beard, he trains in the frozen waste of Siberia, communing with the primitive forces of nature. He chops wood, hitches himself to a sled and lugs a log around like the True Cross. Intercut with Rocky's all-natural, unadulterated training routine is Ivan's ultra-high tech molding by supcrscientists. He's injected with suspicious fluids and wired to more electronic ganglia than Frankenstein.
But technology is no match for pure American soul and free enterprise. Despite punches that thunder into his head like amplified mortars, Rocky drubs Drago and wins over the anti-American crowd. By the end of the film even Soviet soldiers at ringside chant, Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE! Draping himself in an American flag, Rocky seizes the moment to make a plea for peace: "In here, there were two guys killin' each other, but I guess that's better'n 20 million." Mikhail Gorbachev and the Politburo stand and applaud him. Rocky IV made glasnost possible, although Stallone is far, far too tactful to assert it.
On the home front, Stallone was as isolated as Rocky in the steppes. He divorced Sasha. "Because of my background, I'm not cut out to be a stationary object," he more or less explains. "I'm motivated by outside stimulus, and at the same time require long periods of being alone."
When stationary, Stallone relied more and more on his bodyguards, not only for protection but for male companionship. Outside stimulus was provided by Brigitte Nielsen, whose icicle-eyed Viking blond-ness eerily echoed Drago's. (She played Drago's wife in IV.) "My marriage to her rates with the riddle of the Sphinx," Stallone says, sighing heavily. "I fell madly in love with an ideal of physical perfection." He may have believed it was the mating of equals. The clinch broke after 18 months in a split decision. Nielsen's take was at least $2 million.
"It was devastating," he says bitterly. "What I thought was perfection turned into some rolling carnival of horrors put out on public display to be mocked. It had catastrophic effects on me in the area of bonding of the souls. I've lost the ability to be totally subservient to my heart. If this had happened to anyone else, it would be called a tragedy. When it happens to me, it's entertainment."
Nobody owes nobody nothing. You owe yourself.
—ROCKY in Rocky III
Stallone had planned to kill off Rocky in V. A pregnant Adrian was to have delivered Rocky's eulogy after he died in a street brawl: "At 9:15 my husband passed away. He was not a great man. But he did great things. And as long as there are people willing to take a chance—the way my husband did—the world will always...have...its Rockys."
But Stallone couldn't pull the trigger. "It would have been too traumatic for the audience," he says. It might have been too traumatic for Stallone, too. He would have killed off his dreams, his fantasies, a big chunk of his personality and a money machine that has already spit out a billion dollars in box-office receipts.
Instead, Stallone retired Rocky as a prizefighter. This time around, Rocky has lost his money, his mansion and possibly his mind. "He's showing signs of brain damage," says Stallone. "I wanted to play him like a 12-year-old, but stopped halfway through the filming. It was like seeing your favorite dog with dysplasia."
Too old, too slow, too punched out to fight, Rocky returns to South Philly and becomes a trainer in his old gym. He takes on Tommy Gunn, a raw, musclebound farm boy who reminds Rocky of his younger self. Gunn is part Tyson, part Nielsen, part Judas. "Rocky gives up everything for an ideal," Stallone says, "and that ideal betrays him and almost destroys him."
Gunn dumps Rocky for George Washington Duke, a sinister boxing promoter obviously modeled after Don King. "Rocky doesn't understand that loyalty doesn't count for much in the boxing racket," Stallone says.
He sees the film as a parable of the movie industry. "This business is a fire-breathing dragon," he says with disgust. "It constantly needs new stuff to devour. The studios pressure you to keep doing the same thing over and over, and the money they offer is very, very tempting. But there's a danger in just repeating your successes. It can kill you creatively."
Hey, Mick. What do you think we're gonna do when it's over"?
I don't know. Maybe join up with a circus.
—ROCKY AND MICKEY in Rocky III
Winter in Philadelphia is chill and bright, and the Civic Center is packed with 8,000 natives posing as fight fans. Outside, the stark sun; inside, steam and sweat and frustration. These extras have been waiting all morning for Stallone to show. The arena fills with chants of Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE! Finally, Stallone emerges from the shadows and treks through the crowd, surrounded by bodyguards. He climbs through the ropes and punches the air, raising a howl of cheers.
"Yo!" he shouts.
The arena erupts in wild cheers.
Stallone looks around the hall. Kids wave red, white and blue Rocky banners. He watches a balloon drift to the lofty arched ceiling.
Wilder cheers: Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE!
Stallone raises his hands and quiets the crowd. "This is probably the last and most important saga of Rocky."
He poses for a few pictures, choreographs Gunn's title bout and leaves.
Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE!
"When they cheer for Rocky," Stallone says, "they're cheering for themselves."
He returns to Philly a few months later to shoot Rocky's climactic street fight with Gunn. Between takes he holes up in his trailer, shadowboxing to a PBS tape called The Power of Myth. It's hard living in the time of your own legend, Stallone says. "I'm not as ethically moral as Rocky," he says. "It gets harder and harder to get into character."
Personality, he says, you can fake. Character must come from within. "It's a hunger, a fire," he says. "It's why two halfbacks can be the same age, size and speed, yet one runs for 20 yards a season and the other, 2,000. It's the difference between Rich Little and the guys he impersonates. It's what separates a coward from a hero. Everyone's scared: The hero is just willing to take a chance."
A bodyguard swings open the door of the trailer. Stallone's elder son, 14-year-old Sage Moon-blood Stallone, steps in. Sage plays Rocky's son in V. He's a quiet, polite kid who seems to love his dad. Sly dispenses some fatherly wisdom: "Remember, D.T.A."
"Don't trust anyone."
Sage nods sagely and leaves.
"Sage is the benefactor of all my mistakes," Stallone says. "Everyone thinks he'll be Son of Rocky in the next sequel, and probably he thinks so, too." But Stallone says he won't let him. "That would have a Vesuvian effect on him," he says. "He'd be buried in my hypercritical lava." Sage, he says, has brains but not desire. "Growing up in Hollywood, the first word you learn isn't Mommy. It's Lim-o."
There's no end to Stallone's desire. After Oscar, he has a four-picture deal with Carolco. One of the movies is a comedy costarring John Candy. Someday Stallone may even get to play his hero, Poe. He still thinks the screenplay of Poe's life he wrote back in the '70s may be his best' work. "No American artist was more misunderstood," he says. "He was scorned as a lunatic instead of hailed as a visionary. The truth is, he didn't know the game. He was like Rocky."
Until then, Stallone is comfortable doing a farce like Oscar, though he may miss getting slugged in the face. "I tried to write in a crucifixion scene," he says Slyly, "but they wouldn't let me."