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One of the biggest box office draws in the world from the 1970s through the early 1990s, actor-writer-director-producer Sylvester Stallone combined sheer physical brawn with a touch of vulnerability in two major movie franchises - the Academy Award-winning "Rocky" (1976) and its five sequels, as well as the jingoistic, ultra-violent "Rambo" (1981) quartet. Frequently reviled by critics and pundits for his acting and movie choices, Stallone persevered through several major career eclipses, only to come back - much like Rocky Balboa - time and time again as the pop cultural icon that he most definitely was. Regardless of how the critics felt, Stallone was a major box office force, though he struggled outside the Rocky-Rambo universe with "Cliffhanger" (1993) and "Judge Dredd" (1995). He earned critical respect when he gained weight to play a good-hearted, but ostracized cop turning a blind eye to police corruption in "Cop Land" (1997), but the box office failure of that film prompted him to second-guess his choice of tackling more dramatic material. After starring in the remake of "Get Carter" (2000) and the action thriller "Driven" (2001), Stallone stepped back from acting to focus behind the scenes...
One of the biggest box office draws in the world from the 1970s through the early 1990s, actor-writer-director-producer Sylvester Stallone combined sheer physical brawn with a touch of vulnerability in two major movie franchises - the Academy Award-winning "Rocky" (1976) and its five sequels, as well as the jingoistic, ultra-violent "Rambo" (1981) quartet. Frequently reviled by critics and pundits for his acting and movie choices, Stallone persevered through several major career eclipses, only to come back - much like Rocky Balboa - time and time again as the pop cultural icon that he most definitely was. Regardless of how the critics felt, Stallone was a major box office force, though he struggled outside the Rocky-Rambo universe with "Cliffhanger" (1993) and "Judge Dredd" (1995). He earned critical respect when he gained weight to play a good-hearted, but ostracized cop turning a blind eye to police corruption in "Cop Land" (1997), but the box office failure of that film prompted him to second-guess his choice of tackling more dramatic material. After starring in the remake of "Get Carter" (2000) and the action thriller "Driven" (2001), Stallone stepped back from acting to focus behind the scenes on his health/fitness magazine, as well as the sports-themed reality series, "The Contender" (NBC/ESPN/Versus, 2005-07). But unable to stay out of the spotlight for long, he struck box office gold revisiting "Rocky Balboa" (2006) and "Rambo" (2008), and starring in the ensemble action hit "The Expendables" (2010), which once again put Stallone back on top.
Born Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone in Hell's Kitchen, NY on July 6, 1946, his first moments set the tone for a challenging life: an accident during his forceps delivery severed a nerve in his face, which resulted in his trademark slurred speech and drooping facial features. Stallone's parents, Jacqueline Labofish - who would later achieve pseudo-celebrity in the 1980s as a wrestling promoter and astrologer - and Frank Stallone Sr. had a combative relationship, leading young Sly to spend several years in foster homes. He eventually returned to his family in Maryland, which included younger brother Frank, but the marriage soon dissolved, leaving Stallone to relocate with his mother to her new husband's hometown of Philadelphia, PA. His time there was marked by frequent expulsions from schools and bouts with loneliness and anger. By the time he landed in a school for troubled youth, he was named "Most Likely to End Up in the Electric Chair" by his classmates. Sports and exercise provided his sole positive outlet.
Poor grades restricted Stallone's choices for higher education, so he ended up spending a stint in beauty school before attending the American College in Switzerland, where drama courses gave him a new direction. He returned to the United States in 1967 and studied drama at the University of Miami, but departed three credits shy of his degree for New York to find work just two years later. His speech impediment made it difficult for him to find substantial work, but his brawny physique ensured him of a certain type of role; he was a randy telephone repairman in the bawdy off-Broadway play "Score" (1971) and appeared nude in a softcore grindhouse feature called "Party at Kitty and Studs" (1970), which was revived in the mid-1970s after he rose to fame with "Rocky." Minor parts in Hollywood features like Woody Allen's "Bananas" (1971) and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975) eventually came his way, but these too were based entirely on his physical presence, and more often than not, he lost opportunities - including a role in "The Godfather" (1972) - for being too brawny. Frustrated with the lack of opportunity, Stallone headed for Los Angeles, where he intended to make his own way by writing scripts for himself. His fortunes increased somewhat after the move. Roger Corman offered him his most substantial roles to date in "Capone" (1975), starring as murderous Depression Era gangster Frank Nitti, and "Death Race 2000" (1975), in which he played a futuristic racecar driver with a chip on his shoulder. He also sold his first screenplay, a coming-of-age drama called "The Lords of Flatbush" (1974), in which he co-starred with fellow up-and-comers Henry Winkler, Perry King, and Armand Assante.
In 1975, he witnessed the epic boxing match between underdog Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner and heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Wepner's determination in the face of his superior opponent struck a chord with Stallone, who went home and penned the script for a feature about a good-natured club fighter named Rocky Balboa who gets a shot at the heavyweight title. The script fell into the hands of producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, whose attention Stallone had caught with the script for another project titled "Paradise Alley." Both producers wanted the film, but initially balked on Stallone's request to play the title role. After some deliberation and script changes that included a more upbeat ending, both agreed that the film's low budget could allow for a relative unknown to play the lead. The result was one of the most invigorating and popular features of the 1970s; a rags-to-riches story enlivened by some of the most realistic boxing footage ever captured on film, as well as Stallone's unexpectedly funny and tender turn as Rocky, the "Italian Stallion." The shot of Rocky charging triumphantly up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the strains of composer Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" score became, in and of itself, one of the most iconic scenes in Hollywood history. Directed ably by John Avildsen, "Rocky" went on to gross over $117 million dollars and net three Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. Stallone himself was nominated for two Oscars - Actor and Screenplay - and his Hollywood career was effectively launched quite famously at age 30.
Stallone made his directorial debut with "Paradise Alley" (1978), a period drama about three Hell's Kitchen brothers (Stallone, Assante and Kevin Conway) who get involved with professional wrestling. He then penned and starred in "F.I.S.T. (1978), a drama about a laborer who becomes involved in union organization. Neither proved as big a hit as "Rocky," so the inevitable sequel was set for 1979. "Rocky II" rematched Balboa with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the Muhammad Ali stand-in he battled in the first film. Stallone both wrote and directed this film, which proved almost as popular as the first with moviegoers. It also established Stallone's routine of returning to his best-loved characters after experiencing a bout of flops.
Stallone was a American POW in World War II who participates in a soccer match against his Nazi captors in John Huston's cult favorite "Victory" (1981), and donned a beard and glasses to play a cop on the trail of a terrorist (Rutger Hauer) for the underrated "Nighthawks" (1981) - the latter of which suffered cuts at the hands of its studio and underperformed at the box office. But in 1982, he rose to the top of the box office yet again with a second frachise-in-the-making: "First Blood," an action-packed drama about troubled Vietnam vet John Rambo, who tangles with a small town police force. The film, directed by Ted Kotcheff, dampened the dark tone and downbeat ending of David Morrell's novel - which saw Rambo commit suicide after his rampage - giving Stallone one of his biggest hits since the "Rocky" films. It also (unintentionally) served as a touchstone for conservatives such as then-President Ronald Reagan, who admitted his fondness for the violent picture.
Stallone followed this with another huge hit, "Rocky III" (1982), which pitted the boxer against the brutal Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Though the latest sequel took Rocky even further from his humble roots, audiences still flocked to see the underdog story and the stellar boxing sequences. However, Stallone stumbled mightily with "Staying Alive" (1983), his sequel to "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). Despite a healthy box office take - John Travolta's last for awhile - Stallone's turn as director-producer-writer of the overtly cheesy musical - complete with a fur-clad Stallone street cameo and the casting of brother Frank as Travolta's competition for a lady's affections - was lambasted by critics. Even more maligned was his next film, the ill-advised musical comedy "Rhinestone," which saw Stallone singing with Dolly Parton. In the first of several bad career choices, Stallone reportedly turned down the starring roles in "Beverly Hills Cop" (1983) and "Romancing the Stone" (1984) to star in his major flop.
With two back-to-back disasters on his plate, Stallone retreated to familiar territory for his next projects. "Rocky IV" (1985) tapped heavily into the then-current flag-waving political rhetoric for his match between Balboa and a robotic Soviet fighter (Dolph Lundgren). Despite its not-so-subtle flash, the film was the highest grossing entry in the "Rocky" series then to date, earning some $127 million at the box office. The film also served as the launching point for Stallone's relationship with Danish model and actress Brigitte Nielsen, who appeared as Lundgren's Russian love interest. After marrying Sasha Czack in 1974 and raising two sons - Sage, who appeared as Rocky's son in "Rocky V" and later became a filmmaker and exhibitor; Seargeoh, who was autistic - Stallone filed for divorce and wed the over-the-top Nielsen. Their two-year relationship was covered to dizzying extremes until an abrupt and ugly divorce in 1987. Stallone also revived John Rambo for the ultra-violent "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985), which sent the vet back to Vietnam to rescue POWs. Critics blasted the picture for its conservative tone and staggering violence, but it was the second most popular film of the year and a massive hit worldwide. During this period, Stallone also served as executive producer on the TV biopic "Heart of a Champion: The Ray Mancini Story" (1985) and advised the project's numerous boxing scenes. It was, indeed, his biggest year since his bicentennial breakout in 1976.
The year 1986 marked the beginning of Stallone's long, cartoonish and critically reviled tenure as an action hero - a status solidified by his participation in the overblown Planet Hollywood restaurant chain, which he co-founded with fellow defenders of cinematic liberty, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1991. "Cobra" - his second and final feature with Nielsen - was a tasteless crime picture with Stallone as a taciturn cop hunting axe-wielding serial killers. It scored well among moviegoers, but "Over The Top" (1987), with Stallone as a competitive arm wrestler, and "Tango and Cash" (1989), with Stallone and Kurt Russell as odd-couple cops fighting drug dealers, yielded mediocre returns and much unintended laughter. He returned for a third time as John Rambo in "Rambo III" (1988), which dispatched the homicidal hero to Afghanistan to fight the occupying Soviet Army. The picture, which earned a place in the record books as the film with the most violent acts and onscreen deaths in history, performed poorly at American box offices, but earned massive returns worldwide.
A sea change was required for Stallone's career in the late 1980s, but his next few projects only extended his losing streak. "Lock Up" (1988), with Stallone as a falsely accused prisoner victimized by a sadistic warden (Donald Sutherland), was an attempt to return to his underdog persona, but found few ticket buyers. Even the revival of Rocky Balboa in "Rocky V" (1990), with John G. Avildsen back in the director's chair and Stallone as screenwriter, couldn't muster a respectable profit. And a likable attempt at comedy with John Landis' screwball comedy "Oscar" (1991) tanked miserably. The nadir of Stallone's film career came just one year later with "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" (1992), a ghastly action comedy with a pistol-packing Estelle Getty as Stallone's interfering mom. The Golden Rasberry Awards showered upon the film only solidified the notion that Stallone's career was stuck in neutral, or fixed in a downward spiral. But like so many times before, Stallone came back from behind with two major hits in 1993. "Cliffhanger," by rising action director Renny Harlin, saw Stallone as a spooked mountain climber blackmailed into aiding criminals (led by an over-the-top John Lithgow) in recovering stolen treasury money. The film, which featured breathtaking scenery and stunt work, was a massive summer hit, and was soon followed by "Demolition Man" (1993), with Stallone as a 20th century cop awakened from a cryogenic prison to hunt super criminal Wesley Snipes. Filled with softball pokes at political correctness and Stallone's own "dinosaur" status, the film also scored mightily in the fall of 1993.
Flush with his latest bout of success, Stallone embarked on a string of high-profile action projects, including "The Specialist" (1994), a glossy action thriller with Sharon Stone and James Woods; "Assassins" (1995) with Antonio Banderas; "Judge Dredd" (1995), a live action version of the popular British graphic novel "2000 AD;" and "Daylight" (1996), a likable if busy disaster thriller. All save "Dredd" experienced anemic ticket sales, and each was picked over with increasing relish by Stallone's growing legion of naysayers. In fact, Stallone's paternity case with model Janice Dickinson, whom she had named as the father of her child, earned him more press than his films (Stallone was later cleared of the charge). A change of pace was clearly in need, and Stallone found it in "Cop Land" (1997), a gritty police drama from director James Mangold who would later score big with the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk the Line" (2005). For his role as a partially deaf suburban sheriff who confronts a police corruption scandal, Stallone gained considerable weight and gave one of his most soulful performances since "Rocky." Critics responded with some of his best reviews to date, and the picture - which pitted Stallone against such acting heavyweights as Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta - performed respectably for an indie film. Stallone also took home the Best Actor Award from the Stockholm Film Festival.
In 1997, Stallone married Irish model Jennifer Flavin and settled into second fatherhood with three daughters (born in 1996, 1998, and 2002). At 51, Stallone's film career was at a crossroads; his greatest successes lay with two roles, both of which he was growing too old to play, according to industry pundits. His dream project, a biography of novelist and poet Edgar Allan Poe, was stagnant, and his standing among critics had improved only slightly after "Cop Land." Nevertheless, Stallone soldiered on with a film career. He lent his voice to DreamWorks' animated comedy "Antz" (1998), also featuring Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, and Gene Hackman, which scored well despite the popularity of the similar "A Bug's Life" (1998) from Pixar. But offbeat choices like this were few and far between, and Stallone was soon back in the action trenches for a string of failures, including an ill-advised remake of "Get Carter" (2000) and the racing drama "Driven" (2001). By the beginning of the new millennium, Stallone's films were not even receiving theatrical releases; "D-Tox" (a.k.a. "Eye See You;" 2002), the mob thriller "Avenging Angelo" (2002) and "Shade" (2003) were shipped directly to cable and home video.
Stallone caught a break in 2005 courtesy of director Robert Rodriguez, who cast him as the mischievous villain The Toymaker in "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," which proved a monster hit among younger viewers. He also returned to television for the first time since the mid-1980s with two appearances on the show "Las Vegas" (NBC, 2005-08) and as the executive producer and co-host of "The Contender" (NBC/ESPN, 2005-07), a reality show about aspiring boxers. However, the expense of the series and middling ratings forced it off the air in 2005, but it returned in 2006 on the sports network ESPN. The show was marred by controversy when one of its contestants committed suicide during the first season. That same year, Stallone ventured into publishing as the editorial director of the men's magazine Sly and author of the book Sly Moves, which discussed his personal life and fitness routines. The following year, Stallone revived the role that made him a star with "Rocky Balboa" (2006), a surprise to critics and audiences alike with its heartfelt storyline and winning performance by the 60-year-old Stallone, who further impressed viewers by exchanging real punches with professional boxer Antonio Tarver, who played his opponent. The picture went on to become Stallone's biggest success since "Cliffhanger" and the sixth most successful boxing movie in film history (after the first four "Rocky" titles and 2005's "Million Dollar Baby"). Once again, Stallone had risen from the ashes of his career to settle as close to the top as he had been in years.
In 2007, Stallone was the subject of controversy when news broke that he was caught trying to smuggle 48 vials of the growth hormone Jintropin past customs officials while in Australia promoting "Rocky Balboa." After claiming to have had a legitimate medical condition for his use of the restricted drug, Stallone was forced to plead guilty to the charges and was fined nearly $10,000. That same year, Stallone went into production as writer, director, producer and star of "Rambo" (2008), the fourth entry in the violent film series about the troubled Vietnam War veteran, which went on to earn over $100 million worldwide. In interviews, the actor indicated that the film did not mark the last of the character's adventures - true enough, a fifth installment was greenlit for production, only to be put aside for his next project.
Stallone fully embraced his action roots by co-writing, directing and starring in "The Expendables" (2010), a big-budget action movie to end all big-budget action movies, which heralded his return to the genre. Stallone intended to unite every major action hero from the 1980s and 1990s onscreen for the lovingly crafted epic. While some declined the offer - including Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell and Wesley Snipes - he was able to book a dream cast that included himself, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the genre's Holy Grail that was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film was a surprising success, which naturally led to filming "The Expendables 2" (2012), featuring a return of the original cast - including a greatly expanded role for Schwarzenegger - as well as the addition of martial arts star Chuck Norris.
But as he was busy promoting the film's August release, Stallone was struck by tragedy when his son, Sage, was found dead in his Studio City home on July 13, 2012. He was only 36 years old. The cause of death was initially rumored to be drugs but was determined to be a fatal heart attack. Sage had followed his father's footsteps onto the screen, making his film debut as Robert Balboa, Jr. in "Rocky V" (1990), as well as appearing in Stallone's disaster film "Daylight" (1996). As he struggled to deal with the tragic blow, Stallone suffered another loss, this time his half-sister, Toni Ann Filiti, succumbed to lung cancer at 48 years old. Their mother, Jackie Stallone, was by her side and reported the news to her son, who reportedly told her that he could not take any more pain. Stallone had just begun speaking openly about Sage's death and expressed hope that time would heal his wounds.
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"Actors are a throbbing mass of scar tissue by the time they get anywhere." --Sylvester Stallone in a 1978 interview
"My father was so tough his balls clanged when he walked. He's a primitive who learned to play polo when he was stationed as a guard on the Mexican border during World War II. If I draw on anything for the character of Rambo--the physical attributes, the capacity to conjure up the physical frenzy--it would be my father. . . .
"My mother is the master of the outrageous. I draw heavily on her. It's her part of my psyche that keeps me fiercely insane." --Stallone to Vanity Fair, September 1990.
"Rambo is a man of many colors. He is trying to find serenity, but there is another side of him that asks, 'How can you be serene in one small part of the world when the rest of the world is coming apart'. There is a part of him that is peaceful and there is a part of him that needs to be involved in a cause for freedom. He is a man who should have lived 500 years ago, like a Samurai trapped in a modern world which has no place for him. He needs a cause, a reason to exist. His life is one of dedication, of obedience. And he's a born soldier, and I like that . . . He is the avenging arm of what I consider ethical in life--a patriotic soldier." --Sylvester Stallone in press release.
"I gave into temptation to prove myself in another arena. I've learned the hard way about comedy. Marlon Brando had the same problem if you look back." --From People, June 7, 1993
On his bad luck with marriage following his highly publicized second divorce, Stallone told Vanity Fair (September 1990): "If anybody should have become an alcoholic or a drug addict or a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, it's me. I've had every opportunity to cop out. I've been publicly humiliated. The way I was dissected worldwide and held up to ridicule. I've never read about a divorce that has as much sexual innuendo as mine did with Brigitte. That was very embarrassing."
About his tumultuous upbringing, Stallone confessed to Los Angeles Times Calendar (October 28, 1990): "It was a house full of aggression and conflict. When she [his mother] left, I hung onto her leg. I was in convulsions. Then the terrible court battles began. My brother became so repressed that they thought he had leukemia. I really became a loose cannon. i ran away to Philadelphia to be with her. The courts brought me back. I had an unformed ego, a misplaced aggression. I sought chaos. I was like a dog wanting to be beaten. Acting was almost a psychological requirement for me."
From "Sly: The Beef Who Takes the Cake", interview by Joel Silver in Interview, July 1995:
JS: But how do you feel about making action movies?
SS: Lucky. See, lately--I don't know why--action movies have become like the movie business's equivalent of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Just as Quasimodo was the ugly duckling in literature, action films have become the sore spot for critics. In the old days, people talked about biblical scenarios of action films. The Bible is action-packed. The Koran is action-packed, Even Buddha had a few moments of suspense in his life. Yet, when we make action movies now, we're considered moneymaking machines with no esoteric worth, and that's not true at all. There's a lot of artistry that goes into what we do. I tend to think of action movies as exuberant morality plays in which good triumphs over evil.
Stallone received special achievement award from the National Italian American Foundation in 1991.
He was named as an Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1992.
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