Sylvester Stallone was offered $265k NOT to be in Rocky but scored the knockout hit that spawned the Creed movie and made him $400m
Stallone, who played boxer Rocky Balboa in six Rocky films plus a trainer in two Creed spin-offs starring Michael B Jordan, wrote the 1976 Oscar-winning original. He is now so attached to the character that it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the big-hearted ‘Italian Stallion’.
The film saw a small club fighter gain an unlikely shot at the heavyweight title and spawned five sequels as well as three Creed films.
But at the time, studio United Artists loved the script – but was less than enthusiastic about casting a penniless, unknown actor in the lead role. So they offered Stallone up to $265,000 – about £1.4 million in today’s money – so they could film ‘Rocky’ but without Sly in the lead role.
Understandably, the studio wanted the likes of Godfather actor James Caan, Robert Redford, or Burt Reynolds to play the left-handed slacker. Unlike the minor actor whose previous roles include ‘Subway Thug #1’ and ‘Stud’ (from the now-forgotten classic ‘The Party at Kitty and Stud’).
However, Stallone is as unwavering in his scenario as Rocky Balboa is in the ring. He insisted that the only way ‘Rocky’ could be made was with himself in the lead role, just as he envisioned it when he wrote the story.
“It went up to about $265,000 to walk away,” Stallone explained in 1977. “But what they didn’t count on is, when someone doesn’t have that kind of money, they really don’t pass it by. In other words: if you’ve never driven a Rolls-Royce, you don’t mind getting in a Volkswagen.
“But more than that if I sell it, even for $500,000, I know that once the money runs out I will be very bitter to have sold out – because my one love will at least fail in my own way. I want to see if I can act.”
Stallone has been working odd jobs, including cleaning lion enclosures at the Central Park Zoo, to make ends meet as he struggles to find acting roles. When he sat down to write Rocky – inspired by Chuck Wepner’s 15th-round hold with Muhammad Ali in his 1975 world heavyweight title fight – he was nearly kicked out of his apartment.
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Stallone persisted and was unwilling to give up his role as the Italian Stallion
Sly has £106 in the bank, his wife is pregnant with their first child and he is even struggling to feed the family dog – Butkus – who will co-star in the film.
Eventually, the studio relented and Stallone was promised a guaranteed $35,000 – $25,000 for the script, plus a base actor’s salary – for the film in just 25 days. The budget for ‘Rocky’ was $960,000 with father Stallone and brother Frank also appearing as extras.
“I would never sell it,” Stallone later told the New York Times. “I told my wife that I’d rather just bury him in the backyard and let the caterpillar play Rocky. I would hate myself for selling… My wife agreed and said she would be willing to move into a trailer in the middle of a swamp if need be.
But Sly’s stubborn refusal to let the studio pay him turned out to be a surprise knockout win. ‘Rocky’ was a mega-hit with critics and audiences alike, and while ‘top story’ made Stallone a movie star, it also made him his fortune. ‘Rocky’ made $225 million at the box office – becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1977 after ‘Star Wars’, even though it was actually released in late 1976.
Jordan is now following in Stallone’s footsteps by directing the new Creed film, a spin-off of Rocky.
Stallone’s base salary is $35,000, but the actor/creator has smartly negotiated a percentage of the film’s profits himself. Not knowing they had a blockbuster on their hands, United Artists agreed – and Stallone ended up making over $25 million from the film.
As of 2023, Stallone is worth over $400 million and most of that comes from the Philadelphia heavyweights he created. ‘Rocky II’ was Stallone’s next big hit, earning over $200 million on a $7 million budget – with Sly directing as well as writing and starring.
Then came ‘Rocky III’ and ‘Rambo: First Blood’ in 1983. Suddenly the New Yorker had two iconic movie characters on his tape and was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.
Still, even when ‘Rocky’ was a triumph in the 1970s – it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three including Best Picture – few expected the series to last into 2023 (and possibly much longer).
Jordan and director Ryan Coogler breathed new life into the franchise with ‘Creed’ in 2015, focusing on the son of champion Balboa who fought in the first film: Apollo Creed. Sly earned another Oscar nomination for his stellar role as heartbroken, Adrian-mourning Rock in this excellent melodrama.
Now comes ‘Creed 3’ with Jordan following in Stallone’s footsteps and taking on the director and lead actor roles. Sly’s character may not have appeared on screen for the first time in a Rocky film – but the series would never have lasted this long without Stallone’s insistence on him playing the lead. Turning down more than a quarter of a million dollars turned out to be the best decision a broke and unknown actor ever made.
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