Sylvester Stallone's Tragic Real-Life Story

The following article includes brief references to child abuse, drug addiction, and allegations of domestic violence.

Much like Rocky Balboa came up from nothing to become one of the world's best boxers, Sylvester Stallone came from an underprivileged upbringing to become one of the planet's biggest blockbuster stars. It was a difficult and often traumatic road to fame and fortune for the New York City-born actor, director, screenwriter, and producer, and even when Sly was on top and no longer the underdog, he still suffered losses that few others can imagine.

That's part of why Stallone feels so close to the Rocky Balboa character he created. He told Variety of 1976's "Rocky" in 2019, "It is really a metaphor for life. This was a love story. He happens to box for a living, but the story is about his love for [wife Adrian]. You root for the underdog, and he had something to fight for — her."

Stallone has become beyond adept at rolling with the (metaphorical) punches, and he's gotten back up from blows that would knock even some of the strongest men out. Here's Sylvester Stallone's tragic real-life story.

The tragic reason behind Sylvester Stallone's 'snarl'

Sylvester Stallone's trademark "snarl" and sometimes marble-mouthed speech are unfortunately occasionally the target of mockery. However, the star's curled lip and vocal delivery aren't a tough guy act — they're actually the result of a traumatic childbirth. According to an interview with the Chicago Tribune, an accident during Stallone's delivery resulted in a severed facial nerve, causing his lower lip to droop, and paralyzing part of his tongue and chin. Still, the star has taken all of it in stride.

At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Stallone told press (via Gulf News) of his signature slurred speech, "I didn't think I was going to [have a career in film]. When I would try to get jobs in commercials, the director would go, 'What are you saying, what language is that?'" The actor added, "I knew it was bad when Arnold Schwarzenegger said, 'You have an accent.' I go, 'I have an accent? Excuse me, what?' It's true. Arnold and I should open up a school for speech lessons. It would be perfect."

Saying he had a rough childhood almost doesn't cut it

In addition to Sylvester Stallone's traumatic birth, the actor suffered a slew of medical problems throughout his early life. He told the Chicago Tribune that when he was growing up, his facial nerve damage made him feel like ”Mr. Potato Head with all the parts in the wrong place," adding, "I wanted to be anybody but me.” He got rickets as a young child and was heavily bullied. Stallone claimed his father was physically abusive and that his mom only kissed him twice during his childhood. As a result, he'd act out in dangerous ways. 

"The Expendables" star told the outlet, ”I'd sit and swat flies off cars with a lead pipe, I'd paint the house black, hack up Santa Claus, fire arrows from a classroom window, jump off a roof with an umbrella and break my arm.” By the time Stallone was 12 years old, he'd been kicked out of 13 schools and broken 11 bones. When he was 15, Stallone says that he was told his brain was "dormant," so he started bodybuilding.

Sylvester Stallone did some erotica, but it's not what you think

Six years before he made it big with "Rocky," Sylvester Stallone was down on his luck, out of money, and resorting to some last-resort measures just to make it day-to-day. In particular, he was sleeping at the Port Authority bus station in New York City and struggling with acting work (including a play in which a co-star gave him frostbite on his face when she sprayed him with a fire extinguisher), along with working menial jobs (like getting peed on by lions when he cleaned their cages at the Central Park Zoo). Translation: He was broke and desperate. As such, he told Playboy that he even starred in a soft-core adult film, "Party at Kitty and Stud's," just to make ends meet. "It was either do that movie or rob someone because I was at the end — at the very end — of my rope," he said. "Instead of doing something desperate, I worked two days for $200 and got myself out of the bus station."

Ultimately, the erotic flick was "never released," according to Stallone. However, after the success of "Rocky," he was offered the opportunity to buy the rights to it for $100,000 (presumably to prevent its release). But Stallone recalled, "I wouldn't buy it for two bucks, and my lawyer told them to hit the pike." Still, he admitted, "When you're hungry, you do a lot of things you wouldn't ordinarily do, and it's funny how you can readjust your morality for the sake of self-preservation. ... I thought, 'Well, maybe this will be an art film.' Brilliant."

Dolph Lundgren nearly killed Sylvester Stallone

While filming 1985's "Rocky IV," Dolph Lundgren almost knocked Sylvester Stallone out for good. Stallone later recalled to the press at the Cannes Film Festival (via Vulture) that the Swedish karate master-turned-action star was almost too "perfect," causing Stallone to almost loathe him at first sight ... and it worked really well for the movie. Almost too well, Stallone said, because Lundgren really packed a punch. "He hit me so hard he almost stopped my heart," the star explained. "I told him, 'Why don't we just do it? Just try to knock me out. Really cut loose as hard as you can.' ... Next thing I know, I'm on a low-altitude plane to the emergency room, and I'm in intensive care for four days. And there are all these nuns around."

Stallone previously detailed the incident to People in 1985: He was airlifted to St. John's Hospital in Los Angeles, where he was diagnosed with a bruised heart, but his issues started earlier: He said months before Lundgren's big blow, he "felt something snap" while filming a training scene in Wyoming. Sly would later say he felt like he got hit by "a streetcar named Drago."

On the bright side, Lundgren and Stallone remain close despite the near-manslaughter. For his part, Lundgren told Page Six, "I was actually pretty surprised at how well Sly could fight. I fought for real and had to learn how to fake it! He was really committed."

Sylvester Stallone struggled with his son's autism

Developments in autism research and funding have made leaps and bounds since the birth of Sylvester Stallone's son, Seargeoh Stallone. But when the toddler was diagnosed with the disorder, it was incredibly difficult on the actor and his then-wife, Sasha Czeck (seen here, holding Seargeoh). The then-estranged couple told People in 1985 that they dealt separately with their son's struggles, with Czeck shouldering most of the responsibilities for the boy while Sly worked (and earned autism research funds with premieres).

Sylvester was heartbroken at what he felt was an inability to connect with Seargeoh, explaining, "There is no real father-and-son thing there. I have to become his playmate. With a child like this you have to put away your ego. You can't force him into your world. I sort of go along with whatever he is doing. ... After he gets to the point where he trusts you, a little more communication can start." He added, "The primary therapy is the repetition of words and instructions. He has shown an extraordinary memory, but he can't apply what he has learned." 

The actor said that he doted extra on elder son Sage Stallone, in part because he wasn't able to bond as well with Seargeoh, but did try his best with his younger son, even creating a nature-driven playground in his yard where the boy could relax.

Sage Stallone died of a heart attack at a tragically young age

Sylvester Stallone's eldest son, Sage Stallone, with whom he was rather close, died at just 36 years old in July 2012. Sage reportedly passed away from a heart condition called atherosclerosis, in which cholesterol and fats block arteries, and restricts blood flow. The cardiovascular disease caused Sage to suffer a heart attack, which ultimately ended his life, CNN reported. Even more heartbreaking, in addition to suffering the death of his son, Sylvester also had to cope with media speculation that Sage was on drugs at the time of his passing — allegations that turned out to be unfounded, as nothing other than "Tylenol-style pain medication" (in normal amounts) were found in his system.

Sage had a promising future and even appeared in a few of his dad's films, including 1990's "Rocky V" and 1996's "Daylight," and was engaged to be married at the time of his sudden death. "Because when a parent loses a child there is no greater pain," Sylvester said in a heart-wrenching statement. "Therefore I am imploring people to respect my wonderfully talented son's memory and feel compassion for his loving mother, Sasha, because this agonizing loss will be felt for the rest of our lives. Sage was our first child and the center of our universe and I am humbly begging for all to have my son's memory and soul left in peace."

Sylvester Stallone's sister may have blackmailed him for decades

Sylvester Stallone had a contentious relationship with his half-sister, Toni Ann Filiti, for decades. Page Six reported that the famous actor, producer, and screenwriter had quietly settled on a multi-million-dollar agreement with Filiti that was later described as a "shakedown." Per the 1987 agreement, Sylvester would pay Filiti $16,666.66 monthly for the duration of her life, in addition to a lump payment of $2 million, as well as a $50,000 annual trust covering medical and psychiatric expenses. Court docs revealed that Sylvester had "vigorously denied and continues to deny and dispute all claims of wrongdoing" after Filiti accused him of "personal injury, including physical injury."

The star's mother, Jackie Stallone, told the tab, "This was nothing more than a shakedown. Toni-Ann was on 65 Oxycontin pills a day, and she threatened Sylvester. A drug addict will do anything. When Sylvester became famous, she didn't have to hook. He was trying to help her. He caved in." She added, "There were too many conflicting stories. ... At the time he was very hot, and his lawyers said, 'Give her something just to shut her up.'" 

Filiti died of lung cancer in August 2012 at just 48 years old. Her death came just a month after Sylvester's son, Sage Stallone, passed away.

His eldest daughter endured health scares as well

In October 2012 — just months after the tragic deaths of his son and sister — Sylvester Stallone learned that his daughter, Sophia Stallone, would have to undergo heart surgery that December. Sophia underwent her first cardiac operation as an infant to correct a heart malformation. The procedure was successful, but she required a heart valve procedure at 16. It turned out well, but her father was understandably heartbroken.

Sylvester's wife, Jennifer Flavin, said of Sophia (via Hello!), "She is the one that most resembles her father. Like him she has read nearly all of Shakespeare's books. They have a very special bond, they think alike and even have the same gestures, Sophia is the love of his life." She added of her husband, "This is a terrible year, a horrible year for him. Sylvester is devastated, but he refuses to talk about his son." 

Thankfully, all turned out well. Sophia graduated from the University of Southern California (USC) in May 2019, where she studied communications with a minor in entrepreneurship and film, because, as she once told The Telegraph, she's "like [her] dad."

Sylvester Stallone's tragic luck with pets

Sylvester Stallone's family suffered another tragedy in 2013, when their beloved family dog was killed by a coyote. TMZ reported that the pooch, named Phoebe, went missing in the Stallones' Bel Air, California neighborhood. The family was so desperate to get her back that they hung up posters and even offered a $10,000 reward for her return ... only for her to turn up dead on their own property. Stallone's rep said Phoebe's death was "very difficult" for the brood.

Phoebe's untimely passing wasn't the only heartache Stallone suffered with a pet. Before hitting it big with "Rocky," a cash-strapped Stallone tried to sell his beloved bull mastiff, Butkus, for $100. As if that's not tragic enough, he could only get $50 for his four-legged best friend. Stallone told ShortList that when he sold the script for his boxing blockbuster, he asked to buy Butkus back from the man who purchased the dog, named Jimmy, who refused. Stallone came out victorious ... after he paid Jimmy $3,000 and gave him a bit part in the film.

The Rocky star almost lost his half-brother too

In 2016, Sylvester Stallone nearly lost his then-19-year-old half-brother in a vicious attack. According to TMZ, Dante Stallone, with whom Sylvester shares a father, was near campus at Florida State University in Tallahassee when he was beaten. A pal of the student, who described Dante as "extremely loyal" and "awesome to be around," told People, "He got jumped by a group of several grown men." Dante, who was on his way back from a late-night Taco Bell run at the time of the attack, was injured so badly that Page Six reported his roommates had to call 911 for him because he had "difficulty speaking." A police report obtained by the outlet also didn't indicate a clear motive and stated that Dante didn't know his assailants.

Sourced cited by TMZ claimed that Dante had "suffered a shattered jaw and a split palate, as well as broken and knocked out teeth." He had to be hospitalized for several weeks, and also underwent reconstructive surgery. Sylvester told the tab, "This is a wonderful young man, a straight-A student who would not cause any trouble. It's just so tragic and terribly sad."

Stepdad drama is never fun, but Sylvester Stallone's seems like a doozy

In August 2019, Sylvester Stallone's stepfather, Dr. Stephen M. Levine, was accused of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, according to Radar. A complaint was reportedly filed with the California medical board that February, alleging that neurosurgeon Levine and others had wrongfully pocketed nearly $58 million of federal cash from "2013 through 2016 by referring home healthcare services to patients who didn't need them" in exchange for monetary "kickbacks." 

The tab also reported that prior to the alleged financial antics, Levine was accused of murder when his first wife, Myrna, died in 1998 after he allegedly gave her "a lethal dose of the painkiller Demerol." He lost his medical license for six months after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. 

When asked about the allegations, Levine didn't comment, but his wife — Sylvester's mother, a 97-year-old Jackie Stallone — told the site, "There must be some mistake." However, the National Enquirer reported that Levine admitted to the scheme, and that under a plea agreement, he'd risk a whopping 71 months behind bars if he didn't dish the dirt on his co-defendants.

Wait, Sylvester Stallone doesn't own the rights to Rocky?

Sylvester Stallone made a ton of money from the "Rocky" franchise, but still may have gotten a raw deal. The multitalent told Variety that he raked in about $2.5 million for 1976's "Rocky": $25,000 for the screenplay, then $360 per week of filming for the 25-day shoot. "Luckily there were the WGA minimums," he said. "I made about $2,000 for acting." Most of Stallone's pay for his breakout hit came from his 10 net points (shares on the net profits). He made $75,000 for 1979's "Rocky II" and $120,000 plus millions in net points for 1982's "Rocky III." However, Stallone has said he could have made a lot more.

"I have zero ownership of 'Rocky,'" Stallone claimed, adding that his attorney at the time told him that nobody gets a stake in franchises, and he didn't pursue it further. "I never really pushed it, and by the time we got around to [2006's] 'Rocky Balboa' I was in a pretty weak position to say anything. I was in a slump, and it was pretty intense," he admitted, adding that he'd been dropped by his agent at the time. 

A "Rocky" producer insisted to Variety that the star "made money from every angle, and still does." Stallone even confessed that while "kids and their kids, [are] taken care of because of the system," he still feels like "the definition of Hollywood is someone who stabs you in the chest," adding, "They don't even hide it."

He almost died filming The Expendables

Sylvester Stallone is known for making movies that pack a punch, but in one instance, it was the punch that almost ended it all for the star. During the filming of the first film in "The Expendables" franchise, co-starring other action movie legends like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone broke his neck while filming a stunt with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. The injury was so severe that Stallone had to have an operation to put in a permanent metal plate in his neck, as well as heal a hairline fracture. "Truthfully, I never fully recovered [from the injury]," he said in the 2023 Netflix documentary "Sly." "It did such a number on my body, I've never been the same. Never."

The injury, far from his first on set, and its severity made him reflect on why he was performing such stunts in the first place. "Was it really worth it?" he pondered in the "Sly" doc. "Are you doing this for people's approval? Really, that's almost like a child needing a pat on their head by their father. That's constant encouragement. But it's true."

Stallone didn't publicly reveal the incident or its seriousness until he was promoting the action flick in 2010. And it wasn't just Sly who felt the heat on set while filming. As he described to FHM (via The Guardian), filming "The Expendables" was essentially "seven guys, kicking each other's a**, one guy tougher than the next. ... No joke, our stunt guys were begging for mercy."

Sylvester Stallone's romantic life has been tumultuous

It's not just on screen that Sylvester Stallone has experienced the ups and downs of life, particularly when it comes to romance. The star has had his fair share of love, having been married three times. He married his first wife, Sasha Czack, in 1974, and the two remained married as Sly's star rose with the release of "Rocky" in 1976. The pair eventually divorced in 1985, and Sylvester moved on to marry model Brigitte Nielsen shortly after. However, Sly and Nielsen's publicly stormy relationship lasted two years before he filed for divorce.

Sylvester seemed to find his one true love with current wife Jennifer Flavin, whom he married in 1997. But despite their seemingly happy ending, the couple almost called it quits in August 2022. After reconciling a month later, Sylvester reflected on how losing his love changed things for him personally and professionally. "It was a very tumultuous time," he told The Times. "There was a reawakening of what was more valuable than anything, which is my love for my family. It takes precedence over my work, and that was a hard lesson to learn."

The actor has even started to share his lessons in love with his daughters by providing dating advice. "He said it might be next week, or it might be when you're 35 years old, but choose happiness and true compatibility [rather] than chasing the clock," Sophia Stallone previously shared on the podcast "Unwaxed." Her sister, Sistine Stallone, was quick to agree: "Sometimes he is Shakespearian when it comes to dating."

Sly has regrets about not being there for his kids

Despite being a publicly devoted dad to his three daughters, Sylvester Stallone has expressed remorse for not always being there for his children. In particular, he has spoken publicly about being an absent father to his two older sons, Seargeoh and the late Sage Stallone, along with his daughters. "I didn't pay enough attention when they were growing up," he reflected to The Times in 2022. "I was so career-oriented, and now I'm like, 'Okay, I don't have that much runway in front of me, and I want to start asking them about their lives.' I ask them about their day, and they started out a little monosyllabic at first, then I heard someone say, 'I was just thinking about you.' Oh my God. I've never heard that in my life."

Sylvester has even incorporated some of his relationship issues with his children, particularly his son, Sage, into his work. In "Rocky V," Sage starred as the title character's son who is struggling with his father not being there for him. As previously mentioned, Sage tragically lost his life to coronary artery disease in 2012 at age 36. "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," Sylvester described of "Rocky V" in the Netflix documentary "Sly." "And so quite often I would do it theatrically, magically. ... A lot of that is true. Unfortunately, you put things before your family. And the repercussions are quite radical and devastating."

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