Happy Birthday greetings to Sylvester Stallone, who turns 66 today! The actor, screenwriter, and director has been around now for over 4 decades, and has been responsible for at least two of the silver screen’s most popular characters of all time: Rocky Balboa and John Rambo — both spawning film franchises that made Stallone one of the most bankable and recognized figures in Hollywood history.
Born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone in New York City on July 6th 1946 to Frank Stallone Sr., who was a hairdresser, and his mother Jackie, primarily an astrologer, Stallone suffered a difficult birth which led to the lower half of his face being paralyzed, including some of his lip, tongue, and chin. This resulted in his slurred speech and distinctive look as he got older, physical and aural traits which actually became a sort of trademark for the actor as he became popular. A trademark still to this day, mimicked by impressionists and layman everywhere and becoming a sort of signature style in recognizing Stallone in one basic beat.
He struggled early on in his acting career, appearing in a soft core porno film in 1970 entitled Party at Kitty and Studs, later explaining that he had done that film because he essentially was homeless at that time, and in his words, it was either do the film or rob someone, as his home was essentially New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal deep in the heart of Times Square.
His luck started to change slightly after that affair, as he began to get small roles in key pictures as the 1970s wore on: a memorable, almost unrecognizable and non-credited role as a hoodlum in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Bananas; appearing as a would be pickpocket with Jack Lemmon in Neil Simon’s theatrical adaptation of his Broadway hit The Prisoner of Second Avenue; alongside Ben Gazzara in Capone; and even doing a turn in the Roger Corman cult hit and now dated title Death Race 2000. Stallone started to get noticed in The Lords of Flatbush, in which he also wrote some additional dialogue for the film. A couple of television commercials and stints on shows such as Kojak and Police Story followed, which also thrust Stallone somewhat into the limelight and brightening his status in Tinseltown.
By 1976, United Artists took a chance on a script he had written in a few days, which was influenced by the Caucasian boxer Chuck Wepner, who had recently fought the then Heavyweight champ and larger than life colorful figure Muhammad Ali, fighting Ali the full 15 rounds. Although Wepner lost that fight, he was still revered as an underdog hero to most people, either by those who despised the brashness and well-oiled machinations that was Ali, or those that simply identified with the blue collar everyman quality that Wepner portrayed. Stallone took these elements, and with it, the formula of every classic “palooka down on his luck who makes good” boxing films of the past, and parlayed it into Rocky, which became an unexpected hit, especially considering the fact that Stallone played the title character, in which he had to fight the studio to adhere to, and propelled Stallone into the star stratosphere of sudden overnight success.
The film and the character mirrored Stallone’s own life at the time as a struggling actor looking for his shot at success. In Rocky Balboa’s case, the character was a down on his luck boxer who gets a shot at the Heavyweight title inexplicably through luck and good timing, and in the process not only has an opportunity to become champion himself, but also gains much needed self worth and respect in the process. The film went on to win Best Picture at the 1977 Academy Awards, and suddenly, Stallone was A-list in Hollywood. The film followed up the series and story of the character with 5 films after that, spanning three decades. And while none of them had the same charm, smartness, and candor as the first storied film, the franchise became a successful one for Stallone and the studios, raking in billions of dollars in total.
Stallone made other pictures after Rocky, to moderate success: Paradise Alley, a wrestling film in which he wrote, directed, and starred; F.I.S.T., in which he played a Jimmy Hoffa style union leader; Victory, with legendary soccer star Pele; and Nighthawks, a tense actioner with Rutger Hauer. But it wasn’t until the release of 1981’s First Blood, in which he portrayed sullen and quiet yet self assured and take no prisoners Vietnam veteran John Rambo, that Stallone found himself another successful character, and was able to break free of the Rocky Balboa stereotype he now found himself in after the success of that debut film. First Blood had three films follow that one, once again to spectacular success. Rambo even became a sort of folk hero for the jingoism and patriotism self forth by the Ronald Reagan Presidential era during the 1980s.
His legacy assured by those two aforementioned franchises, Stallone began to experiment with his choices for his other films, to varying degrees of success — some downright awful and head scratching in terms of choices like Rhinestone (with Dolly Parton), Over the Top (an arm wrestling film), Oscar (a farcical comedy set in the 1930s in which Stallone applies comedic chutzpah, but to weak results), Stop or My Mom Will Shoot (the less said the better), and a few others. Tango and Cash, Lock Up, Demolition Man and Cliffhanger kept the Stallone machine still above water, but once again, turns in films like Daybreak, Driven, Assassins, and Judge Dredd did not. However, it must be noted that most of these films did better business overseas and made the films see some profit returns, if not substantial ones.
But it wasn’t until the new century hit and a decade afterwards that Stallone found himself back on top again, albeit briefly. 2010′s The Expendables was actually a summer blockbuster, and gave Stallone yet another film to try and make a franchise out of. Employing many of the action stars of the ’80s and ’90s, a kind of “super group” of action stars (like Jet-Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and others), the film was a great popcorn dazzler, a slam-bang action flick in which Stallone co-wrote and directed. This summer brings a sequel which will try and keep The Expendables franchise alive and in full working order.
So let’s all celebrate the birthday today of Sylvester Stallone, a true Hollywood star who has seen more ups and downs than an elevator in the Empire State Building, but somehow still manages to remain in the public eye, still enticing movie audiences, both old and new, and has his place in the annals of Hollywood movie lore. Here’s to you Sly.