After years of muscling his way across the screen, Sylvester Stallone seeks a different label: serious actor.
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Stallone: I went to a multitude of schools at that time. I was somewhat distracted. I had been diagnosed with attention span deficit, so it was quite difficult for me to remain focused. I tended to be much more drawn to the arts. I enjoyed painting and drawing a lot more than dealing in absolutes such as geometry and whatever. Which didn't sit very well at that time. I was asked to leave many schools until I ended up in a special school called Devereaux. At that school, I was introduced to athletics. I had never picked up a ball until I was 16 years old, and then I went out for the football team. I was resoundingly smashed to the ground and left for dead. I was literally eating grass for weeks on end. No one wanted to play with me because I was that inept. So I would walk around day in and day out, tossing the ball to myself up and down, until finally I made the team. And the second year I was the captain of the team. And so from that point I was very attracted to athletics. I began delving into weights and I don't know what it was, but I just felt as if my idols at that time tended to be rather outgoing physical specimens. But not in the bodybuilding world. You know, guys like the old-time football players. Bronko Nagurski, very off-the-wall people like George Hackenschmidt--he was a wrestler. Boxers that were obscure but somehow I found them--like Stanley Ketchel, who was the only middleweight to knock down Jack Johnson--very odd things. But I was drawn to this. I focused on the physical aspects of my life. I did not have very good grades, but I managed to get into the American College of Switzerland, where I stayed for a year in Leysin, Switzerland.
CA: Is that near Geneva?
Stallone: It's two hours outside of Geneva and an hour outside of Lausanne.
CA: So, it's up in the hills.
Stallone: It's definitely way up in the hills. Of course, I'm the only American who went there who refused to ski. Like a fool I learned to play foosball on a professional level.
CA: It sounds like most college experiences in those years.
Stallone: I don't know why. If I'd started skiing then, I'd be wonderful. I waited until I was 45 to learn to ski. Again, I was not very good at the school overall, but that was when I was introduced to drama. Up until then I was preparing myself to go into the Army. I was going to go to Vietnam, and after Vietnam I was going to work as an equestrian because I had been drawn to horses and had an ability in that area. Then someone asked me to audition for Death of a Salesman. A college play. So I went there and auditioned and got the part. The play went on and the director happened to be a Professor Swanson, who was a Harvard graduate, and he said, "You ought to think about this as a profession," and I said, "Forget it," and he said, "Yeah, really, consider it." So lo and behold I took off for Miami, the University of Miami, and I joined the Ring Theater, where I was not exactly encouraged to continue anything other than to pick up a saw and a hammer and chisel and work in theater--behind the curtain, not in front of it. They said, "You're too physical, your voice is too deep, your mouth has a snarly look." I went home completely paranoid. I didn't want to go home and look at myself. I was the Elephant Boy. What happened? Came here feeling good and I'm leaving as the Quasimodo of the South Beach. I couldn't believe it.
CA: This is at the University of Miami?
Stallone: Yes. So finally one of the professors posted an article from a local tabloid saying: "Student leaves [school] too early and becomes a bag lady." I thought, "This is outrageous. How dare they say that if we ever dropped out of school, we were destined to end up in the gutter." I was about three credits short, but I picked up and went to New York to pursue my happiness.
CA: So you never graduated from the university?
Stallone: Three credits shy.
CA: Marvin's going to love that. Cause he's a UM graduate.
Stallone: Really? The curriculum of most schools in the United States was developed in 1870. If they just taught courses in coping--just called "Coping," starting in the first grade, how to cope with life--you would find a lot more people prepared for what they are going to have to face after they leave school.
CA: Does the journey of that part of your life, from Hell's Kitchen and back to New York and the creation of Rocky, seem longer than the journey from Rocky to where you are today?
Stallone: Yes, it definitely seems longer. Because from Rocky to today seems like a descent into a tornado, where everything around is churning and unpredictable and ripping structures from their foundations. Because you are in the eye of the public. I tend not to experience life like I used to because I am in a vacuum, and I'm always being scrutinized. Before that, life seemed to move along a lot slower and in a much more investigative way. I could go into stores and be anonymous. I wasn't given any privileges. I was not considered and judged by mere virtue of being a celebrity. If someone thought, "That's a stupid statement," they'd say it. That was a much more realistic lifestyle and one that moved along much, much slower. But it also had greater impact. Because that is what I took with me into the future. So I'm pretty happy that things turned out the way they did because it did not come easy. Not for me. I was not one of those people who come into town and a couple of weeks later get a soap opera, another soap opera and then a couple of commercials.
CA: Did you do the standard actor-in-waiting jobs, like waiting tables and other odd jobs, whatever?
Stallone: I cleaned lion cages. I would cut fish heads. I was a deli worker. I was, what did they call it, the head of the usher's association at the same theater where Rocky later opened up. I had all these menial jobs. Menial in the sense that I wanted to take jobs that would require zero mental facilities and also at night so that I could leave the days open to pursue my career. Four years at college to cut fish heads. I said, "Trust me. There's a method to all this."
But I really did have a code of ethics, which eventually came into being when I had written Rocky in 1975. The script itself was an act of passion because I saw a window opened in 1975, around July. The producer had read another script of mine called Paradise Alley. But unfortunately that was embroiled in litigation. I had sold the rights for $200, that was how broke I was at the time. And he said, "That's too bad, because the script was pretty good." So I said, "Let me go home and maybe I can come up with something else." And I saw the Chuck Wepner-Ali fight and I said, "Now this is interesting." They called Chuck Wepner "The Bail Leader" and he was considered this clumsy pugilist, but he had heart. And he knocked the champion down, and I said, "My God, his life is made. No matter what, we know he's going to win because he's won. This is interesting. We all consider ourselves challengers in the fight against life and quite often we're all going to lose, but we sure would like to knock life on its ass one time, [to show] that at least I existed, that I meant something." So I went home and I worked feverishly for three days and developed a script that was by no means...
CA: You wrote the script in three days?
Stallone: Um hum. It was by no means the final script. But it was workable enough for them to buy it.
CA: And it was a script, not just a treatment?
Stallone: No, no--it was 96 pages. It was a script.
CA: Wow! You didn't sleep a whole lot in those days...
Stallone: No. But in the first version of Rocky, he had already retired. He was just a street thug. A collector. And we followed him through his trials and tribulations outside the ring. And then someone suggested, "Boy, what would it be if he were still fighting a little bit? He's kind of a bum but he's a club fighter." All right--I went back and added that and it automatically added another 15 pages or so. It became much more of a metaphor and it became much more relevant because I had been heavily influenced by the films Marty and Mean Streets. But taking Rocky back into the ring meant there was great opposition at first, because every boxing film had turned out to be a financial failure. And quite often boxing films were only done for one reason--to get around the morals code. You could see your favorite actor, whether it was Robert Taylor or James Cagney or Elvis Presley, basically in their underwear.
CA: Without a shirt on.
Stallone: Sweaty. You know--acting real physical. The stories themselves always got down and dirty, with bribes, taking falls. It was a very unsavory subject. I had never dealt in that. I just used boxing as a metaphor. So everyone said, "Fine, but Sylvester, no one knows who you are." I said, "Granted, I understand that." And they said, "Well, we'd like to buy the script." I thought about it. But I had this inkling, this certain kind of ethic where I've always believed in myself. I thought that perhaps this was the opportunity. You just know that there are about three or four times in your life when you are really at the crossroads. Quite often we're oblivious to it and it's too late. But this was so blatant, so obvious. They said they wanted Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal or Jimmy Caan, and every one of those individuals were at the apex of their career. And I certainly had no career whatsoever. And they offered $20,000; I said no. They said $100,000, which was a lot of money then, and remember I was completely broke. My car had cost $40.
CA: Were you living in L.A. at this point?
Stallone: I had just arrived in L.A. Then the price went up to $175,000. And it eventually went up to $360,000, which was close to a record in those days. It was close to a record.
CA: It was a lot of money in those days.
Stallone: Absolutely, unheard of. Like millions today. So I said, "No." I had kind of mastered the art of being poor. I had made poverty an art form. I had really figured it out. So I was willing to chance it and if necessary just be a writer if that was the case. This is where providence shines down on us sometimes. The producers, in some extraordinary act of generosity and entrepreneurial insanity, said, "OK, we'll give you a shot, but if it's not good after one week, you are going to be replaced." And they put up their house as a bond.
CA: And you were willing to take that deal: after a week if it's not working, then you're out of there?
Stallone: Yes. I was so broke at the time and so paranoid I wouldn't even get on an airplane. I took the train from L.A. to Philadelphia with my dog, who had a horrendous case of flatulence. He continued to fart with such lethal degree from coast to coast that finally when I got to Chicago I couldn't take any more and my wife said, "What are we going to do?" I went outside and got the dog and got him in a bear hug and tried to actually help him; but you understand, the dog, Butkus, the 125-pound bull mastiff, his anal muscles far exceeded the power of my entire body. So people were asking, "Why are you squeezing your dog?", this canine tube of toothpaste, and I said, "I'm trying to help him out." Anyway, he kept it in and we proceeded to Philadelphia--another day and a half--and I was dying, I was gassed to death. So finally we arrived in Philadelphia at the hotel and as we are stepping onto the front lawn at the hotel, he decided to relieve himself, and built what was probably the only American pyramid in the United States. It literally lifted him off the ground. You have never seen a dog unload like this. Sooo, this is my welcome. And I said, "If this is an omen, I'm dead. I'm truly dead."
Anyway, the first week I was on my good behavior and something happened. It is difficult to explain to people, but there is quite often a rapport between material, man and camera, and it cannot be choreographed. It works or it doesn't. And I'm very lucky. The movie was filmed in a very raw, rugged way and it just seemed to work. Even though the man was a loan shark, I didn't put offense into it. I didn't put it down in any preconceived notion of how to play the part--it just seemed to work. The character just had a comedic quality about him. Corny, in a way, and in his corniness, he lacked maliciousness. He wasn't really cut out for this. He was like Ferdinand the Bull. Anyway, the week passed and the film went on. It was done in 24 days. For under a million. Isn't that amazing? I am here today because of that gamble.
CA: You took another gamble in 1997: Copland. Taking on the role of a 40-pound-overweight suburban small-town cop was a risky departure. You've said many times in interviews that it was part of a design to shed some of the Rocky/Rambo images of the past 20 years. Have you accomplished your goal?
Stallone: I think so. Very much so. It was almost the exact same feeling that I had with Rocky, not the goals, but what was at stake--the prizes--were quite different. In Copland, there will be no financial remuneration. It was not about that at all. It was literally trying to be accepted in another genre where I feel more comfortable. I became an action actor by accident. I never learned a martial art. I was not raised in a boxing family. It was just something that I grew into or learned for a reason. So, it is not my normal sensibility. Copland or F.I.S.T. or Paradise Alley or even Rocky, these are all ensemble pieces. I wanted to get back, like the song, back to where you once belonged. Go on, Jojo. That's me--like the old Beatle song. So that was what was primarily at risk. I didn't realize that I was so indelibly marked as Rocky or Rambo. The reviews were really quite revealing in how much disdain many writers held for these two characters, especially Rambo. Copland was such a purging and a pleasure to actually let people vent. A lot of writers said, "Finally he is doing something that we can relate to that is not driven by musculature."