Sylvester Stallone’s challenges started early in life. Complications his mother suffered during labor forced doctors to use forceps during his birth which accidentally severed a nerve in his face. As a result, the lower left side of his face was and is paralyzed, including parts of his lip, tongue, and chin, an accident which gave Stallone his snarling look and slightly slurred speech. In middle school, his speech and facial paralysis became a thing for others to make fun of so he joined a gym and started body-building to frighten those who bullied him.
After high school, Stallone dreamed of being an actor. What he found instead was a big dose of rejection, failure and a string of agents telling him he talked funny, walked funny and couldn’t act. Short in stature and short on options, Stallone first starring role was in the softcore pornography feature film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. He was paid US $200 for two days’ work. Stallone later explained that he had done the film out of desperation after being evicted from his apartment and finding himself homeless for several days. He has also said that he slept three weeks in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City prior to seeing a casting notice for the film. In the actor’s words, “it was either do that movie or rob someone, because I was at the end – the very end – of my rope. I was so broke I sold my dog for $25.” (The film was released several years later as Italian Stallion, in order to cash in on Stallone’s newfound fame.)
1975, Stallone saw the Muhammad Ali – Chuck Wepner fight also known as the “Bayonne Bleeder.” That match was like a flash of divine inspiration when for a brief moment Wepner knocked Ali to the canvas. That night Stallone went home, and after three days he had written the rough script of for Rocky. Now he had to sell the idea to a producer which lead to nearly 1500 rejections. Says Stallone in a video he did for the film school archive “I was on casting call and I was not right for the part but on the way out I told them I do some writing and I have a story about boxing. They said let’s take a look at it, but if I hadn’t turned around at that door my whole life would have changed. That’s why I always tell actor and writers keep talking and maybe you’ll hit a nerve. I have to give them credit for their insight and willingness to take a chance. They were really enthusiastic about the script but they here not enthusiastic about me playing the part. I can’t say I blame them there were a lot of stars at the top of their game Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neil, Burt Reynolds but I thought this opportunity is not coming round again. If I give up now and this is a hit I think I’d throw myself off a building.”
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff offered Stallone, whose net worth hovered around $100, $25,000 for his script. He said not unless he stared in the movie. They kept upping it $100,000, $150,000, $200,000. Said Stallone, “My $40 car had just blown up an I had to take the bus everywhere, but I couldn’t sell out on my dream.” When they offered him $360,000, Stallone still refused. Eventually, he accepted just $35,000 and a percentage of the film’s sales but he got to star in the movie. Six months before Stallone had sold his dog to help make ends meet. Stallone eventually talked the family into giving Butkus back so that the dog could star in the movie, the actor explains:
“The other family had owned him for six months,” Stallone says. “They weren’t exactly thrilled, but I said, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘This dog belongs in the movie.’ He had suffered along with me for two years. I said, ‘Please let him have a shot in the movie.’”
Mercifully, the family relented and Stallone’s dog starred in two Rocky films. He even appears in the credits as Butkus Stallone.
Rocky was made on a budget of under a million dollars, shot in 28 days, and almost always in one take. It earned $225 million in global box office receipts becoming the highest grossing film of 1976. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nominations for Stallone. The film went on to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Film Editing.