“I’m not that smart, but I know one thing: You are never a failure until you quit, and it’s always too soon to quit. God uses tough times to test our persistence.” Rick Warren
Early March 1975 – Los Angeles, California. The 30-year-old wannabe actor was at rock bottom. He had $106 in the bank, a pregnant wife, was behind on the rent on his roach-infested one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, his $50 car had just died, and he had no acting prospects. He could no longer afford to buy food for his Bull Mastiff, Butkus, so he sadly sold his buddy for $25. “The wolf was at the door, and I was ready to quit,” he recalled.
On March 24, 1975, he watched little-known boxer Chuck Wepner fight world heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali for the heavyweight title. Although the odds were 30:1 against Wepner making it past the third round, he fought the champion toe-to-toe for 15 rounds. The young actor was inspired. He got an idea for a movie script.
When Sylvester Stallone was born, a forceps mishap damaged a facial nerve in his cheek, resulting in slurred speech, a drooping lower lip and his trademark snarl. His parents divorced when he was 11, and he was shuffled between foster homes. By 16, Stallone had attended a dozen Catholic schools and been kicked out of most of them for fighting or stealing.
After finally graduating from high school, he spent two years at the American College of Switzerland in Geneva before transferring to the University of Miami to study drama. Three courses shy of a degree, he left for New York to become an actor. Acting jobs did not come easily. Stallone found work cleaning the lion’s cages at the Central Park Zoo and ushering in a movie theater. For a short time, he slept in the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Minor success came in 1974 when he landed a role in a low-budget film, The Lords of Flatbush. Frustrated with opportunities in New York, he moved to Hollywood to chase his dream. His new wife, Sasha, waitressed while he landed a few bit roles in movies and wrote movie scripts that didn’t sell.
The night after the heavyweight championship, Stallone began to write in long hand on a notebook pad. He wrote, and Sasha typed. He worked feverishly and 3 ½ days later had a movie scrip. It features Rocky Balboa, a down-and-out blue-collar worker in Philadelphia, who gets a shot at the heavyweight boxing championship. Sasha encouraged him, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do it. Push it Sly, go for broke.”
Stallone pestered movie producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler until they agreed to read his script. They liked it. They did not like the idea of Stallone playing the part of Rocky, which he was insistent upon. They had Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neale or Burt Reynolds in mind for the role.
The producers offered Stallone $50,000, then $100,000 and eventually $350,000 for the script, but without him cast in the lead role. Stallone held out. He needed to find out if he could act. He finally sold the movie script for $20,000 and 10% of the movie earnings, and he would be the star. Stallone later commented, “I was desperate. I would have done the movie for a doughnut and a tuna sandwich.”
Money wasn’t available for a typical movie production. Rocky was filmed in Philadelphia in just 28 days for only $960,000. Stallone reclaimed his dog, Butkus, and he played Rocky’s dog in the movie. Rocky was the highest-grossing film in 1976 at $220 million. The movie received seven Oscar nominations and won three Oscars, including best picture. Stallone didn’t win an Oscar but was nominated for Best Actor.
The movie struck a chord with underdogs. It resonated with never-make-it, don’t-have-a-chance and down-and-out people everywhere. The success of Rocky led to Rocky II in 1979, also a major success, grossing $200 million. Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985), Rocky V (1990), Rocky Balboa (2006) followed.
Today, 77-year-old Sylvester Stallone is one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. He has written, directed or acted in more than 80 movies and is the only actor with a number one movie in six straight decades.
Stallone forged his own path by writing a movie starring himself, which turned into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Like Rocky, Stallone went the distance when he finally got the opportunity. “I tell all actors and writers to never give up,” he says, “You might eventually hit a home run.”