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Sylvester Stallone: A career of the true American dream

“Success is usually the culmination of controlling failures.” – Sylvester Stallone

A truly self-made man, the rise in prominence of iconic action star Sylvester Stallone is representative of ‘The American Dream’, going from rags to stardom, to riches and largely off his own back. The towering action hero, famous for roles as the resilient boxer Rocky Balboa and the machine-gun wielding Rambo, has endured a significant amount of real-life troubles to reach his current status as one of Hollywood’s elite. 

Brought into the world with a troubled birth that caused the actor to injure several nerves, resulting in paralysis in parts of Stallone’s face as well as his signature slurred speech, from the very beginning, he found himself on the backfoot of the competitive race to acting stardom in Manhattan, New York. The eldest son of his Italian father and American mother, who also had roots in France and Eastern Europe, Sylvester Stallone had an eclectic, international upbringing, spending two years between 1965 to 1967 at the American College of Switzerland before heading to the University of Miami to study drama. 

On his return to New York, Stallone would come to appreciate the true realities of a young actor attempting to break through into the industry limelight. Evicted from his home due to lack of money, the actor would eventually be forced to sleep for three weeks at a bus terminal in New York City before starring in the softcore pornography feature film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. Stallone would later reveal that he starred in the film out of pure desperation, in the actor’s own words, “It was either do that movie or rob someone, because I was at the end – the very end – of my rope”.

Odd jobs as a cleaner at a zoo and an usher at a movie theatre would follow as Stallone took time out to visit a local library and further his writing skills, enveloping himself in the work of Edgar Allen Poe for inspiration. Rejected from the role as an extra in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, in 1972 the actor was close to giving up, flittering between various minor background roles in What’s Up, Doc?, MASH and Woody Allen’s Bananas. His string of successive aimless film roles would soon change, producing one of cinema’s greatest ever success stories. 

On March 24, 1975, Sylvester Stallone saw the Muhammad Ali vs Chuck Wepner fight, and that night went home with a plan. After three days and 20 straight hours of furious typing, Stallone had written the screenplay for his worldwide cultural sensation, Rocky. The actor offered the script to several film studios, though insisted that he played the lead, batting away industry opposition Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds to secure the titular role. In 1977, at the 49th Academy Awards, Rocky was nominated for ten Oscars, bringing home statuettes for the coveted Best Picture and Best Directing awards, as well as Best Film Editing. 

Gaining worldwide recognition for the sports drama about a struggling boxer, Stallone would later go on to direct his first feature film Paradise Alley, followed by the highly successful follow up to Rocky, Rocky II. Suddenly Stallone had gone from sleeping at a bus shelter having to take roles in softcore pornography to starring in films alongside Michael Caine and football star Pelé in Escape to Victory just six years later. 

His dominance in the Hollywood circles would be solidified in 1982 when he would create the second of his most iconic characters, Vietnam veteran John Rambo, in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, of which Stallone wrote the script. Suddenly, Stallone became one of the world’s biggest action stars, with the wildly popular Rocky series running alongside the newly created First Blood franchise.  

Although this would not be where Stallone’s story would end, going on to embody further memorable characters such as in 1995s Judge Dredd, it was in the 1980s where his career truly flourished and his years of suffering at Hollywood’s lowest level would pay off.

Releasing a further two Rocky sequels in 1982 and 1985, along with three sequels to First Blood across the decade, Sylvester Stallone was a major figure during one of Hollywood’s most flourishing periods. Helping to define the blockbuster action film, whilst becoming a genuine iconic figure of popular culture, Sylvester Stallone’s story is one of pure American persistence.