Before there was “Rocky,” before “Rambo,” before Sylvester Stallone became the larger-than-life American action hero, there was a young man who dreamed of making movies his way.
With all the success Stallone has had as a Hollywood star, it’s hard to remember this is a guy who literally had to fight for his big break when nearly everyone around him was saying no, that he turned down big money (for him at the time) to do it his way and that in spite of all the surface attributes of his boxoffice success, he is really an independent filmmaker at heart.
“He is an independent filmmaking hero,” says producer Avi Lerner, who met Stallone four years ago when he bought the rights to “Rambo” and convinced the reluctant star to restart the iconic series. “Our company is independent. We cannot compete with the studios; we’ll never compete with the studios. But with Sly, we found a great partner to do movies with budgets less than half what the studio would make and still compete with them on the level of production values.”
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Lerner made “Rambo,” the fourth film in the series, with Stallone writing, directing and starring, for about $45 million, which by today’s studio standard of $100 to $200 million for action films is chump change, and still the film grossed over $113 million worldwide. “?’Rambo’ was a wonderful investment for us,” enthuses Lerner.
Most of Stallone’s films turned out to be wonderful investments, even when the whole world was betting against him. In the early 1970s, he was a struggling actor and writer trying to survive doing bit parts in movies such as “Klute” and “Bananas” while churning out unproduced screenplays. He even resorted to starring in a softcore erotic film just so he could eat. But in 1974 he caught a break, co-starring in the ’50s-era leather-jacket drama “The Lords of Flatbush” with Perry King and a soon-to-be household name, Henry Winkler. Whereas the initial hype went to Winkler because of “The Fonz,” it was Stallone’s turn as a fellow street tough that caught the eye of producers Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler.
“We scheduled 15 minutes to meet with him as an actor, then spent over an hour because we were just so impressed with the guy, his intelligence and sense of humor,” recalls Chartoff. “And just as he was leaving, his hand on the doorknob, he said, ‘Listen, I am a writer, too, and I’ve written a script. Would you mind reading it if I give it to you?’?”
That script wasn’t “Rocky,” but “Paradise Alley,” a wrestling story about three brothers that would mark Stallone’s directorial debut two years later. The two producers liked it and even though it wasn’t right for them, they called him back. “And that’s when he said he had an idea for another script, about a boxer,” Chartoff recalls.
“We had wanted to do a fight story for a long time,” elaborates Winkler. “So he said he would write the script as a spec with the understanding that if we made the movie, he would star in the film. We agreed, and six weeks later, he brought in the first draft.”
But not everyone was as enthusiastic about starring a relative unknown like Stallone in the movie. “We gave the script to United Artists, and they said they would do it, but only if we got Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal. We said, ‘No, this is our guy,’?” recounts Winkler. “So they went directly to Stallone and offered him $250,000 for the script if he didn’t do it, and to his credit — he didn’t have a penny to his name — he said no, too.”
Eventually UA came around, as long as the producers could bring the movie in for $1 million and guarantee completion. “We got really lucky to get John Avildsen to direct. He was totally committed to it, put his heart and soul in it and also had tremendous respect for Stallone,” says Chartoff. “I don’t want to step on John, but nobody understood the material better than Sylvester, and to some degree we were all in awe of his ability to take the material so far beyond the script itself.”
They shot the film in 29 days, nine of those days literally guerrilla style on the streets of Philadelphia. “We traveled like a band of gypsies in a couple of station wagons,” says Winkler. “We had no caterer, so the crew would just pile out and find a pizza place and go in and have lunch. We had no studio supervision at all.”
When they did finally show UA the completed film, Arthur Krim, who was chairman of the board, thought they had cast the wrong guy. “He didn’t even know who Stallone was,” says Winkler.
After “Rocky,” everyone knew who Sylvester Stallone was, but he took that hard-earned fame and gambled it to make the movies he wanted to make, not only directing “Paradise Alley” and “Rocky II” and “III” but also working with top-flight directors Norman Jewison (on the Teamsters period drama “F.I.S.T”) and John Huston (on the WWII soccer P.O.W. thriller “Victory”). It was on “Victory” that Stallone met executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. Together, the three would team up to make “First Blood” in 1982, which would spawn Stallone’s second smash franchise.
Kassar and Vajna ran Carolco, an independent company that largely relied on foreign pre-sales to finance their films’ budgets while still using the studios for their extensive distribution apparatus. With Stallone, they found a perfect partner, a star who was also a filmmaker who liked to do things his way without a lot of outside interference, but could still deliver the goods on a massive worldwide scale. “First Blood” was made for $15 million and grossed $125 million worldwide. “Rambo II” and “III” were made for $44 and $63 million respectively and grossed $300 and $189 million.
No longer did films have to rely mainly on domestic B.O.; Stallone was a legitimate global phenomenon, opening up the world for other stars and films to come. With the success of the “Rambo” series, the game suddenly became independent filmmaking on steroids.
Throughout his career, Stallone has continued to seek out relationships with producers and filmmakers who give him the freedom to make the movies he wants outside the studio system. In the late 1980s, he worked with Cannon Films, which, like Carolco, relied on foreign sales for financing and studios for distribution. Though his films there — “Cobra,” “Over the Top,” and “Tango and Cash” — were not as successful as his “Rocky” and “Rambo” films, his huge overseas appeal guaranteed that all but “Over the Top” were highly profitable.
Even when he’s fallen on hard times with flops like “Oscar” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” Stallone has managed to reinvent himself, whether as a different kind of action hero in the mountain climbing thriller “Cliffhanger” (also Carolco) or with a dramatic character turn in the James Mangold-directed indie “Cop Land” opposite Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel.
Today Stallone has found a fit for his vision in NuImage/Millenium, another independent that basically follows the Carolco/Cannon model for financing and distribution. Not only did Lerner’s company help Stallone revitalize “Rambo,” but they just completed “The Expendables,” which allowed the multi-talent to assemble a dream team of action legends, past and present.
“That was all Stallone,” insists Lerner, who marvels that the helmer talked Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in on a Sunday and work for free. “I’ve never met somebody like Stallone, who is such a huge movie star on one side and then a filmmaker, director, writer and producer on the other.”
While there are others who have made that same leap — Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner, to name a few — Stallone is unique in that he started out exerting so much control over his projects from the beginning, working independently rather than relying on studio relationships, while using the foreign market to make him a global superstar who could call his own shots. It didn’t hurt that “Rocky” was such a critical and financial triumph, though Stallone never sat back on his laurels either, writing many of the films he starred in and directing eight, including four “Rocky” films.
“He’s a force of nature,” says Chartoff. “The fact that he has become almost a mythic character in Hollywood is because of all the different elements he brings to his work.”
“He’s one of the hardest-working filmmakers that I’ve ever seen, (putting in) 14 to 16 hours a day, everyday, in order to make sure he got the movie right,” says Lerner. “He never misses a thing. He’s a real independent.”