Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was of his own making and still holds a unique place in the very fabric of his being. “It’s like my brother,” he says. “It’s the only voice that I can say what I want without being ridiculed, or being silly, or being precious or sentimental, because he is that way.”
In an hours-long interview with Variety, Stallone speaks candidly about how the “Rocky” movie series impacted his life and career — catapulting him to worldwide fame but, in his view, also dealing him a gut punch that clearly still stings.
Until now, Stallone, 73, never talked publicly about the deep-seated resentment he’s harbored for decades over not being given any ownership of the lucrative series that launched with the 1976 original film that he conceived, wrote and starred in. “Rocky” became a surprise box office hit and critical darling, garnering 10 Oscar nominations, including best actor and original screenplay for Stallone, and winning for best picture, director and film editing. Stallone suddenly went from being an actor living on the edge in a Hollywood apartment to a global household name.
Over the years he has amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune off the eight-picture “Rocky” series that includes the “Creed” and “Creed II” spinoffs. He earned net points on the original movie — which cost just over $1 million to produce and grossed $225 million globally — and received first-dollar gross on the early sequels.
But Stallone insists that being deprived of an equity stake in the franchise, an annuity of sorts that he could have left to his children after his death, remains a real sore spot.
“I have zero ownership of ‘Rocky,’” he tells me when we sit down at Variety’s Los Angeles headquarters. “Every word, every syllable, every grammatical error was all my fault,” he says. “It was shocking that it never came to be, but I was told, ‘Hey, you got paid, so what are you complaining about?’ I was furious.” That said, he blames his own naiveté and lack of business savvy at the time for not pushing the issue hard enough: “You don’t want to ruffle the feathers of the golden goose.”
“Rocky” producer Irwin Winkler and others affiliated with the franchise reacted with surprise to learn that Stallone was carping about his stake, saying that by having healthy profit participation and additional income from ancillaries, the actor-writer-director has raked in tens of millions of dollars in profit participation in addition to his upfront fees on each installment. “He made money from every angle, and still does, so I don’t know what he’s complaining about,” says one person who requested anonymity out of fondness for the star. Another source says that Stallone made more than $10 million on “Creed” and in the mid-teens on “Creed II”; he also served as a producer on both.
Stallone also speaks openly about his painful struggle with an industry that once recognized him as one of the biggest box office draws in the world and then rejected him for some 15 years following the 1990 flop “Rocky V” and other bombs, including the 1992 comedy “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” that he headlined. Describing how extinct he felt during those fallow years, Stallone says, “I was going the way of the dodo bird and the Tasmanian tiger.”
He was dropped by his agency, CAA, and manager, who told him they couldn’t find work for him and suggested that he seek new representation. (In May, after years of agency jumping, Stallone rejoined CAA.)
It wasn’t until the 2006 release of “Rocky Balboa,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, that Stallone got back in the good graces of Hollywood. He went on to reprise his role in the two “Creed” movies.
He discloses in our interview that he is working on a new “Rocky” movie for Winkler’s production company and MGM (which co-own the franchise) about the onetime boxing champ befriending a young street fighter living in the U.S. illegally. “We’re very high on it,” says Winkler, noting negotiations are underway for Stallone to write and star in the film. “We’re very anxious to make it.” Stallone divulged that there are also ongoing discussions about a “Rocky” prequel as a TV series, likely for a streaming platform.
The genesis of “Rocky” dates back to 1975, when Stallone, born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, was a broke, struggling actor who wrote the script in three and a half days after watching little-known fighter Chuck Wepner show tremendous heart in battling into the final round against boxing champ Muhammad Ali. Stallone says his story, about a no-name club fighter in Philadelphia, isn’t about boxing. “It is really a metaphor for life,” he says. “This was a love story. He happens to box for a living, but the story is about his love for [his wife, Adrian Balboa, played by Talia Shire]. You root for the underdog, and he had something to fight for — her.”
When given the opportunity to sell the rights to his screenplay to producers Winkler and Robert Chartoff, he would only agree to do so if he could play the lead. But they had bigger ideas.
“They had Redford, Nick Nolte, Jimmy Caan, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds — who were all in their prime — and then you had some loser named Sylvester who was just naive enough to hang on,” says Stallone, who at the time had $100 to his name and famously had to sell his bull mastiff, Butkus, to pay rent on his Hollywood apartment. When he landed “Rocky,” he bought his dog back and planned to feature him in the movie. He was told that if he wanted to bring Butkus, they’d have to travel economy — by train — to the shoot location in Philadelphia. “It took four days,” he recalls.
Is it true that you became a millionaire off the first “Rocky”?
It was probably the first and last time anyone ever saw net points pay off.
How many net points did you get?
I got 10 net points.
So, all told, how much did you make on the original movie?
About $2.5 million, which for me was unbelievable. [Winkler says, “He made way, way more than that — of that I am sure”]. I was the luckiest man in the world. You have to understand that in the year before I did “Rocky,” my total income was $1,400 for the entire year. I got $35 a week as an usher. About $100 a month.
What were the terms of the deal you struck with MGM?
I got $35,000 for the first one. The screenplay was about $25,000, then $360 a week before taxes. It shot for only 25 days. Luckily there were the WGA minimums. I made about $2,000 for acting. The second deal was for $75,000 all-in.
How much for the third movie?
About $120,000. [He made millions of dollars on the back end.]
You said you’re upset that you didn’t get any ownership of the “Rocky” franchise.
I mentioned it a few times because after “Rocky II” came out and made a ton of money and then “Rocky III” hit and made more than all of them, I said I’d like to have some ownership since I invented it. And that never happened. So I have zero ownership of “Rocky.”
So you asked for a stake and were refused? Who told you no?
My attorney [Jake Bloom].
What about your CAA agent at the time, Ron Meyer?
Ronnie I never mentioned it to.
Because I was told it just doesn’t happen, no one has it, and look, they’re giving you more money on “Rocky III.” They took their chances, and you’re not entitled to it.
“They say the definition of Hollywood is someone who stabs you in the chest. They don’t even hide it.”
Jake said that?
Yeah, in a roundabout way: “You’re not going to get any more.” He said, “No one gets it,” and I said, “I get it but, well, this is kind of an exception to the rule.” To tell you the truth, I was so preoccupied with other things I didn’t belabor it. [Bloom declined to comment for this story.]
So you never really pushed the matter?
No, I never really pushed it, and by the time we got around to “Rocky Balboa” I was in a pretty weak position to say anything. I was in a slump, and it was pretty intense. There was a great sense of finality about it. I couldn’t get arrested. I was let go by my agency. Dropped — fired basically.
I’m still having a tough time understanding why you didn’t insist on getting a piece of the very thing you created.
I think there was a certain code of business conduct, maybe not as much now, but back then, that you don’t ruffle the feathers of the golden goose. The studio is the power, the agency relies upon them, and the attorneys are the go-betweens. When I finally confronted them [just before “Rocky IV” in 1985], I said, “Does it bother you guys that I’ve written every word, I’ve choreographed it, I’ve been loyal to you, I’ve promoted it, directed it and I don’t have 1% that I could leave for my children?” And the quote was, “You got paid.” And that was the end of the conversation.
What about all the licensing and merchandising revenue MGM made off “Rocky” using your likeness?
They had 100 different licenses, and they said this is all going to be put into the pot, which would have meant hundreds of millions of dollars over 45 years. I’ve never seen that pot.
How upset were you that you never got any take of the “Rocky” windfall?
I was very angry. I was furious. “Rocky” is on TV around the world more than any other Oscar-winning film other than “Godfather.” You have six of them, and now you have “Creed” and “Creed II.”
I love the system — don’t get me wrong. My kids and their kids, they’re taken care of because of the system. But there are dark little segues and people that have put it to ya. They say the definition of Hollywood is someone who stabs you in the chest. They don’t even hide it.
You said you were fired by your agents at CAA and your manager. How difficult was that for you?
Listen, I have nothing against them. And I understand it now being on that side of the desk. They couldn’t do anything for me. They couldn’t get traction. They said, “Look, you should maybe go and find someone else because we can’t do it.” It was about 2002, and nothing was cooking for me for about six years.
Why do you think you found yourself on the outs?
I think it happened because I wasn’t as diligent as I should have been with making certain career choices. For example, I did a film called “D-Tox,” and it had a really good cast, but one week into the film the producers decided to change tack, and the film had a cloud over it. It sat on the shelf for two years, and so that was kind of the beginning of “Stallone is [over].”
What did you do next?
I did a film called “Daylight.” The premise was really good but it didn’t deliver, so you shoulder that. And I had done “Cop Land” a little bit before that, which I thought would be a good acting exercise, and I worked with the best director I ever worked with — James Mangold. I loved the film, but it actually worked in reverse. It was pretty good critically, but the fact that it didn’t do a lot of box office, again it fomented the opinion that I had my moment and was going the way of the dodo bird and the Tasmanian tiger. So, I’m gone. Because with “Rocky IV,” I should have learned from my predecessors that very few people want to see the dark side of a character they love.
Is that why the film flopped in your view?
It was too dark. I said Rocky can’t fight in the ring anymore but in the street, so when he fights Tommy Morrison in the movie, Rocky says, “I can’t beat you in the ring, but I’ll beat you in the street.” Well, it didn’t work, and it was devastating to me. Every “Rocky” had been more successful than the last, and then it just plummeted. That was 1990, so for almost 15 years, I was pretty well cooked.
So you were ready to give up on “Rocky” entirely at that point?
No, then I thought I’d like to try and salvage “Rocky” and go out on a good note. When you’re 60 years old wanting to play a boxer, following a sequel that bombed [1990’s “Rocky V”] 15 years earlier, there’s zero chance.
I went to the studios. And Alex Yemenidjian at the time was running MGM. He told me that no one wanted to make it [“Rocky VI”], absolutely no one. [Yemenidjian, who ran MGM from 1999 to 2005, tells Variety, “I remember telling Sly that there was nothing new and fresh, and we’re going to be the laughingstock of the industry if we make it.”]
There must have been a lot of nonbelievers that “Rocky VI” would work.
There was such skepticism, and rightly so. It’s like doing “Godfather 20.” I get it.
The core audience had grown up and was gone. I said it’s not about boxing — it’s about grief and loss. He finally lost his love, which is the end of the equation for him. The only way he knows how to deal with it is cathartically through fighting. He says, “I got this beast inside,” and it worked. [“Rocky VI” became the 2006 release “Rocky Balboa.”]
Was it hard on you that there were so many in Hollywood who had written you off?
I had seen this town from every peak, and I’d seen it from the valley. I know the terrain pretty well, and the fact that “Rocky [Balboa]” prevailed one more time was even more momentous for me than “Rocky I.” This was tough. There was no element of surprise, you’re well past the right age, and the audience that came — my demographic didn’t show up at all — it was 28- to 30-year-olds.
What do you think drew audiences in, and why do you think “Rocky” has transcended the times?
It was like the first “Rocky.” There’s something about the perseverance of being so overwhelmed by life and still driving through it. People can relate to it on a subliminal level. … Rocky is very touchable. He was the most insecure fighter ever. He just had no belief in himself whatsoever, and I think a lot of people feel that way. They see the character in the film overcome it, and they say, “You know, I could do that too.” So I think the relatability and lack of guile he has [is what appeals].
I just met a girl — I put the story on Instagram — who’s 9 years old. Her parents flew her from Russia, and somehow they found me in the editing room, and I asked her, “I’m an old man. How is it possible that you even know who Rocky is?” and she says, “Rocky never grows old. I want him as a father.”
You’re a big Instagram star with 10 million followers.
It all started out as a joke. Yeah, I’m a little mature for Instagram, but my daughters were on me about it. They said, “This can’t be that hard.”
I heard that you want to do a “Rocky” prequel for TV and Winkler has other ideas. Any truth to that?
There was some conflict there, yes. He felt in his mind that “Rocky” was primarily a feature film, and he didn’t see it as being translated for cable, so there was a big bone of contention.
Any possibility that “Rocky” would reappear on the big screen someday with you in the role?
There’s a good chance that “Rocky” may ride again.
What’s the basic premise?
Rocky meets a young, angry person who got stuck in this country when he comes to see his sister. He takes him into his life, and unbelievable adventures begin, and they wind up south of the border. It’s very, very timely.
So the story would touch on the immigration issues in the U.S. that are headlining the news today?
Yes. Do you tell someone that you just met in the street who’s struggling and homeless to get out, or do you take him in? If you take him in, you’re in trouble.
How close do you think this is to happening?
They want to go tomorrow.
Do you see Rocky as your legacy?
It is. It’s like my brother. It’s the only voice that I can say what I want without being ridiculed, or being silly, or being precious or sentimental, because he is that way. Rocky can’t keep quiet. He just talks and talks and spills his guts. And as a writer, if you do that quite often, it looks as though you’re just lost in the world of exposition. But he’s actually saying something, and because of the way he speaks and his naiveté and gentle quality, you listen. Rocky can say things that my other characters can never say.
Are you saying that you are Rocky?
There is some resemblance.