Rocky's Massive Success Was A Double-Edged Sword For Sylvester Stallone

One of the most fascinating elements of Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" series is how each movie is a reflection of where the star was at that moment in his career. Over the course of eight films (including the two "Creed" movies in which he appeared), Stallone is critically examining his success, be it skyrocketing to ludicrous extremes (in "Rocky III") or direly on the wane (in "Rocky V"). Though his private life is another, far more complicated matter, it's rare to see a massive celebrity wrestle so honestly with his public persona. He's leveling with us because he knows how much we love The Italian Stallion. You're rooting for both Stallone and Rocky to come out on top every time. Well, almost every time.

This is a lesson Sly learned in the immediate wake of "Rocky." There's no more emphatic validation of one's artistic vision than delivering the year's top-grossing film and taking home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, so Stallone had good reason to trust his judgment as a newly minted star. But he quickly discovered people had a hard time separating him from Balboa, and he had to adjust on the fly or risk turning off his rapidly expanding fanbase.

How Stallone's ego nearly cold-cocked his career

One of Stallone's earliest, most vociferous champions was Roger Ebert. In his 1976 review of "Rocky", Ebert wrote that Stallone reminded him of a young Marlon Brando. This was understandable, if only because Stallone's only other performance of note was as a Brooklyn street kid in "The Lords of Flatbush." He basically came out of nowhere and effortlessly inhabited the part of a good-natured, down-on-his-luck palooka who gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world heavyweight boxing title.

If Stallone had anything in common with Brando, it was that his off-screen personality was jarringly brash. There was nothing humble about him. Though he played the talk-show game well enough while promoting "Rocky" in 1976, he let his ego run amok in the years to come. In a 1979 interview with Ebert timed to the release of "Rocky II," Stallone reckoned with his public-facing miscues. As he told Ebert:

"They'd ask me questions which I, as an actor, knew nothing about, and I was so enchanted by the sound of my own chatter that I'd spout off my opinions. One day I was doing that on the 'Dinah Show.' And after the show was over, this innocuous-looking gentleman walked up to me. His eyes were glistening. He said one thing: 'Why are you doing this?' Then he turned and walked away."

This landed with the jar-rattling force of an Apollo Creed uppercut. Stallone might be the intellectual antithesis of Balboa (he is an avid reader whose rare book collection, which was auctioned off in 2017, contained works by writers as varied as Leo Tolstoy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Plutarch), but his fans didn't see him that way. They viewed him as an agreeably punchy sweetheart who liked just about everyone.

Stallone learned to ride high on the Stallion

So Stallone checked himself. "That was the end for me," he told Ebert. "I realized what I was doing. What happened, was 'Rocky' was so big, and I'd been so low, I was too cocky. In the year of 1972, my total income was $1,400. Now I was a big shot. I think I've got things a little more straight now."

Stallone did more than change his talk-show tune. He backed away from making awards-chasing films like Norman Jewison's "F.I.S.T." and got busy building his blockbuster brand. "Rocky II" was followed by the gleefully hyper-violent cop thriller "Nighthawks" and John Huston's somnambulant, would-be crowd-pleaser "Victory." The films earned mostly pans, but Stallone had effectively reset expectations. He made shamelessly commercial movies for regular people. He followed this up with the 1982 duo of "Rocky III" and "First Blood," at which point critics either met him halfway or washed their hands of him entirely.

Ted Kotcheff's "First Blood" eventually received its well-deserved due as a thoughtful, first-rate action film, but the guiding principle of Stallone's career going forward is stated exuberantly in "Rocky III." Sly and Balboa nearly blew it by getting lost in the glitz and glamor of superstardom. They believed themselves infallible. They needed to take a great, big L, and recapture the eye of the tiger. 

There's never been a movie more acutely attuned to the desires of its fans than "Rocky III." It's a solemn, spectacularly entertaining promise from a movie star to the people who ensure his eight-figure-per-picture salary. It's a promise he would shatter time and again with garbage like "Rhinestone" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot." But, really, if you bought a ticket to a movie called "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot," that's hardly Stallone's fault.