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In 1977, at the age of thirty, struggling New York actor Sylvester Stallone was nominated for his first two, and to-date only, Academy Award nominations, both as the lead and writer of the critically acclaimed sports drama Rocky. Prior to this overnight success, Stallone had struggled with a succession of supporting roles and forgettable projects that included The Party at Kitty and Stud’s, released at a time when softcore features had become box office gold in the United States, and the Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000.
Rocky would be Stallone’s first produced screenplay and would kickstart one of the most popular movie franchises in American cinema, resulting in five sequels and a recent spinoff, while also cementing his reputation as both a Hollywood star and creative talent. His Oscar nomination would allow Stallone to write or rewrite many projects that he would work on throughout the 1980s, including the sequels to his 1982 thriller First Blood, the country musical Rhinestone and the highly anticipated follow-up to the disco hit Saturday Night Fever.
In addition to acting and writing, Stallone made his directorial debut in 1978 with the critically-mawled Paradise Alley, a film which would prompt New York Times critic Vincent Canby to declare, ‘If he continues to write, direct and star in movies like Paradise Alley, the career that only really began with Rocky may turn out to have been an extremely brief dream.’ While Staying Alive would encounter similar negative reviews, Stallone would direct four of the sequels to Rocky, along with the 2010 action ensemble The Expendables. In a recent interview with Deadline the sixty-nine-year-old star looked back on a career that has lasted almost half a century, having made his first credited appearance in 1970’s No Place to Hide.
‘I started writing around 1969, when I realised the acting wasn’t materialising. My first screenplay was basically a ‘what I did last summer’ kind of story,’ he recalls. ‘Then in 1971, I wrote a screenplay about Edgar Allan Poe, and that got me writing about people other than myself. Then I wrote Paradise Alley because I wasn’t getting any acting jobs. I went up to an audition…actually someone was doing me a favour and I went in to meet Irwin Winkler and Bob Chartoff, and they really had nothing for me to do.’ He continues, ‘I started thinking about how every role I’d get, I’m always kind of the street guy or the thug or the mugger. I did that with Woody Allen, and with Jack Lemmon in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Then Lords of Flatbush.’
It would be during this period of frustration that the seeds of what would become Rocky were first sown. ‘I thought, ‘Why don’t I just write a story about a guy like that but he has a good heart?’ And then this Chuck Wepner fight (against Muhammad Ali) came on, and I thought of Rocky Marciano and how he was physically in the same ballpark as me. This character wasn’t that smart, but he had heart. A lot of heart. Man, I just started writing and writing and writing and writing, and I came up with this idea in about three and a half days. Ninety percent of it was not good, but at least it had a beginning and a middle. I had something to work on.’Winkler and Chartoff, whose prior collaborations had included the classics Point Blank and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, were at first reluctant to give the young writer his first break. ‘I brought that back to show them. I don’t know if they were just being polite, but they said, ‘Oh yeah, keep working on it,” says Stallone.
‘So I came back two weeks later with another draft. They said, ‘Well, let’s try this angle or that angle.’ After about twenty different incarnations, they said, ‘We’d like to make this movie.’ Which left me in complete shock, because I had nothing at this point.’
While Stallone is often given the credit for Rocky, he maintains that without the support and belief of his two producers the movie would never have been made. ‘They put up their own personal savings, and they weren’t incredibly rich at that time. It was a big leap of faith,’ he admits. ‘So it was a Rocky story on all different levels. I have to give them credit because I certainly couldn’t have ever done it alone, and maybe I realise this more at age sixty-nine, but we really did it as a team. You can’t do these things, alone…It was a miracle that it happened the way it did.’