Sylvester Stallone had it tough right from the start. Complications during his birth on July 6, 1946 meant that doctors had to use forceps to extract him, but they botched the procedure and severed a nerve in his face. The lower left side of his face was paralyzed as a result, giving him his trademark lopsided look and distinct slurred speech.
He was born in Hell’s Kitchen, in New York City, to two entrepreneurs. His father ran a beauty school in the early 1950s, while his mother operated a women’s gym. His parents had a rocky relationship, which later ended in divorce. Stallone and his brother spent some of their earliest years in foster care.
Stallone stayed in Maryland for a few years with his father after his parents divorced in 1957, before moving to Philadelphia to live with his mother and her second husband. He struggled emotionally and academically, and attended twelve different schools by the age of fifteen. He was eventually enrolled in Devereux Manor High School, a school for troubled youth. Things took a positive turn for him there.
He played American football and began lifting weights. He earned an athletic scholarship to the American College in Switzerland, where he spent two years coaching women’s athletics. He also starred in a production of Arther Miller’s ‘Death of Salesman,’ which inspired him to become an actor.
Stallone had always been resourceful. While in Switzerland, he teamed up with a classmate to open a hamburger stand. He also took a part-time job that required him to keep men away from the girls’ dormitory, but he found that it was more profitable to look the other way. “I earned my plane fare home that way,” he explained.
After attending university in Miami, where he studied drama, Stallone moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He struggled to get any work. By 1973, he had auditioned with every major casting agent in the city and had gone on thousands of acting calls. It reached the point where he was homeless for three weeks and slept in a city bus terminal. He took on odd jobs to make some money, including cleaning up lions’ cages at the Central Park Zoo and acting in a softcore porn movie.
Stallone got his first break in 1974, as Stanley Rosiello in ‘Lords Of Flatbush,’ a film that also served up his first writing credit. But life didn’t get any easier for him. “I moved to California and things weren’t going so well there. As a matter a fact, I actually had to go out and try to sell my dog because it was either that or he wasn’t going to be very well fed around the house.”
It was around this time that he watched a fight between Muhammad Ali and a relatively unknown boxer, named Chuck Wepner. “What I saw was pretty extraordinary. I saw a man called ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ fight the greatest fighter who ever lived. And for one brief moment, this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent. And he lasted and knocked the champ down. I thought if this isn’t a metaphor for life.”
That experience planted the seed for the story that would become Rocky. The underdog that never gave up, that stood up to life, fought with heart, and went the distance. Stallone wrote the screenplay in three days.
Some time afterwards, he was on a casting call for an acting role, but he realized he wasn’t right for the part. On the way out, he mentioned that he was writing a story. The producers told him to bring it by later. They loved the script, but wanted a big Hollywood star to play the lead role. He refused and insisted that he should play Rocky. They finally agreed and it transformed his life.
Rocky was a critical and commercial hit. The film went on to earn ten Academy Award nominations, including for Best Actor, Director and Picture. Rocky won Best Picture, beating out Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, and Network. The Rocky movie franchise has earned over $1.4 billion at the box office, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Thanks to one frenzied period of inspiration and some long overdue good fortune, the man with a troubled past had pushed through his struggles to get his big break. He had stood up to life and gone the distance.
Stallone acknowledges the similarities between his path and that of Rocky Balboa, the legendary character he created. As he puts it, “There are certain parallels. Rocky had drive, and intelligence, and the talent to be a fighter, but nobody noticed him. Then when opportunity knocked, everybody said, ‘Hey, there’s Rocky, he’s good.’ That's what happened to me. The fact that we both went the distance when we were finally given the opportunity, that’s the main parallel.”
Here are some things you may not have known about Sylvester Stallone:
- His mother was into astronomy and predicted he would get his start as a writer
- He is an accomplished artist and has sold paintings for up to $120,000
- He turned down the lead role in Superman, Beverly Hills Cop, and Pretty Woman
- He was voted most likely to end up in an electric chair in high school
- He holds the record for most Razzie nominations and won the award for Worst Actor of the Century
And three lessons from his life:
Never Give Up.
By 1973, Stallone was down on his luck. He wasn’t being called back for auditions. Casting agents weren’t interested in him. He had managed to get a couple of bit part roles, but nothing meaningful. He decided to spend more time writing and produced a few screenplays, including Rocky, while he waited for his big acting break.
After another failed audition, he stayed behind to talk to the producers and mentioned Rocky to them. It turned out to be his breakthrough. In his words, “If I hadn’t stopped on the way out. That’s why I tell all actors or writers, don’t give up. Keep talking. Eventually you might hit a nerve somewhere and they might say ‘Ah, come on back.’”
Even after the huge success he enjoyed with Rocky, Stallone hit a dark period in his career between 1990 and 2005, where he was “going the way of the dodo bird and the Tasmanian tiger.” He was dropped by his agency and manager, who told him they couldn’t find any work for him. It looked like his days in Hollywood were numbered.
Stallone returned to the formula that had served him so well in the past: using boxing as a metaphor for life. He wrote Rocky Balboa, a story that mirrored his acting career. The long retired, former heavyweight champion decides to go for one more fight, even though nobody else believes he has it in him. The movie was a success, earning more than $150 million in box office sales and revitalizing his career.
Ironically, he would not have written Rocky Balboa had he been successful. He wrote it out of necessity. “Things really started to slow down for me…and I had a lot of time for introspection…it is kind of bittersweet. That is why I wanted to write this film. If I had been cranking out films, very successful ones, I wouldn’t have done this one.”
Stallone was back. He released Rambo in 2008, which generated over $100 million in box office sales, then wrote and directed The Expendables in 2010, which took over $30 million in its opening weekend, marking the best opening of his career. He worked on a few more movies in the ensuing years, before reprising his role as Rocky Balboa in a spin-off sequel film called Creed in 2015. He won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the movie.
If you were to ask Sylvester Stallone what the secret to his success is, he would simply tell you that he never gave up. He went the distance. As he puts it, “I am not the richest, smartest or most talented person in the world, but I succeed because I keep going and going and going.”
The most surefire way to fail at anything in life is by giving up. When you have a dream that you are really passionate about, give it everything you have. Keep pushing. Go the distance. As Stallone’s life shows, you never know when you might get that big break.
Believe In Yourself.
Stallone has had his doubters throughout his career, even after the phenomenal success of Rocky. He endured rejection from the start, from every major agent and casting director he encountered. And later in life, he’s been mocked for his acting skills, having received the most Razzie nominations - awards that honor the worst that the film industry has to offer every year.
But, he has always believed in himself. In fact, his success is largely due to the fact that he was willing to take outsized bets on himself at pivotal moments in his career. The best example of this is his handling of the original Rocky script. He was offered $360,000 conditional on another actor playing the role of Rocky Balboa. This was at a time when Stallone had a pregnant wife, $106 in the bank, and was trying to sell his dog for cash.
He refused and insisted that he play Rocky Balboa. It was a bold move, but he felt he had nothing to lose. “I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life. So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script. and it does very very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it.’”
Had Stallone relented and accepted the original offer, and someone else had starred in the movie as Rocky Balboa, we may never have heard of him today. His career would have turned out differently. Instead, he risked everything on himself and it paid off.
Later, when he had hit rock bottom and wanted to create “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth installment in the Rocky franchise, nobody in Hollywood wanted to work with him. And he understood why. “When you’re 60 years old wanting to play a boxer, following a sequel that bombed 15 years earlier, there’s zero chance.” But he pushed through anyway and was vindicated when the movie was a commercial success.
The only opinion of you that matters is your own. You will always have doubters in life. As Stallone proved, everyone else’s doubts may be misplaced. So listen to your heart. If you’re going to fail, let it be because you were wrong, not because of other people’s opinions.
Seize Your Opportunity.
Stallone toiled for months in New York City looking for just one opportunity to prove himself. He worked dead-end, bottom feeding jobs. He slept in bus terminals. He barely had any money for food. All he wanted was one chance.
When it finally came, he grabbed it with both hands. He fought to star in the lead role as Rocky Balboa, because he knew he may never have an opportunity like it again. And when he came to an agreement with the producers to make the film, they gave him a budget of just one million dollars, which was extremely low even for the 1970s.
Under the guidance of director John G. Avildsen, the film came in under budget by using family and friends in the cast, handheld cameras, and only using one take to film most of the footage. Most of the scenes of Rocky jogging through Philadelphia were shot guerrilla-style, with no permits, no equipment and no extras.
An example of the resourcefulness used in making Rocky is the poster above the ring before Rocky fights Apollo. It shows Rocky wearing red shorts with a white stripe when he actually wore white shorts with a red stripe in the film. This was a real mistake that they didn’t have the budget to correct, so Stallone came up with the idea for the scene where Rocky points out the mistake himself.
In looking back at the making of Rocky, Stallone had this to say, “You know, if nothing else comes out of that film in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unmarketable person, can produce a diamond in the rough, a gem. And there are a lot more people like me out there, too, people whose chosen profession denies them opportunity.”
An opportunity is worthless if you don’t seize it. Sometimes you don’t even know it’s there. You have to be looking for it. And when it comes, you have to be willing to do whatever you can to grab it. Just look at what Sylvester Stallone was able to do with one opportunity.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore