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The Trouble with Sylvester Stallone

The ‘Rocky’ actor learns fancy cars are not the solution to the Mystery

Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone at the 1977 People's Choice Awards, February 10th, 1977

CBS/Getty

Sylvester Stallone remembers the exact moment when he realized that he was a self-aggrandizing asshole. He was purring along in his Clénet, which is a car priced above $80,000, and he had owned it for two weeks and thought it was a beautiful machine right up until he glanced out and saw the image of that extraordinary vehicle reflected in a store window, and he said to himself: “What self-aggrandizing asshole would drive a car like that?”

The answer arrived with startling rapidity. The next day the car went. He took a terrible beating, but he didn’t care. The hell with it, he said, and boom, adieu Clénet. More sales followed. The Porsche. The Mercedes. Auf Wiedersehen. Soon there was only a Toyota wagon standing between him and immobility.

But Sylvester Stallone had learned something.

Fancy cars were not the solution to the Mystery.

Sylvester was being hard on himself. “The farther down I was,” he was saying, “the more I tried to claw to get back. It brought out the most base qualities in my nature. Maybe in human nature in general. That of greed, envy, vindication, spite.”

In suite 305 of the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York City, Sylvester was sitting before me and confessing all: his mistakes, his hostility, his egomania, his general obnoxiousness, his betrayal of friends and family, his wasting of energy and money, his excessive wine-song-and-womanizing. In short, every awful cliché of the classic saga known as Blowing Success. It was a tale of dissipation, degradation, pain, self-hatred and terror.

What fun!

I sat happily encouraging him to blab still more of his fall from grace, as he called it.

How we love to wallow in the misfortune of others.

Especially stars.

And what a story it was, spooling onto my disbelieving Sony. A brief outline: (1) Our hero goes from rags to riches. (2) He reaches the pinnacle of success, only to succumb to temptation and plunge into an abyss of bitterness and despair. (3) Then he rallies and fights his way back to the top! (4) Then —– get this —– he makes the same mistakes all over again that he made back at step two and plunges back into that same damn abyss! (5) Then, unbelievable as it may seem, he struggles back to that pinnacle of success for the third time! And finally achieves, at age thirty-six, (6) Peace of mind. (7) Whew!

What a movie all this would make, I marveled.

Oops, forgot. It already has. Three movies to be exact. All with the same name.

After Rocky knocked out the world in 1976, Sylvester starred in F.I.S.T., the story of a working-class hero not named Jimmy Hoffa. It was not a success. “I take a lot of the blame for that,” Sylvester said. Then came Paradise Alley, as close to a one-man show as a movie can get. Sylvester wrote it, starred in it, directed it. He sang in it. This film made a very strong impression. Almost everyone agreed. It stank.

“I received the worst reviews since Hitler,” he reminisced. “They would actually ignite, they were so hot. They would say, ‘The egomaniac has made a film that warrants nothing but banishment from the archives of any cinema student.’ Or, ‘He’s taken every bad habit since film began, since Birth of a Nation, and made it worse…. His voice is reminiscent of the guttural echoings of a mafioso pallbearer, and we could only recommend that he cut his vocal cords and stand as far away as he can in a crowd scene.’ And these were the ones who were writing nice reviews for Rocky. I mean, it was unbelievable.”

The reviews had thrown Stallone into a black rage. On talk shows he issued threats to the critics: Why don’t you say it to my face? Let’s settle this man to man. Any time. Any place. I’ll pay your fare.

Now he’s embarrassed to think about it. In fact, he’s embarrassed to think about Paradise Alley. “Now that I look back on it, they were right. Because the character was really despicable. No redeeming qualities at all. There’re a couple of moments at the end, but that isn’t enough. The character I portrayed should’ve been the lively, effervescent comedic part of the ensemble piece. But instead of being the supplier of the energy, I was the foul spark plug, just sputtering. When I watch Paradise Alley at home, I have to look at it with one eye. It’s too much to take with two eyes. Ow! It hurts!”

Exterior —– day —– the White House.

A long limo rolls up the driveway. Our boy gets out, spiffy in a dark suit. Smiling, the president approaches.

By God, he’d earned it. He’d done boffo at the box office, and in America you can’t do any better. And so he got to shake the hand of the prez. Eventually, he’d shake three of them. Not to mention majority leaders, speakers and assorted whips.

All of our nation’s leaders said to him essentially the same thing: “Hi, Rock.”

This drove Sylvester quietly berserk.

It was a definite contributor to his marathon wig-out, he explained to my enthralled Sony back in suite 305.

“Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. They all said, ‘Pleasure to meet you, Rocky.’ And in the next breath, I turn around to visit the Senate chambers and Ted Kennedy knocks me on the shoulder: ‘Hey, Rock! Can I have three autographs for my kids?’ Right then, I know it’s over.”

At the White House dinner, he peered at the place cards. Yes, there it was, embossed in gold letters: Sylvester Stallone. Not Rocky. Maybe someone would notice this.

“Hey, Rock, want some more potatoes?”

He’d go to parties, and as he walked in, a familiar buzz would go through the room. He’d see people looking at him, then whispering to their partners. After a time, he knew what they were whispering. He couldn’t take it. He’d bark: “That’s right. I’m not as tall as you thought, right? Okay. Now let’s move on, cut the chatter and enjoy this party.”

Poor Sylvester. He was rich, he was famous, he was on top. How come everyone confused him with another guy?

“I felt trapped by the Rocky image. I really did. I thought: ‘Don’t people realize that I am not a supposedly thick-tongued, punchy individual? That I wrote this and I was involved in the production?’ But people were writing constantly about what a Neanderthal I was in private life, that I really was Rocky. That I was just snatched off the streets and that it was the only role I was capable of playing.”

Food came to suite 305. My dinner with Sylvester. He attacked his broiled sole. Sony whined and I slipped him a morsel of tape. Sylvester’s wife, Sasha, appeared and placed a large, white, football-shaped pill on the clean linen before him.

“Your starch blocker, ” she said.

Your what?

He explained. “This pill blocks four potatoes, three slices of pizza —– not all together, but either —– about three ears of corn, four pieces of bread. Whoever came up with this has got to be a millionaire already.”

You’re watching your weight?

He leaned forward and lowered his voice.

“Actually, I don’t need this. She has a Nightingale complex.”

After Paradise Alley, Sylvester walked out on Sasha. Sylvester was really working up a foul mood. The pressure was getting to him. The stories end when you go from rags to riches, but life doesn’t. And how do you keep the riches with those critics rubber-hosing the soles of your feet? “I had discovered real fear for the first time. Fear of losing what I had attained. Before, I didn’t care. I was broke.” On top of everything else, his manager up and died. She was a protector. “I felt betrayed. She never even told me she was sick. It was just like one day I called and said, ‘When are you coming out here?’ and her husband says, ‘She’s dead.’ “

Success, which was supposed to be sweet cream, was souring. Why wasn’t he enjoying his success? He felt his family was somehow stifling him, keeping him from attending the big party he’d worked so hard to get invited to. He resented them and walked out. He had an affair. He quit talking to his friends. He talked only to his new managers —– a hard lot —– reflecting his hostile mood. “I became a reclusionary,” he said. For two months, he slept on a sofa bed in an office at Universal. “But the most drastic change was my values. I really became envious and coveted other people’s success.”

He was magnificently screwed up.

“In doing all that, I got so far away from whatever it took, like talent, to do Rocky, I thought I’d lost it all. I thought that I couldn’t regain any kind of momentum again. I felt I was really slipping down.”

There was only one man who could save our hero now. Starts with an R.

“I thought and I thought and I said: Rocky II. It was like a resuscitator. It came at a time when I needed it most. I went back to my family. I swallowed a lot of crow. I mean, I really apologized for having destroyed the tranquility of my family life, publicly embarrassing my wife and friends and betraying who I was. I worked very hard on this, swallowed crow and tried to regain the same sensibilities I had when I was writing Rocky I. And I think it happened.”

Rocky II, you doubtless recall, was one of the highest grossing movies of 1979. It worked. It restored Sylvester’s confidence and put him back on top.

Immediately, he blew it again.

“I just slipped into the same syndrome.”

Again he left home. This time he coupled with Susan Anton in one of the more publicized extramarital flings of the year. He followed her to Las Vegas and helped her with her nightclub act. Together they….

Just a minute. I had to ask a question: Just what was it you were looking for, anyway?

“I was looking for….”

Lengthy pause.

“Heaven! I really was. I was looking for heaven on earth. Nirvana. I was looking for what some individuals experience on NDE, near-death experience. You know how you leave your body and float and everything seems so wonderful? I thought that success meant freedom from all responsibility, freedom from all fears, and that you could basically float through life with people patting you on the back saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you and keep up the good work.’ “

Interior – any drab hotel, anywhere.

Sylvester alone with his demons.

He and Susan Anton broke up. It was wrong. More madness and doubt. Huge guilt over leaving home. He started missing Sasha and the kids. Loyal, faithful Sasha, a rock of stability, there from the start. Wracked by guilt, grappling with the dark mysteries, mocked by the elusive happiness that was always just beyond his grasp, Sylvester writhed in torment, rivaling Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh or Monty Clift as anyone. What a scene! What angst!

“I said, ‘What … is … the … mystery, man? What is it that success brings? Am I blowing it? Am I going in the wrong direction? Does it mean wearing white suits all the time? Having caviar? What the fuck is success all about?‘ “

He decided he had to go back to his wife.

His wife decided, like hell he would. First, she said, go solve your Siddhartha what-is-the-meaning-of-life riddle. Clear out your head. “She knew that if I came back at that time that eventually I would leave again. ‘N other words, there was too many loose ends. Go out and solve the mystery.”

This was tough on crazed old Sylvester. He came sneaking over the backyard fence to see the kids. Sasha kicked him out. He dabbled in wretched excess. Went to New York to film a cop movie, Nighthawks, and overdid. Drank too much. Stayed out all night. Hit the discos. It was fun for the gossip columnists. “Supposedly, I slept with every model in the world – twice. Every bunny that ever hopped through the pages of Playboy. I would open up the National Enquirer to see who I was sleeping with that week.” His rocky body deteriorated. “I had an acupuncturist work on me, and he said, ‘You have the health of a seventy-five-year-old man.’ “

Then Sylvester went to Budapest to shoot Victory, an examination of the role of soccer in World War II. Nights, he sat in his room soul-searching. Our guy was really down at this juncture. We’re talking psychic sub-basement.

“I felt that it was over. I was finished. This was it. This film would probably be my last. I just didn’t care anymore. The fame game had gotten to me. I had lost. I had hit basically emotional rock bottom. It was over. No more tie ball game. The finale. I didn’t care anymore, period.”

He called up Sasha and begged her to come to Budapest. He told her that he had solved the Mystery. He had become totally disillusioned with the world of fame and success, and now he knew that he had to get back to the beginning of it all, back to his roots. “Back at the simplistic, predictable, stable, routine, wonderfully tranquilizing effect of people that I’d known before this holocaust of success.”

And so Sasha flew to Hungary and took him back, and somewhere the music swelled and life was good again and, as it had twice before, that odd stirring began at the base of his brain and he began to write again the one story that never let him down. He would pour into it everything he’d been through, all the pain and confusion, the coming of wealth and with it the fear of losing the wealth, the fall from the true path into the world of false values. The champ would be KO’d by the fame game just as his creator had been, but he would fight back just as he always does and find his roots again, and damned if he wouldn’t reclaim his battered, bloody soul! (And win another of those rock-’em, sock-’em fights to the finis.) “After Rocky II, I wanted to finish the trilogy, but I didn’t have a valid story … until it happened to me. I said, ‘My God, this really is a godsend!'”

The mystery answered at long last. “I’m telling you, I made every conceivable mistake in the fame game. I invented a few. But I’m glad I did it. Because there are no mysteries. There is no answer. So stop looking. Stop trying to find happiness, because there is no permanent form of happiness. I’m never gonna wake up every morning grinning from ear to ear. It just doesn’t work that way.”

So said Sylvester.

That’s very … Zen, I said.

Sylvester was aptly dressed for his act of contrition before the god Sony. He was in dramatic black, a Nike athletic suit of velourish-looking fabric, giving him the air of some sort of natty sports chaplain. Below the triangular, deadpan face with its sleepy eyes and movie-star mane hung the symbol of his final acceptance of the role he can’t escape, the rock upon which he founded his career: a gold boxing glove, with a diamond set in it, on a gold chain.

It once belonged to the real champ Rocky. Marciano, that is, not Balboa. The Rockys have won. Sylvester has thrown in the towel. He doesn’t fight it anymore.

“I am quite aware that I’m locked into this image forever. Forever. I could live ten lifetimes, I’ll always be Rocky. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe that’s what I was born to do.”

Well, that’s nice for him, but what about us? How much of this can humanity stand? Rocky XXXVIII? Rockin’ Chair Rocky? Is this the bleak future our species must face?

Relax. Sylvester is letting us off the hook. I think.

“No. I wish I could do that. I think it would be very interesting to have a character come back every four or five years and watch him grow.”

The fight scenes would get slower and slower, I suggested. He laughed. “Right. He fights Apollo Creed, they just ram wheelchairs.”

Sylvester produced a pipe and lit up. A pipe! The artist in his study, at peace with the world. Secure in the self.

News item: National release date of MGM-United Artists’ Rocky III has been pushed up to open fourteen days earlier than planned in 900 theaters around the U.S.

Additional two weeks of prime summer playing time is seen as a way for the ailing studio to maximize the sequel’s front-end profit potential and get cash flowing quickly into its debt-riddled coffers. The third Rocky entry is being hailed by MGM-UA executives as the only sure thing on the studio’s horizon. Some have reportedly referred to it as “our savior.”

You’re not interested in this part,” said Sylvester.

On a table lay a little green book that he had referred to earlier. He’d been talking about how, when he wrote the Three R’s, he was never blocked, it was never as hard as other writing. It just came out of nowhere. He just sat down and it just poured out. So fast, so smooth. Where did it come from? It must have been some kind of … divine guidance.

Uh-oh.

I should have known.

All that confessing of sin, all that talk about losing the soul. Phrases such as “divine receivership” and “creator source” and “the God within” were beginning to rain upon a flinching Sony. Fortunately, the food had then arrived, and we left the subject. But the green book continued to loom, a menacing presence. Ultimately, a power larger than myself forced me to return to the question.

“This book is not a bible,” he said, leafing through it. “It really deals with, like, self-acceptance, self-punishment, the laws of energy.” It was titled, I believe, The Keys of Reality, possibly To Reality. “It’s written by Alan Osman,” he said. “It’s from the Church of New World Unity.”

Didn’t know that one.

“It’s very small. Maybe fifty people subscribe to this. My secretary, Linda, introduced me to Dr. Bernice Osman. It’s Alan Osman’s wife. I just met her because Linda said this person gives off a lot of positive energy. And she’s a magical person, a large woman who, when I touched her hand….”

His voice sank to a dramatic whisper.

“It was like grabbing onto a nine-volt battery. There was power there.”

I jumped.

“I’m a rational human being,” Sylvester said, as if to put me at ease. “I’m not a schizoid. I wasn’t looking for a savior. I don’t have any Christ complex. I didn’t feel as though I were suffering from any Luciferian rebellion. I’m not a gospel-pounding person. But there’s something there. That’s all I can say. There’s something bigger than I’ll ever be.”

Uh, how long have you been involved with this religion?

Since the soccer movie, he said.

And did that have anything to do with your emergence from the Sylvester Horror Show you described so vividly?

“Mm-hmm. Very much. Every time I read it and did this prayer, which you do every day, I asked to be….”

He leafed through the book again, looking for something.

“Oh, this is great, right here!” He started reading. “I ask for and accept the eternal amplification of the holy spirit and the sacred fire and the continuous control and domination of creator source over me, the God force. All my minds and bodies and the allness of my beingness … loving will … infinite father mother God….”

Quickly, silently, without warning, the peril that every interviewer fears crept upon me: the dread AWOL.

Asleep With Open Lids.

Pugilist trilogies I can take. Real-life soap opera, fine. True confessions, great. Theology puts me out every time.

Oh, well, Sony was catching it all. That’s why he was there.

Some time later – how much later I wasn’t certain – I slipped back into the room.

“I accept the responsibility to be in divine love at all times,” Sylvester was saying with immense sincerity. “What that says in a nutshell, man, is like, shine it on. I’m not gonna try to change you. I will open myself up. We’re doing an interview. You’re asking questions. I hope that I can communicate and, in other words, I’ve opened myself up. I’m doing the best that I can. If it doesn’t work, then maybe it’s not supposed to work or I’m doing something wrong. But I’m making the attempt to be as open and honest as I’m supposed to be.”

Huh? I sat up straighter. Had he noticed I’d gone AWOL? It’s rough, this interview racket. You get a little older, it’s not the legs that go first; it’s the eyelids.

“I bet you expected to find a real dumbbell,” he said, as the session wound down.

Um. Well. Actually. No, not at all.

“I don’t blame you,” he said. “Most people do.”

It was true. Most people do. Even before Rocky, people thought he was dumb. At an early and impressionable age, he was advised as follows: “You weren’t born with much of a brain, so you better develop your body.”

“Dear old Pop,” he said.

In school, he was considered a beefy bozo, a lunk, a laggard, a lamebrain. He was expelled from a number of them. He just worked on those muscles, played the hood. “I felt as though I couldn’t communicate, so I thought, ‘How do I let people know that Sylvester Stallone is alive?’ And I would do that by coming in in a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and presenting this image of, uh, aggression, that I’m not someone to be tampered with. I thought that would gain respect, but at the time I wasn’t thinking so clearly and it only reinforced that I had the brain of diminishing returns. Basically a hollow gourd up there.”

To add to the effect, he had a seemingly musclebound face. Some facial nerves had been damaged at birth. This caused his mouth and occasionally other features to slant down to one side. Also it slurred his speech.

He played dumb so well it became a style. “In the beginning, everyone expected to find a dumbbell. And before long, they did find one. You know, I really lived up to the image.”

People assumed he had the intelligence of an above-average codfish.

After Rocky, of course, everything changed.

People then thought he was a famous codfish.

Rocky Balboa took his place in the popular pantheon of hallowed dimwits right between Mortimer Snerd and Edith Bunker. His creator, as we know, received every benefit of the association.

Dumb as a rock.

You can hear years of wounded pride in Sylvester’s speech patterns. Far from being a monosyllabic grunter, he waxes prolix. He likes big words and literary references. He wants you to know that he reads, and he tosses Faulkner, Frost, Dos Passos, James T. Farrell and Edgar Allan Poe into the conversation. It’s as though he needs to intercept your presumption of imbecility with a barrage of high-powered verbiage. Occasionally, he slips up on usage or pronunciation, but most of it scans. Then, sometimes, he’ll chuckle in midphrase, suddenly embarrassed that in his effort to convey complexity, he’s slipped into pretentiousness.

He’s sensitive about this stupidity business. It hurts. Maybe he should have a business card made up: Sylvester Stallone
Actor-Writer-Director
“If I’m So Dumb, How Come I’m Rich?”

News item: Sylvester Stallone will be paid according to a unique bonus arrangement when he stars in his next film, Robert Evans $20 million production, Cotton Club. If the movie comes in under budget, Stallone will get twenty-five percent of any money saved thereby.

Stallone, who will portray a gangster in the film, which tells the story of the famed Harlem nightclub of the Twenties and Thirties, said that Evans could not match the $3.5 million “up front” salary that the star received for his last movie, the not-yet-released First Blood. So, Stallone said, he asked Evans, who will produce and direct Cotton Club, “Can we do some creative financing?”

News item: Sylvester Stallone will not appear in Robert Evans’ Cotton Club. Three weeks after announcing the deal, Stallone abruptly pulled out of his commitment. An angry Evans wrote to Stallone, calling his behavior “repugnant, ill-mannered and self-destructive.”

It was time to go. Sylvester had to hit most of the major cities of the continent in the next few weeks and cajole the populace into shelling out hard cash for yet another Rocky, with its positive if simple message that the worm can still turn.

It’s not exactly a realistic film, I observed, putting Sony on his leash.

“You know what it is?” Sylvester said. “It’s the way we wish things were. If you believe in Christmas sometimes, or you’ve ever believed in the Easter bunny or the spirit of Thanksgiving, there’s a chance you’ll believe in Rocky. That doesn’t mean you’re gonna live by it, but you’ll be willing to suspend the pessimistic outlook that many people now adhere to. We all still have shreds of optimism. And Rocky kind of reaffirms that if you work hard…. ‘Cause it does happen. Damnit, it does happen.”

I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what it was that does happen if you work hard, but he was so certain it seemed like a good idea to agree.

“It’s hard to really believe it can happen,” he said. “All I can say is, I’m sitting here because I believed it could happen. You know, I really am a manifestation of my own fantasy.”

He got a little embarrassed by that one, so he mocked himself.

“That’s heavy,” he said.

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