Role models provide for us great examples of how we can achieve what we want to in our lives, and by looking at their careers and trajectories it is possible to see a an outline of what we should be doing to achieve these goals ourselves. At the same time some people are just simply inspirational, and through their achievements, their creativity, their attitudes, or their reactions to adversity have inspired many to get more from life. There are some names that crop up often when talking about this kind of inspiration: Muhammad Ali, Winston Churchill, Einstein, Christopher Reeves, Richard Branson, Barack Obama, Leonardo DaVinci or Lance Armstrong. However there are many more all around us, and the media provides a great platform where each of us can find heroes to inspire us. One who has gone relatively un-noticed though, despite considerable achievements is Sylvester Stallone.
Many people view Sylvester Stallone as a ‘knuckle head’ action hero, and not necessarily as someone to look up to past his physique. However this is underestimating a man who in fact has an IQ of 160 (yes that’s more than Carol Vorderman) and who pretty much embodies the spirit of being able to achieve anything you set your mind to. His physique, which is undoubtedly highly envied, is really just a symptom of that determination and drive.
Rocky and the Start of His Career
His first major hit – Rocky – was also about this very topic. It was about a ‘bum’ who was given one shot, and through strength of will managed to carve out his legacy. Despite not winning the fight, he wins the personal fight and goes on to do great things. This film was semi-autobiographical in more ways than one – and Stallone himself was a ‘bum’ at the time living from cheque to cheque and spending stints without being able to pay for rent. He was a struggling writer, suffering for his art like his hero Edgar Allen Poe (a script about whom he has been tinkering with since before even Rocky), and this script was his one shot, just like Rocky. The studio that bought the rights to it offered him huge sums of money but Stallone turned them down – believing that if he held out he would be able to play the lead role. Eventually he got his way, and ended up making many times more than what he would have been paid for the script. This was his vehicle to stardom and from it he achieved huge acclaim – heralded in one review as ‘the next Marlon Brando’. The film itself won several Oscars.
Throughout his illustrious career, Stallone would go on to make five more Rocky films, and would also create another iconic hero ‘Rambo’. In the majority of his films the theme remained the same – what one guy could achieve if he believed in himself, and at the same time he used the films to demonstrate his physique – believed to be the ‘body of the eighties’ and a role model for many people. Between himself and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone managed to bring bodybuilding and health and fitness into the fore, and interest grew for heading to the gym where it had never been there before. Stallone and his colleagues inspired the world to get fit. And if you were wondering who copied who with Stallone and Arnie, then it might interest you to know that Sly was on the scene long before the Austrian Oak, and that many of Arnold’s films were direct rip offs of Stallone’s work when he began his career (the biggest example being Commando which was clearly based on Rambo). Though of course Arnold would similarly forge his own legacy in later years and is equally a remarkable man in his own right. Without doubt though, Rambo paved the way for similar films and for other action heroes, and through it Stallone created a genre and became a huge box-office success. This is even more impressive when you bear in mind that he did it all despite his damaged facial nerves, and while acting as writer, actor and director for much of the time.
For Rambo 3 Stallone also set something of a benchmark for fitness training and bodybuilding when he got his body fat down to 3% or less. This was something that even Bruce Lee didn’t achieve (and he had far smaller biceps and measurements). Stallone is actually in the Guinness book of records for this achievement and it demonstrates again just how determined he is and how this has allowed him to achieve so much (during filming of Rocky 3 he actually pushed himself a little too far and passed out while filming one of the scenes). Also impressively he would later return to real acting for a brief stint with Copland, for which his underrated acting abilities were once again praised. Here played opposite Robert DeNiro and allowed himself to gain weight to portray a flabby, broken man. What makes this truly impressive is that as soon as filming had finished, despite his now more advanced years, he then got immediately back into shape.
The Fall and Rise of Sylvester Stallone
The noughties however were a fairly low period for Stallone’s career and several of his films flopped critically and commercially leaving him unable to find work. Even his last Rocky project ‘Rocky V’, was panned and unsuccessful. His projects during this time then involved the release of a brand of supplements ‘Forza-T’ and a successful book. He also went on to help present the boxing television show ‘The Contender’ which was a big success but not enough to give him back his ‘star’ appeal. Most people – now pushing 60, would have left their career at this point and retired, but Stallone felt unhappy with the way his had ended and so he penned a new Rocky film ‘Rocky Balboa’. Of course now 59, and after years out of the public eye, Stallone had no luck in getting anyone to fund the film – it was more difficult he now recalls than getting the original film made. Of course he was a laughing stock in the media who had expectations for a vanity project from an actor past his prime.
But again this Rocky film was transcendent and more than just a film it again perfectly reflected where Stallone was at that point in his life, and where many of us end up feeling ‘washed up’. In the film Rocky too is ‘washed up’ and feels he has something left to prove and some fight still in him. The film got made, and was a huge hit both critically and commercially. Stallone and Rocky once again showed together how even when the chips are down, if you don’t take no for an answer you can still achieve whatever you set your mind to.
What also made this film triumphant was Stallone’s physique which for a 60 year old was staggeringly ripped. Stallone then went on to film Rambo for which he was probably the bulkiest he’s ever been. For his next film though he would slim down to the same kind of shape he was in in Rambo 3 – only this time at 64 years old. After bringing back his two franchises many thought that Stallone should call it a day – but again Sly had better ideas and created a whole new franchise ‘The Expendables’ which would feature all of action heroes from his hey-day: Jet Li, Dolph Ludgren, Bruce Willis – even his one-time nemesis-turned close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger (now governor of California). New comers were also featured in the mix such as Terry Cruise and Jason Statham. Of course this was a huge financial success and one that has put Stallone permanently back on the map.
His next projects are of course ‘Expendables 2’, a potential adaptation of the book ‘Hunter’ and of the film ‘Death Wish’, and of the biopic ‘Poe’ he’s been carrying around with him his whole career (rumoured to be starring Robert Downey Jr).
And if that wasn’t enough, the last decade has also seen another success for Stallone, who has been painting as a hobby and collecting art since he was younger. He’s long wanted to be taken seriously in the art world for his paintings like ‘Toxic Superman’ but in this area his film success would actually hold him back and mean that e wasn’t taken seriously. Of course he recently broke through here too, and he has now been invited to several exhibitions, been the subject of several news pieces and sold his paintings for large sums of money.
Stallone wanted to make it big in the film industry but was held back – so he did it his own way and wrote his own script. He wanted to be taken seriously in the art world, so he persevered until he found acclaim. When he wanted to make his big comeback, he didn’t let age or people’s expectations stand in his way. He forged his body through sheer strength of will, and created a character that every bodybuilder and boxer considers a hero. The byline ‘The Greatest Underdog Story of All Time’ is not an exaggeration, and the Rocky theme tune is a rallying cry for anyone who wants to push themselves on in the gym, or in life. If Sly can do it, so can you, so as the man himself would say ‘keep punching!’.