The Rocky road to redemption
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The Rocky road to redemption

By Shaun Curran

At 69 years old, Sylvester Stallone has enjoyed a remarkable 40-year career at the top as Hollywood’s iconic all-action leading man. But behind the violent on-screen fights, explosions and machismo is a religious family man. Sorted takes a look at how Stallone’s Catholic background influenced Rocky, the film that propelled him to stardom, and helped him navigate Hollywood’s temptations.

It is impossible to imagine modern popular culture without the influence of Sylvester Stallone. As one of Hollywood’s most inimitable leading men for 40 years, Stallone has helped create, define and then thrust into public consciousness the type of testosterone-fuelled, high-octane blockbuster action films that have become Hollywood’s default setting. With a muscular personality, boisterous style and a twinkle in his eye, Stallone has become the on-screen embodiment of all the contradictory aspects of masculine character traits – the vulnerable fighter, the lonely hero, the misunderstood and the underestimated.

Critics, particularly latterly, have attempted to paint him as a relic, a cartoon caricature of his former self, but the statistics tell a different story. Sly has fronted three of the biggest film franchises of all time: the recent The Expendables trilogy (a $600m and counting success) has joined a fabled canon which includes Rambo and, most famously Rocky, the underdog tale of boxer Rocky Balboa that first introduced Stallone’s talents to an unsuspecting film industry. In total, his 50+ films, eight of which he has penned himself, have grossed in excess of $4bn.

The story of Rocky itself – the rags-to-riches little-guy-does-good tale – is a well-worn one, but less known is the story behind its gestation and the religious inspiration Stallone mined not only for its story, but for the writing too.

Born in New York to an Italian immigrant father, Frank Stallone Snr, a professional polo player, and astrologer mother Jackie, Stallone’s suffered ill health in his early months due to a complicated birth, resulting in the slightly slurred speech that has long been a Stallone trademark, spawning a million impersonations. He was baptised a Catholic, living in New York and then Washington as his parents divorced.

His years spent as a budding actor were characterised by struggle: before his big break, he claims he “mastered the art of poverty”, living in New York in 1972. “I used to make $39 a week. That’s not much – so you really learn OK, I can afford some cottage cheese and a loaf of rye, and you learn to get along like that.” For a month-long period, he slept rough at a bus stop. “I had one coat, which actually I’m selling because I can’t stand it anymore because it’s such a bad memory. I had this one coat, and that coat literally was my house and I would sleep in the Port Authority bus station or outside the post office, and I would sleep in that coat and that coat saved my life, an old sheepskin coat from Afghanistan.”

A decent thespian career, never mind a dramatic rise to the top of Hollywood, looked like an unachievable daydream, a lost cause. It is why Stallone describes what happened next, without hyperbole, as “a miracle”. With an acting career that amounted to little more than several minor roles, everything changed on 4 March 1975: after watching a world title boxing fight between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone went home and wrote the first Rocky film in just three days, stimulated by Wepner’s resilience in going 15 rounds with the sport’s greatest figure. Sat on a script that would propel him to stardom, Stallone turned down offers of $250,000 from studios keen for the story, but not so enamoured with the prospect of Stallone playing the main protagonist. “I think to make it in this business you have to have a certain thing called the stubborn gene and when you don’t adhere to that, or you give in, you’re going to regret it and there’s about five times in your life you’re going to hit a major crossroads … which can determine your future for the rest of your life, it could be a marriage or a business decision. I’m 96% wrong but that 4%. And in this instance, I thought, $250 grand, that’s nice but it will go away but will the scar and the self-loathing and everything else watching Ryan O’Neal play Rocky? It was daunting.”

Nerve held, Stallone eventually got his wish. Overnight, he became a star. Rocky was nominated for a swathe of Oscars, eventually becoming one of the most beloved film characters of all time. But Stallone has identified his belief that divine intervention played its part in its success.

“I was never a writer,” he told CBN, “I was never an exemplary student, yet all of a sudden one day I started writing Rocky. I wrote [it] in three days, and it wins the Oscar. I cannot assume that I did that all on my own. I really do not believe that for a second.”

Modest? Disingenuous? Truthful? Exactly how much help from God he received, there is no doubt that Stallone took just as much inspiration from his own life story and his religious upbringing.

“The journey of Rocky was kind of like mine,” he explained. “I was raised in a Catholic home, a Christian home, and I went to Catholic schools. I was taught the faith and went as far as I could with it until one day I got out into the so-called real world. I was presented with temptation and I lost my way and made a lot of bad choices. I felt the character of Rocky sort of did that too. He just didn’t have the right guidance. And then he was given an opportunity in the movie – like he was being chosen. Jesus was over him and he was going to be the fella that would live through the example of Christ. He’s very forgiving – there’s no bitterness in him. He always turns the other cheek. It’s like his whole life was about service. And I said, ‘Man, if I could take my story, my feelings, and put it into the body of a boxer – because no one cares about an actor so much – the boxing is symbolism of the constant fight, and the example of Christ,’ I thought, this would be really interesting and that’s exactly what happened. It was like an unexpected gift, really.”

On record as stating he doesn’t see the art of boxing as unChristian – “there is one thing about speaking the word but eventually you do need a crusader, someone that has to go out there and defend it and face evil one-on-one and that’s pretty much what Rocky is” – Stallone says the spirit of Christ infused the first Rocky film from the very outset.

“What people don’t realise is the first thing you see is a shot of Christ, which then comes down to the beams of the church and says ‘resurrection’, and then it goes to Rocky being humbled,” he continued. “What I was trying to say was this was a man that had been chosen for a journey. He was at the lowest rung of society and we are going to watch him eventually find Christian ideals – he finds love, he brings people together, all these things. What I would call society’s outcasts all come together for one unified family spirit. That’s how they triumph. Alone, they are not very strong, together, they are invincible.”

The religious message continued throughout the sequels, with Stallone specifying that the sixth film, 2006’s comeback movie Rocky Balboa, 30 years after the original – “I was a national laughing stock when I announced it” – sees the boxer take solace in faith after the death of his wife.

“The last one, after he has all these family core values, his wife has died. The rug has been pulled from under him, he’s at his lowest depths asking, how can this be? And the film was about pulling yourself up from the doldrums of depression and crawling your way back up, finding the light, finding the spirit, moving on. He finds himself with old friends, even ex-fighters that read scripture, and then when he goes into the ring he goes in almost like he is doing God’s work. He really is on a mission.”

By his own confession, however, Stallone has not always practised that which he preached through his work. While Rocky was impelled by Catholic beliefs, Stallone, now a devout family man to wife Jennifer Flavin and daughters Sistine, Sophia and Scarlet, says that his own faith lapsed as his fame increased.

“There was a time there when I was a very strict Catholic,” he told CBN, “and then all of a sudden you make it in Hollywood and then you are given the keys to the candy store and temptation abounds and I started to believe my own publicity. There’s no question – I admit it. I lost my way. But every time I came back to Rocky I was given a new shot in the arm, a new reawakening. But then I would abuse it again. But eventually it led to about a 12-year period where I was just spiralling down and I eventually said – I have to stop. I have to get back to basics. So I decided to take things out of my own hands and put them in God’s hands because I always felt that I was chosen to do something. And I feel the same thing with the last film. There was a calling, I wanted to do it and for some reason I think right now it is a perfect message for what is going on. The world is in upheaval, we don’t have certain individuals in the world we can look up to and Rocky is a humble man who really believes in sacrificing himself for the good of others.”

Stallone is adamant that remains the case as he basks in the critical and commercial success of 2015’s Creed, the seventh edition of the Rocky Bilbao story. It is, Stallone says, proof that the morals of Rocky have found a new audience, remaining as relevant as ever.

“That’s why I think it’s so phenomenal – the generation that wasn’t even around when we did the third one, forget the first one, that they would embrace this and take it to a new level. I am stunned that, here we are on the seventh one, but actually we’re in Creed One. The Rocky story is done but this is now hopefully the beginning of a whole new series. It just continues to go on and what these guys can do that I can’t do anymore is that they’re living in the here and now, and I pretty much live in the past because that[’s] where I acquired all my knowledge – I didn’t acquire it from the future, I acquired it from the past. But they are acquiring their lives so their stories will be very applicable and very now, as opposed to retro.

“But what people need to realise is it is dealing with some deep core values. I really believe that life does repeat itself. By the grace of God, I’m here again.”