Sylvester Stallone Once Turned Down A $34 Million Payday

When Parade magazine revealed in 1986 that Sylvester Stallone earned $12 million to star in "Rocky IV," every studio executive in Hollywood ordered Tums in bulk. That sum, which equates to $32 million in 2022, doubled the per-picture salary pulled down by the vaunted likes of Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford. Arnold Schwarzenegger was only making $3 million back then.

In an industry ever mindful of overspending — while gleefully overspending when, say, someone decides the Universal Monsters brand should be reinvented as an action franchise spearheaded by Tom Cruise — the last thing studios want is for a volatile, highly sought-after star like Hoffman to learn their competition is raking in twice what they make. This is when budgets start skyrocketing. And, in 1986, an era where there were no sure things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is how an executive loses their job.

This outrage was sparked anew two years later when Stallone locked down $16 million for "Rambo III." Was he worth it? He'd starred in the second- and third-highest grossing films of 1985 ("Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Rocky IV"). As long as he wasn't whimsically following his muse and turning out overpriced, non-franchise dross like "Rhinestone" or "Over the Top," he was a box office thoroughbred. So when the Carolco braintrust of Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna convinced themselves that "Rambo III" was going to be Stallone's biggest hit yet, the duo made Sly a considerable offer.

How Rambo could've killed The Terminator

Adjusted for inflation, the $35 million Johnny Depp cleared for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is neck-and-neck with the $40 million Will Smith made for "King Richard" for the highest movie star salary (excluding participatory points) in filmmaking history. Given the diminished importance of movie stars in the age of streaming, these numbers are unlikely to be matched anytime soon. So Stallone's gotta be wincing at turning down $34 million for "Rambo IV" in 1988.

As Stallone told The Hollywood Reporter:

"[W]e were doing Rambo III. We thought it was going to be the biggest hit — this was before it came out. And I was paid a fortune for it. Then they go, 'We want Rambo IV. Here it is: Pay or play, 34.' I go, 'Let's not jump the gun here...'"

Had they jumped the gun, Carolco might've dissolved long before the catastrophic one-two flops of Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls" and Renny Harlin's "Cutthroat Island" finished the company off for good in 1995. The potential casualties? The Harlin-Stallone collaboration "Cliffhanger" probably never happens, nor does Oliver Stone's "The Doors." The biggest loss, however, might've been "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Following the failure of "The Abyss," no one in Hollywood concerned with job security was going to let James Cameron make what was then the most expensive movie of all time.

Would you rather have a "Rambo IV" where probably 75% of the budget went into Stallone's pocket, or "T2" with all the decadent, cinema-transforming trimmings? Thought so.