The Profile Dossier: Sylvester Stallone, the Grittiest Actor in Hollywood
"I am not the richest, smartest, or most talented person in the world, but I succeed because I keep going and going and going."
Here's how legendary actor Sylvester Stallone describes his life: Chaotic.
"From the time I got dressed in the back of a deflated, flat-tired, fish-smelling station wagon for Rocky, it's always been a 'do it yourself,' kind of like paper-clip it together," he says.
He has paper-clipped his way to ultimate stardom, but his journey to success has been as dramatic as any Hollywood movie.
Stallone's rocky start to life dates all the way back to the day of his birth. Born in New York City in 1946, Stallone's mother had a difficult delivery, which required doctors to use forceps. They caught his face and accidentally severed a nerve in his cheek, resulting in his signature snarl and slurred speech.
As a child, Stallone was thin, insecure, and often bullied for his speech impediment. He found ways to get in trouble, and he was expelled from 14 different schools for behavioral problems, all before he was 15 years old.
After his parents divorced, he was sent to a boarding school for troubled youth. His life began to turn around after he discovered sports and began playing football, the discus, and weight-lifting. He went to college in Switzerland for two years and returned to the United States to enroll at the University of Miami with a major in drama.
He dropped out of college and moved into a $36-per-week hotel room in New York City where he was determined to make it as an actor. To make ends meet, he took a number of odd jobs including cleaning lion cages at the Central Park Zoo, selling fish at a deli, and working as an usher at the Baronet Theatre.
In 1970, broke and desperate, Stallone even starred in a porn film called The Party at Kitty and Stud's, which paid him $200. "I was broke and sleeping in the Port Authority bus station for three weeks straight," he says. "I read in a trade paper about this film that was paying $100 a day. For $100 a day, I would wreak havoc. Instead of doing something desperate, I worked for two days for $200 and got myself out of the bus station."
Eventually, he found modest success landing small roles in several films, but more so, he had impressed several producers with his writing skills. He pitched his idea for Rocky, and the producers offered to buy it from him for $350,000 and cast Ryan O'Neal or Burt Reynolds for the starring role. "I said, 'Oh no, I don't know if you understood that I'm writing this for me,'" Stallone told them.
At this point, Stallone was struggling for money. He didn't have a car, and he had recently sold his beloved bullmastiff dog Butkus for $40 to pay the bills. And even though he only had $106 in his bank account at the time, Stallone turned down the lucrative offer and refused to sell the script unless they allowed him to star as the boxer.
Finally, they reached a deal: Stallone would be allowed to star in the role but only if he waived his writing fee and accepted a meager $35,000 acting salary.
He said, "This is one of those things where you just roll the dice and you 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.’”
After the screenplay for Rocky sold, Stallone tracked down the new owner of Butkus and used $15,000 of the money to buy his dog back. "He was worth every penny," Stallone says. To make things even better, Butkus even starred in the film.
Rocky grossed more than $225 million at the box office. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it became the first sports film ever to win "Best Picture." The entire Rocky movie franchise has earned more than $1.4 billion at the box office, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Stallone wrote this part for Rocky, but also for himself:
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
Here's what we can learn from Stallone's story about how taking smart risks and betting on yourself can pay off in spades.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Profile to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.