Thoughts on Leadership: The Story of Sylvester Stallone

By Gino Blefari:

This week my travels find me at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel for Stronger Together, the first annual HomeServices of America top performer event. Onstage at Stronger Together, I talked about an interesting tale, which I’d like to share with all of you now.

Have you ever seen the Rocky movies? Rocky is one of the highest-grossing media franchises in the world and has inspired countless people to (cue “Eye of the Tiger”) work hard to achieve their dreams. The story is so great but there’s actually an even better story and that’s the story of Sylvester Stallone.

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Like Robert “Rocky” Balboa, Stallone knows a lot about setbacks and comebacks, and it all started at birth. There were serious complications and at the last minute, the doctor had to use forceps to save his life. Stallone was brought into this world head first, and the nerves on the left side of his face died. 

Not only did he have a tough birth, but he also had a tough childhood. His parents divorced at a young age, and he was in six foster homes and went to 11 schools. (He was also kicked out of a number of them.)

At age 15, he moved into his mother’s apartment in Philadelphia but he always felt like something was missing. He believed his destiny was to become an actor, so after attending high school in Philadelphia and studying drama at the University of Miami, Stallone moved back to New York and later to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams.

Stallone passionately auditioned, hopping from one casting call to the next, but each time the casting director would tell him the same thing: Look at your face. No, we don’t have a part for you.

They didn’t like the way he spoke. They didn’t like the way he looked. He kept striking out and took on odd jobs just to support him and his wife. A few years later, he and his wife divorced.

So now here he is, a failed would-be actor, alone and depressed. For a while, he started believing what people were saying about him. They were telling him to stay down, and he bought into every word. Then someone said to Stallone: You seem to communicate stories well. Maybe you shouldn’t be an actor. Maybe you should be a writer.

Following the advice, he put his acting dreams on hold and wrote the script for a movie called “Paradise Alley.” He sold that script for $100. It was the first money he’d really ever made in his entertainment career. Years later, he made the movie.

The next part of the story is so unbelievable, I had to do some research to validate every detail and separate the urban legend from fact. Here’s what happened next: After that initial movie, Stallone was still poor and down on himself. He was so desperate and defeated he took his only companion left in his life – his dog – and went and sold his dog for $50 just so he could eat. (True story, not a Hollywood myth.)

Two nights later, he was meeting his friend at a sports bar and the TV in the corner was showing a fight. This was before Pay-Per-View when you could actually see fights. The inspiration for Rocky was a real-life fight between the world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and a little-known club fighter named Chuck Wepner. In March 1975, Wepner went 15 rounds against Ali in a title bout in Cleveland.

Ali didn’t take the fight seriously. He came out and in the first round Wepner knocked him down, just like in Rocky. Ali gets up and punishes the guy. Round after round he is battered, bloodied, bruised and yet, he keeps on coming and coming and Stallone is watching and becomes fired up at this display of such intense courage.

He was so inspired by that fight, he wrote the script for Rocky in just three and a half days.

When he’s done, Stallone takes the screenplay to the same people he’d sold the $100 “Paradise Alley” script to, and they loved it. Just one month after he sold his dog for $50, Stallone is offered $150,000 for Rocky. (Today that’s the equivalent of about $760,000.)

But the story doesn’t end with this offer. There’s a problem. Stallone tells the studio he’s going to be the main character. They say: Not a chance. You talk funny. You have a strange mouth. You’re a good writer, be a writer.

He tells them no; I’m an actor and I want to act. They go back and forth for a while and Stallone eventually turns them down for their offer. They return to Stallone three weeks later and offer him $250,000 for the script. (That’s the equivalent of $1.3 million today for the guy who was just forced to sell his dog).

Stallone again refuses, holding firm that if he’s not in the movie as Rocky, there is no movie. He told them he is the character and lived the life that Rocky lived. He knew he was this character and if he doesn’t act in the movie, he would regret it for the rest of his life.

He believed it was his calling to be an actor and if he couldn’t pursue his calling, it simply wasn’t worth it for any amount of money.

Finally, they caved and said they’d give Stallone $35,000 for the script and $23,000 for acting in it.

Stallone said OK if he could have 10% of the box office gross.

The studio spent $985,000 to make the movie. To put that number in perspective, it cost $15 million to make a James Bond movie that same year.

Anyway, you know what happened next. Rocky grossed $200 million. It went on to become a billion-dollar franchise. There were six Rocky movies made.

At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky was nominated for no fewer than 10 categories. And the $20 million Stallone made is the equivalent of $100 million today.

So, what’s the message? If you’re following your calling and stick to your dreams, the money will always come.

P.S. As soon as he got the money for the script, Stallone was able to buy his dog back for $3,000 and a part in the Rocky movie.

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