Rocky the musical opened on Broadway in 2014, and Sylvester Stallone was among the audience on the opening night. Perhaps you are a huge fan of Sylvester Stallone, perhaps not. No matter. Because this is an awesome story.

Before he became famous, Sylvester Stallone was quite literally a down-and-out actor. He lived in a tiny, run down, one room hovel. He didn’t think things could get any worse, and he was wrong. He was evicted because he couldn’t pay his rent, and slept in a New York bus terminal for three weeks. He didn’t have a dollar to his name.

Then he saw an ad for a softcore porn film [Italian Stallion]. $200 for two days work. So he took the part and the $200. He managed to get off the streets, and gradually starting getting some minor acting parts. Of course he was always cast in a minor role, as the thug who could barely do more than grunt. Meanwhile he was writing a script called Rocky.

When he had finished writing Rocky he knew it was good. He sent it to everyone, and eventually it ended up with two big-time Hollywood producers. They offered to buy it for James Caan, or Robert Redford, or Burt Reynolds to star in.

But Stallone said he’d only sell it if he could play the lead role. There was no way the producers would cast an unknown as the star in a movie, but they wanted the script. So they offered him more money. Stallone dug in. Either they buy the script with him starring in the lead role, or they don’t buy the script at all.

The producers didn’t even know what Stallone looked like, so they looked for a pic of him. They found a publicity shot for Lords of Flatbush, a movie Sylvester Stallone has acted in a few years prior. They thought he looked okay, and so the contract was signed for Stallone to star.

When everyone turned up at the studio on the day of the shoot, the producers couldn’t see Stallone. The assistant pointed him out. And the producers said, “That’s not the guy in the picture you showed us. Where’s the good-looking guy?” The assistant said “The good-looking guy in the front is someone else. Stallone is the one on the left.”

They had cast the wrong guy. They had cast the dopey looking thug on the left. But by that time the contract was signed, the crew was standing by, the studio, the camera, the lights, the props were all paid for. They also figured they could afford the risk, since the entire movie cost just $980,000 to make. It took just 28 days to film Rocky.

When Rocky was released it earned $225 million in global box office receipts, becoming the highest grossing film of 1976. It was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Screenplay [both for Sylvester Stallone]. It won three Oscars, including Best Movie.

Rocky spawned five sequels: Rocky IIIIIIVV and Rocky Balboa, all written by and starring Stallone, who also directed all sequels except for Rocky V. By 1994 Sylvester Stallone was the highest paid movie star in the world. And in 2014, Rocky the musical opened on Broadway.

Did Sylvester Stallone just get lucky? Did he have enormous acting talent, that eventually just has to shine through? Or was he just a simple guy with a dream, a script, and a whole lot of fight?

As the old boxing quote says, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get up.”

Richard Sauerman
Richard Sauerman
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