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!"
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 Núñez 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 más.
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