Sylvester Stallone's Stunning Transformation

During his massively successful Hollywood career spanning six decades, Sylvester Stallone has become one of the biggest stars in film history. Boasting more than 100 screen credits, Stallone has portrayed some of the most memorable characters ever committed to celluloid, particularly underdog boxer Rocky Balboa and the deeply damaged (but highly lethal) Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Since his big-screen breakout in the 1970s, Stallone-starring films have collectively generated more than $4 billion worldwide.

While Stallone has become a familiar screen presence from appearing in all those movies, it's easy to forget he has also made a large impact behind the camera as a screenwriter and director. In fact, some of his biggest hits have been movies in which he did triple duty as director, writer, and actor, like "Rocky" series.

Over the decades, Stallone has become synonymous with the heroic, larger-than-life characters he has brought to life, yet who is the real man behind those indelible creations? To find out more about the personal side of this international superstar, you need to trace the fascinating journey behind the evolution of the A-list actor, director, and father.

Sylvester Stallone's birth resulted in facial paralysis

Sylvester Stallone was born in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, arriving in July 1946. During childbirth, an accident involving the use of forceps severed a facial nerve, causing parts of his tongue, lip, and chin to become paralyzed. That ultimately resulted in his crooked smile and slightly slurred speech that ultimately became his trademark.

As a child, Stallone was far from the muscled Adonis he would one day become. Back then, the sickly youngster dealt with rickets, which weakened his bones. In his teenage years, however, Stallone grew interested in bodybuilding, lifting weights to build up his physique, and excelled in high school sports including football and hurling the discus. After graduating high school, he attended the American College of Switzerland on an athletic scholarship, where he landed a role in a school production of "Death of a Salesman." Bitten by the acting bug, when Stallone returned to the U.S., he enrolled at the University of Miami to study drama, then headed back to NYC to pursue acting professionally.

"Let me just tell you, that was a bomb out," Stallone said of his early struggles to find acting work, in a video he made for Outstanding Screenplays. Those years, he admitted, were ones of humiliation and poverty. A particularly low point came when he failed to land a role as one of 200 extras in a party scene for "The Godfather." "I wasn't Italian enough," Stallone said, recalling his rejection in an interview with SiriusXM.

His first film role came back to haunt him

Struggling actor Sylvester Stallone was barely scraping by when he landed his first movie role at age 21. This was hardly a Hollywood production, but instead a low-budget, soft-core adult film. "I was literally starving in New York," Stallone recounted in a 1977 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, recalling how he had been sleeping in the Port Authority bus terminal at the time. "I was on the very brink of committing a criminal act, and I got this offer to be in a movie called 'Party and Kitty and Stud's.' They wanted to know if I'd take off my clothes. 'Why not?' I said. 'I take them off for free at home every night.'"

The 1970 film would have certainly faded into obscurity had it not been for Stallone's eventual silver-screen success several years later. It was eventually re-released with a new title — "The Italian Stallion" — and promoted with a trailer that hyped the film as being X-rated. The company attempted to get Stallone to purchase the project for $100,000 to prevent its release, but the actor refused.

While the movie's resurfacing proved embarrassing, Stallone ultimately had no regrets. "You know, when you're hungry, you do a lot of things you wouldn't ordinarily do," he mused in a 1978 interview with Playboy. "Instead of doing something desperate, I worked two days for $200 and got myself out of the bus station."

Stallone's big-screen breakthrough with The Lords of Flatbush

Before his big break, Sylvester Stallone was discouraged and declared his acting career dead-on-arrival. "I decided to give up on acting forever," he recalled to Playboy. Just as he was about to turn his back on his dream, an actor friend asked him to be his scene partner for an acting class. Unbeknownst to Stallone, film director Stephen Verona was in the audience watching. Six months later, Stallone received a telegram from Verona inviting him to audition for a film he was about to direct, "The Lords of Flatbush." "And that's how I got into my first real film," Stallone said.

In the 1974 movie, Stallone co-starred alongside Henry Winkler, Perry King, and Paul Mace, playing four leather-jacketed wannabe hoodlums in late-1950s Brooklyn. "The Lords of Flatbush" may have been Stallone's big break, but it was far from glamorous. "My pay was [that] I got to keep my character's motorcycle jacket," Stallone told Brooklyn. "There wasn't even a SAG day rate." Most of the scenes were shot on the fly on the streets of Brooklyn, often without the proper permits. "We were stealing locations and being chased by people," he said.

Still, Stallone had technically made it, reviving his acting dreams by starring in a small but legitimate Hollywood movie. He began landing more roles, and it wasn't long before he made a bold move that changed everything.

He risked it all on Rocky

"The Lords of Flatbush" elevated Sylvester Stallone's profile, but hardly propelled him to stardom. In 1975, Stallone watched a boxing match on TV, in which far-outclassed fighter Chuck Wepner (nicknamed the "Bayonne Bleeder") faced off against Muhammad Ali in what was expected to be a cakewalk for the heavyweight champion. Ali won, but Wepner surprised everyone by holding his own, even knocking down Ali at one point. Stallone was inspired, and in just a few days wrote a script about a beaten-down boxer who gets a shot at a title.

When he began pitching his screenplay for "Rocky" to Hollywood studios, he received a lot of interest. United Artists wanted to make the movie, and offered $360,000 for his script. Despite being flat broke, he turned it down, largely because producers wanted to cast a famous actor, while Stallone insisted on starring himself. The studio eventually relented, but at a wildly reduced rate, paying him just $25,000 for the screenplay, and another $2,000 for acting.

For Stallone, the pressure to succeed was intense. "When we finally knew that 'Rocky' was going to be made and I was going to play Rocky, I knew this wasn't only my shot, this was my life," he emphasized to the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert.

Stallone became a Hollywood heavyweight

Released in 1976, "Rocky" was a monster success, both critically and commercially. The film, made on a shoestring budget of about $1 million, raked in more than $117 million at the box office. Even more notably, "Rocky" was nominated for 10 Oscars (including a best actor nod for Sylvester Stallone), winning for best picture.

The film's success suddenly made Stallone a hot commodity in Hollywood. He began headlining movies, a lot of them. "F.I.S.T." and "Paradise Alley" (both written by Stallone, with the latter marking his directorial debut) were released in 1978 and were followed by the first of his numerous sequels to "Rocky." Other movies he starred in during this period include "Nighthawks" and "Victory." 

In addition to making him a box-office draw as an actor, "Rocky" demonstrated Stallone's skills as a screenwriter, which he came to view as his secret weapon. "Other actors have to wait for the kind of scripts they're looking for, but I can write my own," he told Playboy back in 1978. "If I feel it's time for me to be in an action film, I'll write an action film. If I feel I need to do a love story, I'll write one. Short of brain damage or Providence deciding to turn its love light off me, I really don't think I'll ever get stale as a screenwriter."

His Rocky sequels were huge blockbusters — but nearly killed him

"Rocky II" hit theaters in 1979. This time, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa challenged champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) to a rematch — and won! In "Rocky III," Rocky defended his title against fearsome foe Clubber Lang (Mr. T), and in "Rocky IV," took on a powerful Russian behemoth (Dolph Lundgren).

During the course of filming those sequels, Stallone embarked on an extreme body transformation, with his physique becoming as ripped and chiseled as a competitive bodybuilder. Maintaining that look was punishing, requiring him to eat next to nothing and chug coffee all day in order to keep his body fat at 2.8%. "I was getting all kinds of debilitating physical effects," he noted to The Wall Street Journal

Filming "Rocky IV," however, nearly put Stallone's life at risk. After shooting boxing scenes with Lundgren, Stallone began experiencing terrifying symptoms. "Later that night, my heart started to swell — which happens when the heart hits the chest — and then my blood pressure went up to 260," he revealed in the 2023 documentary "Sly," as recounted by Esquire. "And they thought I was going to be talking to angels. Next thing I know, I'm in intensive care, where I'm surrounded by nuns, and I thought, 'Okay, that's curtains.'" After being hospitalized for nine days, Stallone learned from doctors that Lundgren hit him so hard that his heart bounced around in his ribcage, something that typically occurs in head-on vehicular collisions. Luckily, there was no lasting damage.

A second franchise was born with First Blood

The same year that the massively successful "Rocky III" hit theaters, Sylvester Stallone also starred in another film, 1982's "First Blood." Stallone portrayed John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran, who arrives in a small town only to be harassed by its sadistic sheriff. Pushed to the breaking point, Rambo utilizes the skills he learned from the U.S. military to fight back, waging a one-man war on his oppressors.

The film was an absolute action hit. Suddenly, Stallone had a second franchise in addition to his "Rocky" movies. Buoyed by the box-office success of "First Blood," a sequel arrived in 1985. "Rambo: First Blood Part II" generated worldwide box office revenues exceeding $300 million. The franchise then hit its nadir with 1988's "Rambo III" – which found the character in the midst of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – raking in a diminished but still impressive $189 million internationally.

According to Stallone, he turned down $34 million to make a fourth "Rambo" movie. He let the character lie dormant until 2008, reprising the role in a sequel simply titled "Rambo." He took one more shot nearly a decade later, with 2019's "Rambo: Last Blood." Speaking with Variety, Stallone explained why he wanted to close the story of John Rambo with one final chapter. "I jotted down on a Post-It: 'He came home, but he never arrived,' and I went, there's a movie here," said Stallone. "The warrior can never find peace. He just can't."

He experienced his share of box-office flops

The third and fourth "Rocky" movies surpassed the success of the first — perhaps not in Oscars, but certainly at the box office, with each bringing in more than $120 million. "First Blood" made even more, earning $125 million in worldwide ticket sales. 

While Stallone was a proven box-office draw when playing Rocky and Rambo during the 1980s, that wasn't always the case when he veered out of those specific lanes. "Rhinestone," the 1984 comedy that paired him with Dolly Parton, was a legit bomb. His hopes of sparking a third franchise as a streetwise cop in 1986's "Cobra" fizzled when that movie proved to be a box-office dud. Meanwhile, 1989's "Tango & Cash" did okay, but not great, and the less said about the dismal 1991 gangster comedy, "Oscar," the better. 

All those failed movies put a damper on Stallone's career during that period. However, the silver lining was that he ultimately came to be far more careful when choosing his projects, something that grew even more important as he grew older. "I felt as though I wasted a lot of time. Now I realize there are only so many bullets left in the gun. Very few," he told The Hollywood Reporter of his string of big-screen flops in the '80s and early '90s. "When you're young, you're just haphazardly shooting wildly and hope you hit something. Now you don't have the luxury of missing."

His feud with Arnold Schwarzenegger lasted for decades

While Sylvester Stallone was establishing himself as a Hollywood action hero, he was facing stiff competition from Arnold Schwarzenegger. While their rivalry was common knowledge, fans of both actors may not have comprehended just how hostile it was. "We couldn't stand to be in the same galaxy together for a while," Stallone said during an appearance on "The Jonathan Ross Show" (via Entertainment Weekly). "We truly, truly loathed each other." Speaking about Schwarzenegger while guesting on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Stallone conceded he had a huge degree of respect for his action-hero rival. "I think he's brilliant," Stallone said. "But I wanted to strangle him."

Stallone set aside his animosity in 1991 when he joined Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis as celebrity investors in the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain. Appearing on "The Graham Norton Show" in 2023, "The Terminator" actor confirmed that their once-bitter rivalry actually evolved into a friendship thanks to their business involvement.

"It got out of control, and we tried to derail each other," Schwarzenegger said, as reported by Business Insider. "When we both invested in Planet Hollywood, we started flying around the world together to promote it ... He is a great human being, and we are now inseparable." That competition-turned-friendship culminated in the two co-starring in 2013's "Escape Plan," in which they played convicts who hatch a plan to escape from the world's most high-security prison.

A comedic misfire was followed by a string of hits

During the peak of their rivalry, Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to convince Sylvester Stallone that he was actively pursuing a red-hot comedy project. The result: Schwarzenegger tricked Stallone into starring in the 1992 flop, "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," arguably one of the weakest links in Stallone's cinematic legacy. 

Yet that low-water mark also heralded the beginning of a career renaissance, with Stallone following that bomb with a string of hits that propelled him back to the top, including "Cliffhanger," "Demolition Man," "Daylight," and others. It was during this period that Stallone received something he hadn't since the first "Rocky" movie: critical acclaim. That came about from his performance in the 1997 drama, "Cop Land," in which he portrayed a suburban sheriff who uncovers a hotbed of police corruption. Not only did Stallone hold his own among a cast that included Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta, he earned some of the best reviews of his career.

Not only did "Cop Land" present Stallone with a character unlike anything audiences had seen him play before, but it also placed him in the midst of a ridiculously talented ensemble — not just as the singular star, as was typically the case. "I am not the centerpiece of this movie," he explained in a 1999 interview with The Guardian. "It's something where I am just part of the machine."

The Expendables kicked off a new chapter of success

In 2010, Sylvester Stallone celebrated his 64th birthday. That same year, he also unveiled a new movie that boasted a genius concept; assembling a who's who of long-in-the-tooth big-screen action stars for "The Expendables." Playing the leader of a team of mercenaries, Stallone was joined by Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, and Bruce Willis — with former rival Arnold Schwarzenegger even making a cameo. The film was a big hit, with its $274 million box office kicking off yet another Stallone-centric franchise.

"The Expendables 2" hit theaters in 2012 — adding a few more cast members, including Chuck Norris and Liam Hemsworth — and "The Expendables 3" in 2014 (adding a full-fledged role for Schwarzenegger, along with new arrivals Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, and Ronda Rousey. The fourth film in the series, "Expend4bles," debuted in 2023, with Stallone passing the torch to Statham for any subsequent sequels. 

While the films certainly resonated with audiences, Stallone made no bones about the over-the-hill status of he and his fellow action heroes, which, in fact, was the linchpin of the films' appeal in the first place. "We were like head waiters at the Last Supper," he joked in an interview with TNT Magazine. "We had a dinosaur as a house pet. We're old. Well, I'm old."

He mourned the death of his son

Sylvester Stallone has been married three times: to Sasha Czack, from 1974 until 1985; to his "Rocky IV" co-star Brigitte Nielsen, from 1985 until 1987; and to his current wife, Jennifer Flavin, whom he wed in 1997. Stallone and Flavin are parents of three daughters, and Stallone also fathered two sons with his first wife, Sage and Seargeoh.

Stallone's relationship with his sons wasn't as close as it could've been when they were younger, largely due to the emphasis that he put on furthering his career. "I make a much better father and husband now than I could have earlier," he told Woman's Day (via People) back in 2007. However, Stallone and his eldest child, Sage, tightened their bond when the latter played the son of Rocky Balboa, Rocky Jr., in 1990's "Rocky V."

Sadly, Stallone endured the most excruciating loss a parent can experience when Sage tragically died in 2012 at the age of 36. While there was speculation at the time that his death was drug-related, the coroner's report subsequently determined that atherosclerosis – or hardening of the arteries — had caused Stallone's son to have a heart attack. In the 2023 documentary, "Sly," Stallone admitted that the difficult father-son relationship depicted in "Rocky V" was his reflection of his actual rapport with Sage. "I try to take something that actually is what I wish I had done in real life, but I wasn't able to do that in reality," he said, as reported by People

He brought Rocky's story full circle with Creed

The 1990 sequel "Rocky V" seemingly wrapped up the boxer's story, but Sylvester Stallone resurrected his most iconic character more than 15 years later, in the 2006 film, "Rocky Balboa." With actor Milo Ventimiglia playing his son, the film followed Rocky as he came out of retirement for one last match. 

That, however, still wasn't the end. Nearly a decade later, Stallone revived Rocky yet again in the 2015 film, "Creed." This time, though, Rocky wasn't the central character; That honor was given to Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan), son of Rocky's ring rival Apollo Creed, who seeks out the former champ to train him. Stallone returned for the 2018 sequel, "Creed II," in which Adonis takes on Viktor Drago, son of the Russian boxer that Rocky faced in "Rocky IV" more than 30 years earlier. The story continued in 2023's "Creed III," in which Stallone did not appear at all.

Stallone decided to end his journey as Rocky because of Irwin Winkler, a producer on the original "Rocky" and all its sequels, as well as the "Creed" movies. Stallone has long been critical of Winkler — who has legal control of the Rocky character — for not allowing him any ownership stake in the franchise that he single-handedly wrote and created. "You can't make peace with someone who's been so, so nefarious, in my opinion," Stallone said in an interview with SiriusXM.

He and his family entered the world of reality TV

Sylvester Stallone has made some bold choices in recent years, ranging from voicing a humanoid shark in "The Suicide Squad," to portraying a remorseful superhero in "Samaritan," to starring in his first-ever TV series, the Paramount+ crime drama, "Tulsa King."  In 2023, Stallone took another unexpected left turn when Paramount+ announced that he, his wife Jennifer Flavin, and their three daughters were set to star in their own reality show, "The Family Stallone."

With his first foray into reality TV, it took a second for Stallone to find his footing at first. "It's a lot more labor-intensive, I find, than doing a feature," he posited to Collider in 2023. "A lot more because it's unstructured and you just need to fill in, 'Oh, God, we have to go back six months later ... We need a voiceover, a different narrative.' It's quite fascinating, it's a real skill set." The series proved to be a hit with viewers, with the streamer renewing the show for a second season.

When he and his family sat down to promote the show on "Today," Stallone's daughters explained that they had already been opening up about their lives on a podcast, and involving their parents in a reality show was a natural extension of that. Asked why he agreed to become involved, Stallone quipped, "Well, I've always wanted someone to film me while I'm brushing my teeth."