Requiem for a Heavyweight
A surprisingly introspective Sylvester Stallone digs deep into the character that defined him.
Let’s begin with a story you already know. There’s no news in it for you. Recounting it will only help you to remember, not to learn. Still, you’ll enjoy reliving it. That’s the way it is, at least for Philadelphians, when it comes to Rocky — not just the flick, but the memory of it, the endless quoting and reenacting of it, the collective self-regard it imparted to everyone raised in this city. The movie is Philly’s heirloom gem. For reasons both obvious and unfathomable, one never tires of holding it up to the light, inspecting it, allowing oneself to be taken ever deeper into its facets.
Actually, this isn’t just a story you know. It’s something you did. Three years ago. A Monday night in September — the Eagles’ first regular-season game at the Linc. The game was a bust (a 17-0 rout courtesy of the Bucs), and the pre-game hoopla was mostly by the numbers. An Irish Tenor on "God Bless America." Teddy Pendergrass on the Anthem. An F-16 flyover. But then came that moment, that strange and bewildering thing you Philadelphians did.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, would you please give a warm welcome to … Sylvester Stallone!"
In the split second preceding the reaction: a great psychic inhalation. Those who know Philadelphia but aren’t of it — people such as myself, who have lived and worked with you but weren’t raised here and aren’t imprinted with its passions and pathologies — knew what was coming. With equal parts dread and glee, we awaited what was coming, because we knew.
What did we know? Well, basically, that you’re a bunch of low, mean bastards. And that you know you’re a bunch of low, mean bastards. And that it’s no insult to tell you so, because you Philly fans take a perverse pride in the way outsiders perceive you as low, mean bastards. You’re famous for your rottenness, you people. You’re the ones who wound up in the visitors’ penalty box at a Flyers game, throwing punches. You’re the ones who pelted Jimmy Johnson with snowballs. (One man there that day, a lawman, offered a fellow Eagles fan $20 if he could reach the field from where they were sitting; you Phans later honored this man — Ed Rendell — by making him your mayor.) You’re the ones who drove Mitch Williams to hermitude in Siberia or Katmandu or wherever he was sent to atone in silent prayer. You’re the people who booed Darren Daulton’s four-year-old boy when he came to the plate at a pre-game father-son exhibition, driving him (and his Playmate mother) to tears; the ones who booed Donovan McNabb on draft day; the ones who rained boos and snowballs on Santa at Franklin Field.
Santa, for Christ’s sake!
The thing is, you bastards should be proud. Because the Philly fan, as a collective consciousness, a being, possesses an almost supernatural sense of who is, and isn’t, for real. The Phan is smart. He brooks no blind devotion. He ritualistically detects, dismembers and devours any fellow Philadelphian — whether athlete, singer, politician or actor — who goes fugasi on him, who forgets the constituency that made him, who undergoes a literal and/or figurative face-lift, who dares to break the surly bonds of bleak, backward Philly to touch the face of God, or at least Ba’al, in Hollywood, or New York, or D.C., or any other place to which Philly has always (in its own, self-loathing view of things) played second fiddle.
So there you were on 8 September, three years ago, Philly fan, and there he was, "Sylvester Stallone," at human scale, in the flesh, and larger than life, on the stadium screens, your "hometown hero," raising his fists and acknowledging his public.
STALLONE! Had any Son of Philly ever gone more fugasi than Stallone? Stallone, tagged by one critic as early as 1981 as "a terminal case of Hollywood ego." Stallone, with his $20 million-a-pic salaries. Stallone, with his 18-month marriages to supermodels. Stallone, who broke up with one girlfriend via FedEx. Stallone, creator of the most phallically narcissistic scene in cinematic history (in which Johnny J. Rambo, shirtless and glistening and strapped to a metal bed frame, endures repeated electric shocks that allow Stallone to perform the "crab" flex, which in turn inspires his clearly aroused Soviet interrogator to exclaim, "You are strong! Very strong! Strongest so far!"). Stallone, reported to have been overheard numbly instructing a groupie to "Work da shaft" and "Cup da balls" and "Say my name" while receiving fellatio in a movie-set trailer. (Apocryphal? Probably. Believable? Entirely.) Stallone, with his delusional presumption that his public was hungry and grateful for a second, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and — can it be possible? — a sixth Rocky movie.
During that psychic inhalation, those of us outsiders who know you, Philly Fan, thought: This is it. Philly Fan has been given a national stage to fulfill his legend, his script, his moral responsibility to prove he’s even more of a heel than the world already thinks he is. And we wondered: What glorious offal will the Phan dump on Sly’s head?
And oh, you let him have it. You went large, Philly Fan, larger than anyone could have predicted. You went insane, and it was pure, unrestrained, squealing …
Why, Philly? Why’d you do it? Why, at your moment of triumph, did you abandon your own nature?
Stallone knows why: On that Monday night in September at Lincoln Financial Field, Philly Fan chose to disregard the amplified voice that told him the vision on the JumboTron was Sylvester Stallone.
"All that noise? All that love?" says Stallone. "None of that was for me. Nah. That was all for Rocky."
OKAY. IT WAS ALL for Rocky. Still, the question persists: Why? Why the hosannas for Rocky and the hell for Santa?
"Rocky is the sixth man on the 76ers bench, the strength coach for the Eagles, the late-_inning reliever for the Phillies, and the line change for the Flyers!" yells lawyer-cum-_provocateur Jimmy Binns, who’s played bit parts in two of the Rocky movies. "Whenever those teams get down, they put on that scene where Old Mickey screams ‘I didn’t hear no bell!’ and they go wild! It brings tears to their eyes! That is sui generis! There’s no other place in the world where that could happen but Philadelphia."
Another local, a romance novelist who’s lived in South Philly, has a more … romantic take.
"It’s because he chose us," she says. (Referring to … Stallone? Rocky? Both?) "Because he was a New Yorker who chose Philly. And by choosing us, he taught us that what we thought were our worst parts — all that South Philly idiocy — was worth celebrating. He pulled this city, a city filled with self-loathing, to prominence."
A powerful theory (though Stallone is arguably Philadelphian, having spent some of his teen years here). I run it by Sylvester Stallone.
"Rocky could only come of Philadelphia," Stallone says of his mind-set during those mythic three-and-a-half days in 1975 during which he wrote the first Rocky script. "I was gonna start in New York. But there was a certain attitude with the actors who were playing boxers coming out of New York. A certain kind of … "
Now there is a pause, and in that pause the ramps and levers of that huge mouth begin to move, as slowly and inexorably as those of a drawbridge, until the dual arches of the upper lip are pressed down in a display of sullen distaste for the word about to pass beneath them …
"Imperiousness. I thought, you know, that Rocky moves at a certain pace. Not a New York pace. A Philadelphia pace. A more soulful pace. I thought of him as much more conservative in his life. And I thought that he would belong to a smaller kind of infrastructure, where the neighborhoods were tighter. Where the world was more claustrophobic." Stallone shrugs. "I just thought, ‘A Philadelphia fighter. Rocky’s a Philadelphia fighter.’"
That bit above — interrupting the man’s train of thought to natter about one element of his physicality — may seem excessive. Yet it’s the only way to convey the experience and rhythm of a conversation with Sylvester Stallone. Fact is, he has the most manifest, the most intrusive, physicality of any human you could meet. It’s not just the sight of him. Due no doubt to mammoth and leathery tonsils, septa, tongue, uvula, etc., Stallone’s body emits a constant earthy rumbling, a kind of ambient soundtrack in which every mastication, every swallowing, every sniffing, every inhalation and exhalation, is strangely amplified.
Then, of course, there’s the sight of him. Huge. Huge and handsome. The hugeness and handsomeness do not go without saying, because one thing you’ll discover if you’re ever in the position to meet Sylvester Stallone is that every single person you encounter prior to that meeting will attempt to prepare you by insisting that a) Sylvester Stallone is "really, really" short; and b) Numberless plastic surgeries have given Sylvester Stallone’s face the freakish tectonics of Frankenstein’s monster.
Fact: The man is five-foot-10. The face: It’s … just terrific. The skin is tawny and taut, smooth as suede. Seamless. Beautiful. Improbably so, given the fact that he’s 60. (You read that right; Sylvester Stallone turned 60 in July.) So yes, that face probably isn’t a first draft, but it’s terrific nevertheless. Like the hair: a night-black dye job, thick as thatch. Back in the day, Pauline Kael, hot and bothered after a Rocky screening, extolled Stallone’s "surly sexuality" and compared his appeal to Brando’s and Elvis’s. Well, maybe. But that assessment didn’t account for the way both Stallone and his face have always exuded something hapless, a vague woundedness. Even 30 years after Rocky first came into our lives, it’s difficult to reconcile Stallone’s eyes — as large, wet, and uncomprehending as a cow’s — with his superhero physique. Even without such eyes, though, Stallone’s face has a sad cast, due in part to the Hell’s Kitchen charity-ward doc who extracted him from the womb back in ’46; the forceps severed a facial nerve on the left side, leaving him with a drooping eye and partially paralyzing his lip, chin and tongue. The curse of those forceps has never been lifted; when Stallone condemns his past excesses, as he does with notable regularity, he speaks not of a younger Stallone who was too "slick," but of one who was too "suh-LICK."
The body, too, and not just the face, has always transmitted a plaintive something. Stallone himself has intimated that the carapace of muscle has imprisoned him, both personally and professionally, as much as it has empowered him. And he’s never strived to conceal his lifelong self-loathing. In fact, there’s always been something heedlessly self-destructive about the way he engages in bodybuilding itself; his body is riddled with injuries, most of them from working out.
"He has no off switch when he’s in the gym," says Adam Ernster, who works for Stallone’s personal trainer, Gunnar Peterson, in Los Angeles. "I’ve been working with him for more than three years, and I have never counted reps with him, because he does every set to failure, regardless of pain."
It is ferocious, this impulse of Stallone’s to work a thing — a muscle, a movie franchise, his own self-loathing — to exhaustion. He ripped a pectoral while pumping up for Rocky II, broke two ribs in a practice fight for Rocky III, and sustained rib and heart damage from blows dealt by Dolph Lundgren during the filming of Rocky IV. Serious injuries, but nothing compared to what he inflicted upon himself earlier in life, prior to Rocky.
"This was when he was in New York," Ernster says. "He was bench-pressing some crazy amount, working out the way he works out, but doing it wrong — arching his back and putting all the pressure on his neck. And he literally broke his neck on the bench press. Cracked a vertebra. This happened at a time when he had no prospects, no money for health insurance or to get it taken care of."
So it was that Sylvester Stallone spent a spell in the early ’70s walking around New York supporting the oversized granite bust that is his head with a makeshift neck brace — in other words, with his neck clamped between his hands.
He’s a madman, Stallone. A cartoon. Everybody mocks his refusal to hear that bell — he shoulda stopped at Rocky III, and that’s being generous — including Philadelphians. But at the gut level, Philadelphians revere Stallone’s mania, his ravening neediness. They feel the way Stallone’s backstory is woven indelibly into Rocky’s backstory. (For example: that look of rueful longing on Stallone/Rocky’s face in the original movie as he gazes upon a childhood photo of himself — a look that hardens to self-disgust as he raises his eyes to the mirror and beholds what that boy has become; the photo, of course, is an actual pic of Sylvester as a boy. Consider that moment in conjunction with the painful scene in Rocky II where Stallone/Rocky, now rich and famous, endures the wrath of a TV ad man fed up with Stallone/Rocky’s Neanderthal inability to enunciate his lines.) Philadelphians feel, as no one else can, the way Stallone’s being defined by failure is woven into Rocky’s being defined by failure; the way Stallone’s neediness is woven into Rocky’s neediness — and the way these are woven into Philadelphia’s backstory, and self-loathing, and neediness.
"Every time people talk about Philly sports, it’s always about ‘heart’ and ‘desire,’" says WIP’s Anthony Gargano. "That’s what Rocky picked up on, and what it also helped to create. But it goes beyond sports. When ‘Philadelphian’ is used as an adjective to describe someone — and I’m not sure it was ever used as an adjective before Rocky — it means that person has heart and desire. I think people here have so internalized the mythology of the Rocky character that they will choose the underdog who overachieves over the superstar who actually wins."
Stallone once described the way he looks as "Mr. Potato Head with all the parts in the wrong place." A comic thing to say, but a serious thing, too, referencing a childhood toy when describing a painful early self-_consciousness. His was a childhood in which, by his own account, he went about like "a dog wanting to be beaten," and which involved breaking 11 bones and getting kicked out of 13 schools by the time he was 12. "You weren’t born with much of a brain," his father, a hairdresser, once told him, "so you better start using your body." A brutal line. And a great one: Stallone stuck it in the original Rocky. Even now, that sentiment seems to inform Stallone’s assessment of Rocky.
"I thought we had something that was suitable," he says when asked if he knew what he had when Rocky went into production. "I thought it was derivative, but good. A poor man’s Mean Streets. But then Bill Conti added his music to it, and it suddenly started to take on a sense of grand street opera. And a nobility. And … if I can be … you know what I mean? Rather than using contemporary music and making it of-the-moment, Conti added this sense of timelessness. The music! It was so grand, so extraordinarily large, for such a little man! My God, without that music, I don’t think it would ever have had the same sense of emotionality. Or pathos. Do you? When I tried to use new music in Rocky VI, just to try to be a little inventive, it died. It was terrible. So I said, ‘Give me what worked before. I don’t care how old it is.’"
And that’s when Sylvester Stallone braces his hands against the table, looks off into the middle distance, and begins to sing. To himself, I believe. His voice is very quiet, very gentle, a lullaby voice. It’s Bill Conti’s tantara, the universally understood signal that Rocky is in the room.
"Da, da-da Da Da Daaaaaaa da-da Da! … Da, da-da Da Da Daaaaaaa da-da Da!"
How weirdly endearing, this singing behemoth called Stallone. You can see him now, by way of those soft, saucery eyes, those windows leading to the boy inside the man. He’s in the room. And by "he" I don’t mean Stallone, or even the boy he once was. I mean me, and you (regardless of your sex), and every other kid who was 10, or thereabouts, when Rocky came out, who got swept up in its glory, in the flight of its music, who spent the days and maybe weeks and maybe even months after seeing it for the second, and third, and fourth times, putting socks over his hands and trotting back and forth down his street, or across his backyard, throwing punches in the air and singing, softly and self-consciously at first, then louder and with less and less embarrassment — like Stallone himself at this very moment — Da, da-da Da Da Daaaaaaa da-da Da! … Da, da-da Da Da Daaaaaaa da-da Da! … da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da Da Da DAAAAAAAAA! … Gettin’ STRONG NOW!
You remember that, don’t you? That kid?
"It’s just … incredibly internal, the music," Stallone says in disbelief. "And the man, Conti, did it in one day. He had an 18-piece orchestra and, like, 13 hours to do the whole score. That’s why the music, the whole Rocky thing — it’s a miracle!"
He’s an actor, Stallone (or, if you wish, an "actor"), but I don’t believe he’s playing me, "charming" me — mainly because of the following story, told by a Hollywood screenwriter who also works out in Gunnar Peterson’s L.A. gym:
"A few months back, Sly comes into the gym and takes out a DVD. It’s got some rough cuts from Rocky VI, including a sequence where Rocky is getting back in shape. And it’s quoting the scene in the original Rocky where Rocky’s getting into shape. It’s got that same music, it’s got him running up those steps, and he’s got his old dog with him. And, I don’t know, but there’s something sweet about it, because he can’t really run as well anymore. And the bit about adding the old dog to it — it gets you. But most of the sequence is shot with him in the gym with the gym rats, lifting ever-increasing amounts of weight. So we’re all watching this footage, but then, after just a minute or so, Stallone turns around, leaps off the ground, grabs these wide-angled pull-up bars, and starts going at it. He can’t help himself. It was the music that did it to him. Or for him. I know the idea of him getting pumped by his own myth, or getting pumped to his own myth, sounds insanely narcissistic, but he really wasn’t putting on any kind of show. I’m telling you, it was weirdly touching."
"I’M AMAZED AT HOW EVEN young people from Philadelphia, people born 10 years after the first movie was made, identify with Rocky," Anthony Gargano says of the exceptional loyalty this city has for Stallone. "The Rocky thing comes up all the time on my show. Somebody calls up, quotes something from the movie, and then for the next five hours people are calling up to drop lines from the movie. Just … because. I think it makes people feel good to do it. I grew up in South Philly, and every Christmas Day, after the presents were opened, the whole family would sit down for movie time. It’s a Wonderful Life? Miracle on 34th Street? Hell, no! This was Philly! We Garganos watched Rocky and The Godfather."
The regard in this town for Rocky is a touching, contradictory mix of knowing and unknowing. People will speak of their affection for Rocky, referring to "him" — then correct themselves, call him a "character," and then, two minutes later, relapse into when "he" did this and that. (Stallone says that when he’s in Philly, "99.9 percent" of those who call out to him on the street call out to "Rocky," rather than to "Sly" or "Stallone.") This city doesn’t have a regard for Rocky; it has a relationship with him — a living, breathing thing that ebbs, flows and evolves.
"I think if you’re from Philadelphia, you end up going through a phase where you don’t want to identify with Rocky," says Gargano, "because Rocky only confirms what you know those high hats from New York and Washington have always thought about you as a Philadelphian. Sure, you may have a ‘great heart,’ and you may be ‘lovable,’ but you’re basically a dunce. A little embarrassing. And so you spend some time trying to distance yourself from Rocky — look at me, not talking about the movie but about him, like he’s a living, breathing human being! — because he’s like some not-too-bright cousin that nobody in the family wants to talk about. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that phase. Because Philadelphia is so much more than Rocky. It is a worldly place. Think of Delancey Place, one of the most elegant streets in the country. Or Le Bec-Fin. Or the Art Museum, the very place where Rocky has now been immortalized with his statue. It’s a museum that would make any city in the world proud. We do want to be known for those things — not just for this palooka.
"But then," Gargano continues, "you get past this phase where you’re embarrassed by Rocky. You stop caring about what other people on the East Coast think. And you embrace the fact that this is one of the best stories ever told. It’s the template. Everything after it is Rocky-with-a-twist. Hoosiers? It’s Rocky with a basketball. Miracle? It’s Rocky with a puck. Rocky is the original. And it’s a Philadelphia story."
Stallone, too, has often felt owned by Rocky, rather than vice versa.
"I spent a lot of time trying to get as far away from the image of Rocky as I could," he says. "It affected my personality, I’m ashamed to say, in a negative way. I started showing up in public in fine suits, wearing glasses, trying to be as ‘articulate’ as possible. The audience was used to a certain … I’ll use the word ‘brand.’ And it’s like I was mocking that brand, or disturbed by it, or annoyed by it, or ashamed by it."
"Ashamed" by Rocky? Hell, Stallone tried to kill him in the Rocky V script. The studio balked. "There’s no Rocky VI," Stallone nevertheless announced when V was released in 1990. "He’s done."
Clearly, the two have had some good couples therapy. (As have Stallone and the gal he Dear Joanne’d by FedEx; she’s now his third wife.)
"I used to pose for a lot of [intentionally un-Rocky-like] photos, where I’d be, like, wearing a beret and painting, or standing on a pile of money going, ‘Yeah, thumbs up!’ Or coming out of the water in a white suit with, you know, a Hawaiian Tropic girl on each side. Well, what was that? And people started to go, ‘Wait a minute. I just want that regular guy, in a regular t-shirt, not trying to be too slick, not showing too much vanity."
By the way, Stallone was asked to pose for the photos accompanying this article wearing a hat. A panoply of lids was offered.
"Nah," he said mysteriously. "I learned a long time ago there’s only one that works."
You know the one.
Stallone now elaborates on the semiotics of that hat.
"For Rocky Balboa [the official title of VI], I said, ‘God, do I wear the hat? I mean, I’m 60 years old. Would he still be wearing a hat?’ Then I realized: Rocky would wear that hat until he was 100 years old. I had to go back and get the original hat, which was a three-dollar hat. It had completely fallen apart. I took it to four hatmakers. Nobody knew how to fix this old, odd hat. It took three months to remake that hat."
Here’s the rest of the need-to-know when it comes to VI: It’s inspired by George Foreman’s improbable recapturing of the heavyweight title in 1994, when he was 45. (Though Rocky, like Stallone, is 60.) Rocky decides to make one last run at glory. He’s got nothing to lose. Because — brace yourself — _Adrian’s dead. Butkus, the bullmastiff, is back, though. So are Cuff and Link, the turtles. They were an excellent metaphor for Rocky 30 years ago, Cuff and Link, those slow, shy animals who had each other, and who became the link between the lonely boxer and the homely girl at the pet store who sold them to him. They’re an even better metaphor now, suggesting as they do the reptilian longevity of Stallone himself.
HE HEARS YOU LAUGHING at him, by the way. He knows.
"I knew as soon as I wanted to do this film that the skepticism and the humiliation and the jokes would begin," Stallone says. "Well, I totally understand and agree with that. Six Rockys? It is absurd. ‘Eh, Stallone, what a joke.’ Right? But do you acquiesce to that? Or are you willing to listen to the sound of your heart over the sound of your mind? If you just listen to your mind all the time, you’re just going to be part of the status quo. And I think a lot of people are on that fence. They want to do something, but they’re afraid of being embarrassed. Even my wife was opposed. She was worried about all the humiliation I would get. And I said, ‘Honey, it will be a welcome vacation compared to what I’ll feel inside if I don’t make it.’ You know, Rocky says something in the new movie that I like: ‘I’d rather do something I love badly than to feel bad about not doing something I love.’ Those who saw Rocky when they were 10 years old are now 40. Those who saw it when they were 20 years old are now 50. And they’re at a crossroad. Rocky’s at a crossroad. So I said, ‘Well, if I’m feeling this, and Rocky’s feeling this, then maybe they’re feeling this.’"
One more need-to-know about the last Rocky: It ends, as it must, at the steps. Stallone revealed this when I asked him about the (re)installation of the Rocky statue on the grounds of the Art Museum.
"I always thought that if it could ever come back, it’d be great for him to be at the bottom of the steps. ‘Cause that’s where Rocky is, always at the bottom of the steps trying to get up. It’s so overwhelming to me. Me, who used to walk these streets, that I could be involved with something that would one day translate into a statue at the most beautiful location I’ve ever seen in Philadelphia! Am I worthy of it? No, I’m not. One hundred percent, I am not. I have every flaw known to human beings."
Is Stallone tearing up, or is that dewiness the natural state of his eyes? Hard to tell. Is Rocky worthy of the statue, I ask?
"Yes," Stallone says. "He is. He is worthy of it! When people look at that statue, they’re not thinking about me. There is not one person that will look at that statue and say, ‘Yeah, that’s Sylvester Stallone.’ Some will say, ‘It’s just a movie prop.’ Well, it was a movie prop. But that statue has nothing to do with movies anymore. It stands for something much bigger than anything I or the movies will ever be. It’s about never quitting. It’s about getting up no matter how hard you’ve been hit. It’s Rocky, not me. I aspire to be like him. That creation is really almost my father figure now. The son has become father to the man."
Stallone pauses for a moment, considering whether to say what’s on his mind, then says it.
"For the end credits of Rocky Balboa, we went up there to the top of the steps with a hidden camera and filmed all these people running up the steps. They had no idea they were being filmed. And these people, there were hundreds of them, and they were … everyone. From Korea, from Europe, from America. Some of them were tall, and some were thin, and some were fat. But they all did their thing, running up and doing their little dance when they thought no one was looking.
"It was the saddest day of my life, in a way. We’d done the last shot of Rocky Balboa, and I was sitting there on the top of the steps, and the snow was coming down, and then I realized it. It’s over. My best friend, my alter ego, is gone. The reason I have everything I have is gone. I’ll never put on his clothes again. I’ll never run up these steps again. It killed me. It just fractured me. And then I said to myself, ‘Now, turn around. Because this is also the most glorious day of your life. You did it. You completed your mission.’"
Andrew Corsello, a fact-checker and writer for Philadelphia between 1992 and 1995, is now a GQ correspondent.