DETROIT - Many years ago, Sylvester Stallone made me cry.
It was in New York, and the episode was only peripherally prompted by the less-than-remarkable Stallone movie I had seen the night before, the ostensible reason for us to be speaking.
But since neither of us was all that eager to talk about that - despite what you may have heard, Stallone is an intelligent and self-aware fellow - the actor had instead launched into a long and detailed preview of the script he was writing, for what he promised would be the final round of what had become the “Rocky” saga.
The story, as he told it that day, was touching and tragic, and it ended with the death of the iconic character he had created in the 1976 Oscar-winner that made Stallone, for a time, the biggest movie star in the world. But long before “Rocky V” would be released in 1990, it had become clear that the noble exit Stallone had imagined was not likely to come to fruition.
“Nah, the studio, the producers, they wouldn’t have it. Everybody had objections,” says Stallone, chatting late last month.
Stallone was in Detroit to host the true final chapter in the story, “Rocky Balboa,” at a fund-raiser for Emanuel Steward, trainer at the legendary Kronk boxing gym, whose rec center home was being closed by the city. Steward hopes to build in a new location.
“The big problem they had with my version of `Rocky V’ was that Rocky couldn’t die,” Stallone says. “They didn’t want to close off their options. Which was ironic, because when I did finally decide I had to do another one, no one wanted to hear about it.
“But that movie, it went wrong, and I was as responsible as anybody. So it was a wrong I just felt I had to right. It was the ultimate fantasy, the do-over that you long for, like `A Christmas Carol.’ But everyone was against it. Even my wife was against it. But I couldn’t quit. It’s just like Rock says in the new movie - `I gotta go out like I came in.’ So this is my redemption, `Rocky Balboa.’”
Stallone feels so good about “Rocky Balboa,” opening nationwide Friday, that he has even forgiven his opponents.
“It’s not like I couldn’t understand the resistance. I mean, a 60-year-old guy in the ring? It was pretty implausible. It sounded like it could be an embarrassment. But it wasn’t about the boxing. Of course, none of the films were really about the boxing. They’re about stepping forward, taking a shot. And most guys, as they get older, they get more frustrated about it. It eats at `em. It’s why they have all these fantasy camps, isn’t it? Baseball, rock `n’ roll, whatever.
“It’s about taking another swing at life.”
Stallone says he worked over and over on the script - “just to get the right tone, just like I did with the first one.” “Rocky Balboa” goes back to where it began - the crumbling Philadelphia neighborhood where Rocky wanders obsessively. He’s semi-estranged from his stockbroker son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”), who longs to escape his old man’s local-hero shadow. He still endures his embittered brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), now back to working as a butcher.
Stallone took his inspiration from ESPN’s occasional fantasy match-ups, which pit legends who never fought - say Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis - in imaginary title bouts. The feature has become amazingly sophisticated, using computer analysis and game-style graphics, and in the film, every bar in Philadelphia is glued to the fantasy bout of Rocky and the current Mason (The Line) Dixon, played by former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver.
“Rocky owns a nice little Italian restaurant where he gets his picture taken and entertains the customers with old war stories, but he gets it in his head he wants to fight again, just a little club-type stuff, so he gets in shape and convinces the boxing board to give him a license. Then Dixon’s managers get the idea of exploiting the ESPN thing with a real fight, just an exhibition match. They think it may help rehabilitate their man’s image.
“Rocky, he gets sort of warily caught up in this thing, but he can’t help but take it a little seriously. It’s like the first time: He knows he doesn’t have a chance, but he’d like to be standing at the end of the thing.”
The top executives at MGM were unimpressed. They offered Stallone $9 million to make his movie, “which would be the limo budget on a real movie.”
But two years ago, the MGM brand was acquired by Columbia-TriStar, and a new regime came in with plans to revitalize what was once Hollywood’s most illustrious brand.
“The fact is, I never go out much anymore,” says Stallone. “But my buddy James Caan invited me out to a restaurant one night, and I walk past a table and the new head of MGM sees me and says, `Hey, Sly, what’s going on?’ So the conversation gets around to Rocky, and he’s obviously excited. He says, `Great, come in and see me Monday and we’ll put something together.’ I mean, I could have just as easily been in the bathroom or something. It was pure fate. I told my wife, `See, this thing was meant to be.’”
Stallone and his third wife, model Jennifer Flavin, have three daughters: Scarlet Rose, 4, Sistine Rose, 8, and Sophia Rose, 10. He has two grown sons from his first marriage to Sasha Czack, Sage and Seargeoh , who played Robert Jr. in “Rocky V.”
Stallone says his goal as director was to capture that sense of honesty, hope and romance from the first film while acknowledging the changes of the last 30 years. Though the film references the old days - a bar maid he befriends turns out to be a middle-aged Little Marie, the sassy teenager who returns some kindly advice that Rocky offers her in the original film with a “Screw you, creep!” - it remains in the here-and-now to give Rocky’s dream credibility.
“I got in shape for the movie, you know, but I can’t do that stuff I did 25 years ago, to get all cut and hard. I mean, I know now screwing with your body that way isn’t good for you anyway.” Stallone once spent 12 hours a day in the gym. He defers questions about using steroids.
But he does have one more dream from the old days: He wants to revive his long-held dream project, directing a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, with a young actor in the role he wrote for himself.
“The problem is, there’s only about three or four young actors in Hollywood who can pull this off, because he has to hold the screen for 20 minutes just reciting `The Raven,’ going deep, getting really raw. Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, maybe Edward Norton. If I can get someone like that, I can pull it off. I hope one of them sees `Rocky Balboa’ and likes it.”
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