Much like Rocky Balboa came up from nothing to become one of the world’s best boxers, Sylvester Stallone came from an underprivileged upbringing to become one of the planet’s biggest blockbuster stars. It was a difficult and often traumatic road to fame and fortune for the New York City-born actor, director, screenwriter and producer, and even when Stallone was on top and no longer the underdog, he still suffered losses that few others can imagine.
That’s part of why Stallone feels so close to the Rocky Balboa character he created. He told Variety of Rocky (1976) in summer 2019, “It is really a metaphor for life. This was a love story. He happens to box for a living, but the story is about his love for [wife Adrian]. You root for the underdog, and he had something to fight for — her.”
Stallone has become beyond adept at rolling with the (metaphorical) punches, and he’s gotten back up from blows that would knock even some of the strongest men out. From destitute showbiz beginnings to family heartbreaks, behold: Sylvester Stallone’s tragic real-life story.
The tragic reason behind Sylvester Stallone's 'snarl'
Sylvester Stallone’s trademark “snarl” and sometimes marble-mouthed speech are occasionally the target of mockery. However, the star’s curled lip and vocal delivery aren’t a tough guy act — they’re actually the result of a traumatic childbirth. According to the Chicago Tribune, an accident during Stallone’s delivery resulted in a severed facial nerve, causing his lower lip to droop, and paralyzing part of his tongue and chin. Still, Stallone has taken all of it in stride.
At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Stallone told press (via Reuters) of his signature slurred speech, “I didn’t think I was going to [have a career in film.] When I would try to get jobs in commercials, the director would go, ‘What are you saying, what language is that?’ I knew it was bad when Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘You have an accent.’ I go, ‘I have an accent? Excuse me, what?’ It’s true. Arnold and I should open up a school for speech lessons. It would be perfect.”
Saying Sylvester Stallone had a rough childhood almost doesn't cut it
In addition to Sylvester Stallone’s traumatic birth, the actor suffered a slew of medical problems throughout his early life. He told The Chicago Tribune that when he was growing up, his facial nerve damage made him feel like ”Mr. Potato Head with all the parts in the wrong place … I wanted to be anybody but me.” He got rickets as a young child and was heavily bullied. He claimed his father was physically abusive and that his mom only kissed him twice during his childhood. As a result, he’d act out in dangerous ways.
The Expendables star told the outlet, ”I’d sit and swat flies off cars with a lead pipe, I’d paint the house black, hack up Santa Claus, fire arrows from a classroom window, jump off a roof with an umbrella and break my arm.” By the time Stallone was 12 years old, he’d been kicked out of 13 schools and broken 11 bones. When he was 15, Stallone says that he was told his brain was “dormant,” so he started bodybuilding.
Sylvester Stallone did some erotica, but it's not what you think
Six years before Rocky (1976), Sylvester Stallone was sleeping at the Port Authority and struggling with acting work (including a play in which a co-star gave him frostbite on his face when she sprayed him with a fire extinguisher) and menial jobs (like getting peed on by lions when he cleaned their cages at the Central Park Zoo). Translation: He was broke. As such, he told Playboy he starred in Party At Kitty And Stud’s (1970), a softcore pornographic film that he says by today’s standards it would likely get a PG rating. “It was either do that movie or rob someone because I was at the end — at the very end — of my rope,” he said. “Instead of doing something desperate, I worked two days for $200 and got myself out of the bus station.”
Ultimately, the erotic flick was “never released,” according to Stallone. However, after the success of Rocky, Stallone was offered the opportunity to buy the rights to it for $100,000 (presumably to prevent its release). But Stallone recalled, “I wouldn’t buy it for two bucks, and my lawyer told them to hit the pike.” Still, he admits, “When you’re hungry, you do a lot of things you wouldn’t ordinarily do, and it’s funny how you can readjust your morality for the sake of self-preservation. … I thought, ‘Well, maybe this will be an art film.’ Brilliant.”
Dolph Lundgren nearly killed Sylvester Stallone
While filming Rocky IV (1985), Dolph Lundgren almost knocked Sylvester Stallone out for good. Stallone recalled to press at the Cannes Film Festival (via Vulture) that the Swedish karate master-turned-action star was almost too “perfect,” causing Stallone to almost loathe him at first sight … and it worked really well for the movie. Almost too well, Stallone says, because Lundgren really packed a punch. “He hit me so hard he almost stopped my heart,” Stallone said. “I told him, ‘Why don’t we just do it? Just try to knock me out. Really cut loose as hard as you can.’ … Next thing I know, I’m on a low-altitude plane to the emergency room, and I’m in intensive care for four days. And there are all these nuns around.”
Stallone detailed the incident to People in 1985: He was airlifted to St. John’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where he was diagnosed with a bruised heart, but his issues started earlier: He said months before Lundgren’s big blow, he “felt something snap” while filming a training scene in Wyoming. He would later say he felt like he got hit by “a streetcar named Drago.”
On the bright side, Lundgren and Stallone remain close despite the near-manslaughter. Lundgren told The New York Post, “I was actually pretty surprised at how well Sly could fight. I fought for real and had to learn how to fake it! He was really committed.”
Sylvester Stallone struggled with his son's autism
Developments in autism research and funding have made leaps and bounds since the birth of Sylvester Stallone’s son, Seargeoh. But when the toddler was diagnosed with the disorder, it was incredibly difficult on the actor and his then-wife, Sasha Czeck (seen here, holding Seargeoh). The then-estranged couple told People in 1985 that they dealt separately with their son’s struggles, with Czeck shouldering most of the responsibilities for the boy while Stallone worked (and earned autism research funds with premieres).
Stallone was heartbroken at what he felt was an inability to connect with Seargeoh, explaining, “There is no real father-and-son thing there. I have to become his playmate. With a child like this you have to put away your ego. You can’t force him into your world. I sort of go along with whatever he is doing. … After he gets to the point where he trusts you, a little more communication can start. The primary therapy is the repetition of words and instructions. He has shown an extraordinary memory, but he can’t apply what he has learned.” The actor said that he doted extra on elder son Sage, in part because he wasn’t able to bond as well with Seargeoh, but did try his best with his younger son, even creating a nature-driven playground in his yard where the boy could relax.
Sage Stallone died of a heart attack at a tragically young age
Sylvester Stallone’s eldest son, Sage, with whom he was rather close, died at just 36 years old in July 2012. Sage reportedly passed away from a heart condition called atherosclerosis, in which cholesterol and fats block arteries, and restricts blood flow. The cardiovascular disease caused Sage to suffer a heart attack, which ultimately ended his life, CNN reported. Even more heartbreaking, in addition to suffering the death of his son, Sylvester also had to cope with media speculation that Sage was on drugs at the time of his passing — allegations that turned out to be unfounded, as nothing other than “Tylenol-style pain medication” (in normal amounts) were found in his system.
Sage had a promising future and even appeared in a few of his dad’s films, including Rocky V (1990) and Daylight (1996), and was engaged to be married at the time of his sudden death. “Because when a parent loses a child there is no greater pain,” Sylvester said in a heart wrenching statement. “Therefore I am imploring people to respect my wonderfully talented son’s memory and feel compassion for his loving mother, Sasha, because this agonizing loss will be felt for the rest of our lives. Sage was our first child and the center of our universe and I am humbly begging for all to have my son’s memory and soul left in peace.”
Sylvester Stallone's sister may have blackmailed him for decades
Sylvester Stallone had a contentious relationship with his half-sister, Toni Ann Filiti, for decades. Page Six reported that “at the height of [Stallone]’s fame,” the actor, producer, and screenwriter “reached a confidential multi-million dollar settlement” with Filiti that sources described as a “shakedown.” In 1987, Stallone reportedly agreed to give Filiti $16,666.66 monthly for the duration of her life, plus a lump payment of $2 million and “a trust of $50,000 per year for medical and psychiatric expenses.” Filiti accused Stallone of “personal injury, including physical injury,” which he “vigorously” denied.
Stallone’s mother, Jackie, told the tab, “This was nothing more than a shakedown. Toni-Ann was on 65 Oxycontin pills a day, and she threatened Sylvester. A drug addict will do anything. When Sylvester became famous, she didn’t have to hook. He was trying to help her. He caved in.” She added, “There were too many conflicting stories … At the time he was very hot, and his lawyers said, ‘Give her something just to shut her up.'” Filiti died in August 2012 at just 48 years old after a battle with lung cancer, Radar Online reported. Her death came just a month after Stallone’s son, Sage, passed away.
Sylvester Stallone's eldest daughter endured health scares as well
In October 2012 — just months after the tragic deaths of his son and sister — Sylvester Stallone learned that his daughter, Sophia Stallone, would have to undergo heart surgery that December. Sophia underwent her first cardiac operation as an infant to correct a heart malformation. The procedure was successful, but she required a heart valve procedure at 16. It turned out well, but her father was understandably heartbroken.
Stallone’s wife, Jennifer Flavin, said of Sophia, “She is the one that most resembles her father. Like him she has read nearly all of Shakespeare’s books. They have a very special bond, they think alike and even have the same gestures, Sophia is the love of his life.” She added of her husband, “This is a terrible year, a horrible year for him. Sylvester is devastated, but he refuses to talk about his son.” Thankfully, all turned out well. Sophia graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) in May 2019, where she studied communications with a minor in entrepreneurship and film, because, she says, she’s “like her dad.”
Sylvester Stallone's tragic luck with pets
Sylvester Stallone’s family suffered another tragedy in 2013, when their beloved family dog was killed by a coyote. TMZ reported that the pooch, named Phoebe, went missing in the Stallones’ Bel Air, Calif., neighborhood. The family was so desperate to get her back that they hung up posters and even offered a $10,000 reward for her return … only for her to turn up dead on their own property. Stallone’s rep said Phoebe’s death was “very difficult” for the brood.
Phoebe’s untimely passing wasn’t the only heartache Stallone suffered with a pet. Before hitting it big with Rocky, a cash-strapped Stallone tried to sell his beloved bull mastiff, Butkus, for $100. As if that’s not tragic enough, he could only get $50 for his four-legged best friend. Stallone told ShortList that when he sold the script for his boxing blockbuster, he asked to buy Butkus back from the man who purchased the dog, a little person named Jimmy, who refused. Stallone came out victorious … after he paid Jimmy $3,000, and gave him a bit part in the film.
Sylvester Stallone almost lost his half-brother, too
In 2016, Sylvester Stallone nearly lost his then-19-year-old half-brother in a vicious attack. According to TMZ, Dante Stallone, with whom Sylvester shares a father, was near campus at Florida State University in Tallahassee when two other men “brutally” beat him. A pal of the student told People that “several grown men” jumped Dante, who the friend described as “extremely loyal” and “awesome to be around.” Dante, who was on his way back from a late night Taco Bell run at the time of the attack, was injured so badly that Page Six reported his roommates had to call 911 for him because he had “difficulty speaking.” A police report obtained by the outlet also didn’t indicate a clear motive, and stated that Dante didn’t know his assailants.
Dante reportedly suffered “a split palate,” “shattered jaw,” and extensive dental damage, including “broken and knocked out teeth” (per TMZ). He had to be hospitalized for several weeks, and underwent reconstructive surgery. Sylvester told the tab, “This is a wonderful young man, a straight-A student who would not cause any trouble. It’s just so tragic and terribly sad.”
Stepdad drama is never fun, but Sylvester Stallone's seems like a doozy
In August 2019, Sylvester Stallone’s stepfather, Dr. Stephen M. Levine, was accused of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, according to Radar Online. A complaint was reportedly filed with the California medical board that February, alleging that the “neurosurgeon and his accomplices” wrongfully pocketed nearly $58 million of federal cash from “2013 through 2016 by referring home healthcare services to patients who didn’t need them” in exchange for monetary kickbacks.
The tab also reported that prior to the alleged financial antics, Levine was accused of murder when his first wife, Myrna, died in 1998 after he allegedly [gave] her “a lethal dose of the painkiller Demerol.” He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and lost his medical license for six months.
When asked about the allegations, Levine didn’t comment, but his wife, Sylvester’s mother, 97-year-old Jackie Stallone, told the site, “There must be some mistake.” The National Enquirer reported that Levine admitted to the scheme, and that under a plea agreement he had to “snitch on his co-defendants” … or risk a whopping 71 months behind bars.
Wait, Sylvester Stallone doesn't own the rights to Rocky?
Sylvester Stallone made a ton of money from the Rocky franchise, but still may have gotten a raw deal. Stallone told Variety that he raked in about $2.5 million for Rocky (1976): $25,000 for the screenplay, then $360 per week of filming for the 25-day shoot. “Luckily there were the WGA minimums,” he said. “I made about $2,000 for acting.” Most of Stallone’s pay for his breakout hit came from his 10 “net points” (shares on the net profits). He made $75,000 for Rocky II (1979) and $120,000 plus millions in net points for Rocky III (1982). However, Stallone says he could have made a lot more.
“I have zero ownership of Rocky,” Stallone claimed, adding that his attorney at the time told “no one” gets a stake in franchises, and didn’t pursue it further. “I never really pushed it, and by the time we got around to Rocky Balboa (2006) I was in a pretty weak position to say anything. I was in a slump, and it was pretty intense,” he admitted, adding that he’d been dropped by his agent at the time.
A Rocky producer insisted to Variety that the star “made money from every angle, and still does.” Stallone even confessed that while “kids and their kids, [are] taken care of because of the system,” he still feels like “the definition of Hollywood is someone who stabs you in the chest. They don’t even hide it.”
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