Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.” – Lance Armstrong
Hell’s Kitchen, New York City – 1946: An infant, born in a charity ward entered the world screaming about more than the usual pain of the birth canal. Complications arose during labor and a young inexperienced intern improperly used the metal forceps to extract the baby, thereby severing a facial nerve which gave Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone a saggy faced scowl he’d wear throughout life. While this trademark look would later serve him well in tough-guy roles in the movies, it first proved to be a stumbling block in his journey to fame and fortune. You see no one is born a star, especially not a poor, droopy faced son of a stern authoritative Italian Immigrant. And certainly not a boy whose mother left them when he was 11, or a kid who attended 13 schools in 12 years due to his academic track record of expulsion and non-conformity.
Discouragement pounded Stallone at every turn and opposition seemed to scream at him to “give up, stay down and settle.” But there was another voice; the voice of possibility that quietly yet resolutely countered each blow with, “what if”. Somehow this disadvantaged youth was able to lock into that voice and fight off critics, circumstances, setbacks and even massive financial frustration. His dreams came alive while watching movies where he found escape, possibility, heroism, courage and ultimately inspiration. After watching the 1958 movie Hercules as a boy, Stallone was inspired not just to begin working out to build his physical body, but also to focus on personal development to sharpen his mind. He began dreaming of a time when his acting would encourage millions to overcome their challenges. In order to achieve that dream, Stallone went to Switzerland to attend college. There he did some acting before returning to the US without completing his degree. For years he pursued an acting career, claiming to have been rejected by or thrown out of over 1,000 offices. He was told, “that he would never act.” They called him “dopey looking or stupid looking.” In all, he stood down a verbal onslaught that would have convinced millions of others to give up on the dream, but for Stallone, this extra-long plateau of rejection steeled his resolve to focus intently on the prize instead of the pain he was going through. At one point he arrived at an agent’s office at 4 pm and was not admitted to see the man so he stayed all night waiting for his return in the morning. The agent was moved by his persistence and found him a role as a thug, stating that “people would enjoy seeing someone like him beat up in a movie.” Small jobs and parts followed, but it was a far cry from success and it certainly wasn’t paying the bills. He was literally a starving actor, a failure who couldn’t pay the heat during a cold NY winter. His wife pleaded and nagged him, “please just get a job.” But he refused, knowing that doing so would rob him of his hunger, lulling him down a path of complacency and stifled dreams.
On a frigid winter day, he left his cold apartment for the public library not to satisfy his hunger to learn, but simply to get warm. While there he picked up a biography about Edgar Allen Poe and it stirred something inside of him. He recalls that Poe’s struggle inspired him to look away from his own problems for a time and pour his energy into becoming a writer. And so he wrote his first screenplay which after some time he was able to sell for $ 100. The money didn’t last long, but he kept his dream alive by selling his wife’s jewelry which drove a bigger wedge between them. (In an interview he later joked that selling her jewelry was a bad move). Finally, on the verge of ruin, he sold his best friend, a dog named Butkus, because he couldn’t even afford to feed him. He recalls weeping that day with pain, self-doubt, and discouragement…perhaps this impossible dream was just too much.
Shortly after sinking so low, he recalls watching a Mohamed Ali vs Chuck Wepner Heavy Weight Boxing Match and he stood in awe of this outclassed, slow and lumbering man who took blow after vicious blow from the great Ali but refused to go down. In fact, to everyone’s amazement, in the 9th round, Wepner landed a vicious body blow that knocked the champion to the ground. An enraged Ali then pounded Wepner for 6 more rounds. Wepner with dogged determination hung with the exhausted champ all the way into the 15th round. That night Rocky Balboa, the movie character, was conceived in the mind of Stallone and he embodied his life’s ambitions and story in this fictitious fighter. He stayed up 20 hours straight and with in three days wrote the entire screen play for Rocky. Exhilarated by his creation, he went to work to sell it, but again found nothing but rejection. They called it “sappy and predictable,” words he later repeated at the Oscars when Rocky would eventually win Best Picture. But, the story doesn’t end there.
Perseverance paid off when he finally found a buyer who offered him $ 20,000 for rights to the screenplay. When he told the buyer that the purchase was conditional upon him acting the role of Rocky they refused to even consider it. Still resolute he walked away, denying himself the short term financial relief he so desperately needed. Soon he was back at the negotiating table and this time they offered him $ 80,000 if he would not act in it and still he refused. When Robert Redford showed interest in the part they came back with an offer of first $ 200,000 then $ 300,000 and eventually $ 360,000. Imagine it, your whole life you’ve been knocked around, told you couldn’t, you’re broke, discouraged and so desperate you sold your own dog… certainly, all of this would justify claiming a victory and using that $ 360,000 to eliminate the financial and emotional suffering you’ve endured. Stallone knew this could set him up, but his dream to act and inspire burned brighter than a one time gain and so with conviction, he told them he would never sell it if he wasn’t cast in the role of Rocky.
Finally, a frustrated group returned to their $ 20,000 offer and gave the rest in ownership shares of the venture so he would bear the risk of loss equally with them. They weren’t about to let so much ride on a no-name, funny-looking guy from NY. ‘Risk?” he mused. He knew about the risk he had already taken! This was an opportunity and he ran through that door boldly and fulfilled his dreams. Now, in an interview he gave on “Inside the Actors Studio” he told an aspiring audience, “if you can at all live your dream, I would always challenge you to go into the unsafe zone so you can at least discover if your ability is at least as good as your ambition.”
For those of you who may not be Rocky fans, not only did that film go on to win an Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for Best Leading Actor as well. To date, the Rocky Franchise has brought in well over 1 Billion dollars. Rocky apparently hit a home run, but very few people ever take the time to consider the back story and grasp the reality of the success cycle; or imagine if he would have sold out on his dream at any point by dropping down in the comfort zone instead of staying in “unsafe” zone as he put it.
By the way, the original Rocky film brought in over $ 220,000,000 and Stallone’s cut was let’s just say a little bit bigger than the $ 360,000 he would have been more than justified in taking. However, I believe if he would have sold the screenplay, Rocky would have been a one-hit movie starred by Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford…Knowing what we know today, that just would have been a disaster. They certainly couldn’t have played the role of Rocky like Stallone…and probably would not have pushed for a sequel. For it was Stallone’s story he was passionately portraying, not theirs. Now, the only question is will you stay in the game long enough to enjoy your big break or will you fall victim to the masses and slip into the comfort zone of just getting by. Whether its financial victory or something else, your turning point is just over the next horizon. Hang in there!!