The Roots of Stallone

I have what I believe is an appropriate attitude toward screen auteur Sylvester Stallone (b. 1946). “Love-hate” is putting it too strongly; respect mingled with selective distaste is more accurate. Already a fan of his greatest accomplishments, I find my appreciation enhanced upon learning more about his background.

His father, Frank Stallone, Sr. was a second generation Italian barber, later to expand his enterprise into a whole chain of barber shops, beauty salons, and beauty schools. The family was living in Hell’s Kitchen when Sylvester was born, although when he was a child they moved to his mother’s hometown of Washington, D.C. It is the mother, Jackie Labofish Stallone, who left the true imprint. Half Ukrainian-Jewish and half Breton, she was a total character, the kind of a woman Fran Drescher could play. Most importantly, her family was close with that of physical culture entrepreneur Charles Atlas (Angelo Siciliano) and through his influence you can draw a line from Stallone all the way back to Eugene Sandow, no word of a lie. The whole family did weight training, gymnastics and running for fitness. There must be something to the system; Jackie lived to be almost 100. In her youth, she worked as a circus trapeze artist and chorus girl. In 1954 she opened a women’s gym called Barbella’s. Later she became the first woman to host a women’s fitness television program. She was also a professional astrologer and became a personality on the original GLOW: Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling in the 1980s. The couple divorced in 1957, when Stallone was 11.

Sylvester Stallone was literally a forceps baby, which explains aspects of his manner which have been cruelly mocked — his face and mouth are partially paralyzed as a result of a rough childbirth. That striking face, handsome but a little uncanny (like later Montgomery Clift), combined with his large size made him very castable as a bit player in his early years, often playing thugs and henchmen, almost like a milder version of Rondo Hatton. He’s so instantly recognizable, and in so many major movies of the early 70s, that these appearances are nowadays like delightful added value. Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) and Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) are among the more memorable of these turns, but you can also see him in Downhill Racer (1969), MASH (1970), The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker (1970), Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), Klute (1970), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Capone (1975), Mandingo (1975) and Farewell My Lovely (1975). Meanwhile, he got a foothold in smaller independent films. His buff physique and good looks got him his first starring role in a skin flick called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). The true turning points were his appearance opposite Henry Winkler in The Lords of Flatbush (1974), which paved the way for Happy Days, and his key role in Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), followed by a cameo in Cannonball (1976).

Then in 1976, something truly extraordinary — Stallone almost single-handedly revived the genre of the boxing picture with Rocky. As you’ll see in my upcoming post (scheduled for this coming Sunday in fact), boxing dramas were a major Hollywood staple from the days of silents to the early 1960s. After that, it fell into disfavor, was written off as retrograde, perhaps a little barbaric, much like that other then-discredited genre, the western. Stallone’s David and Goliath tale, which he’d written himself, rejuvenated the old Hollywood formula by injecting the gritty realism that was so prevalent during the era. John G. Avildsen, who’d previously helmed Joe (1970) and Save the Tiger (1973) won an Oscar for his direction. Hollywood veteran Burgess Meredith added to the magic as Rocky’s grizzled old manager Mick, as did Talia Shire from the Godfather films as Rocky’s shy girlfriend Adrian. Carl Weathers as Rocky’s adversary Apollo Creed evoked real life champs like Muhammad Ali (then VERY hot in popular culture) and also some recent black stars of boxing films of the time, such as James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (1970) and Fred Williamson in Hammer (1972). Stallone’s birth condition proved an asset in the role, made him seem punch-drunk, and he was improbably nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

Rocky was the biggest grosser of 1976, and was one of those pictures, along with Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), that ended up taking Hollywood from an age of low-key realism and experimentalism to the new era of noisy action-driven blockbusters in which we still reside. When we were kids, my buddies and I actually listened to the soundtrack album. Not just Bill Conti’s rousing theme song, but the whole thing. Anyway, the original film was followed by Rocky II (1979) which Stallone also directed, Rocky III (1982) which gave the world Mr. T., the Reagan era propaganda film Rocky IV (1984), the often forgotten Rocky V (1990), and the new phase Rocky Balboa (2006), Creed (2015), and Creed II (2018). Outside of the Rocky franchise, Stallone also teamed up opposite Robert De Niro (who’d boxed in Raging Bull, of course) in Grudge Match (2018). Prior to the first Rocky sequel he also tried a wrestling picture Paradise Alley with Kevin Conway, which was Stallone’s first time as director.

For better or worse (worse, I call it), I believe Stallone was also largely responsible for the modern, metastatized jingoistic bloodbath action picture, bridging the earlier era (the time of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, etc) to that of Arnold Schwartzenegger, Bruce Willis, Steven Segal, Chuck Norris, et al). The key picture here was First Blood (1982) in which Stallone played a Vietnam vet harassed to the point of explosion by Sheriff Brian Dennehy and his rogue police department. This led to Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), Rambo (2008), and Rambo: Last Blood (2019). Cobra (1986) was one of gazillion similar films he did outside the franchise. Tango and Cash (1989) with Kurt Russell was one of the more popular “buddy cop comedies” in the vein of 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. Stallone launched his 3rd major franchise, the all-star The Expendables in 2010, followed by sequels in 2012, 2014, and one slated for release next year. He’s now also part of the MCU universe (Guardians of the Galaxy films), which he literally helped to make possible.

I’ve written here about why I object to many of his kind of action films, and their doleful influence on our culture in the 1980s. But I did use the word respect for Stallone and I meant it. He has often taken the risk of stretching himself. It doesn’t always come off, but you have to admire someone who is constantly trying to expand and be better — in Stallone’s case, very much like his most famous character. Some examples of these outlying projects:

He directed the Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive in 1983 (the post-disco era!)

He co-starred with Dolly Parton in the 1984 musical Rhinestone

He starred in John Landis’ farce Oscar in 1991 (single-handedly bringing it down with his tin ear for comedy)

Co-starred with Estelle Getty in the even worse comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)

Starred in the entertaining tunnel disaster movie Daylight (1996), a kind of template for the sort of films The Rock would make a couple of decades later

Held his own (almost) with the likes of De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Annabella Sciorra, etc in the drama Cop Land (1997). I don’t know, I think this may take more balls than hanging off mountains in Cliffhanger, and good for him. He’s a star, and one who likes to know that he’s earning his pay. The guy does not skate. (With the possible exception of when he coached the Philadelphia Flyers).

Here is where we mention Sly’s younger brother, singer Frank Stallone (b. 1950), a favorite punching bag of Norm MacDonald’s. Should I do a post on him? Nah!

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous