It is a singular experience to try to imagine the owner of a house, and what he is about, if you visit and he is not there—especially if you know him only from his screen triumphs in Rocky I, II and now III, and his name is Sylvester Stallone. I had hoped to meet Stallone on his home grounds, but he had left California on a promotion tour for Rocky III. He had asked if I would like to see his home nonetheless, and I had accepted. I had heard that the Stallones lived in the late Ernie Kovacs’ house in Coldwater Canyon, a bizarre place someone had told me was distinguished by fake cobwebs in the wine cellar and a fountain that emerges from a rhino head. Alas, the Stallones had moved to Pacific Palisades, to a large, comfortable house set against the slope of a field-sized lawn surrounded by a high protective fence.
The cabana by the swimming pool has been made over into an exercise room. Through the sliding plate-glass windows one can see the shine of Nautilus machinery. Off one end of the cabana a heavy punching bag hangs from its chains. Inside the main house, a visitor would sense an echo of the violence that is inevitably in the background of Stallone’s films. A wolf-skin rug lies on the floor of the den. The furniture is dark and overbearing. A statue of an eagle with spread wings dominates the dark-hued dining room. The bronzes in the screening room are of fighting animals. In the corner of the living room stands a Rodin torso of a naked goddess in tortured mid-flight entitled Iris, Messenger of the Gods—a bronze Stallone refers to as the “Flying Beaver.”
While nothing is as bizarre as a room of fake cobwebs, there is on the premises, however, an oddity even by Hollywood standards—a heavyweight prizefighter named Lee Canalito. He had been described to me as an alter ego of Stallone’s, as much a prop in the life of the famous actor as Rocky Balboa of the films. Stallone is launching Canalito on a ring career he hopes will end up with the heavyweight championship of the world.
I had a talk with Canalito in a gazebo beside the swimming pool. He is a huge man—6’5″, 249 pounds, 28 years old, which is late to be starting a ring career. He possesses that quiet demeanor that seems so common to men who fight in the ring. He was an extremely fine football player for two years at the University of Houston before an old knee injury acted up and ended his career. He had tried boxing, winning a Golden Gloves title in Houston, and had drifted into acting. He had the role of Tarzan opposite Bo Derek in last summer’s Tarzan, the Ape Man until he was fired for reasons he wasn’t sure about just three days before he was to swing in from the trees and rescue her from the clutches of a tribe that had painted her white.
As a fighter, Canalito had been bedeviled by contract problems. That was what Stallone had done for him—helped to release him from former obligations that made it difficult for him to pursue a boxing career.
I wondered if he ever thought of himself as an alter ego of Stallone’s. “Oh no,” Canalito said. “He’s a close friend. He’s giving me a break…doing me a big favor. It’s friendship.”
A week later I met Sylvester Stallone in the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York. “I bring you greetings from your home,” I said. “I missed the fake cobwebs in the wine cellar.”
Stallone laughed and told me that what was stranger than the fake cobwebs in that Kovacs wine cellar was the wine. “We thought when we moved in that we’d lucked into a great wine cellar. But what he had under most of the fancy labels was actually Thunder-bird. Strange place.”
“Well, in your new house everything is in order,” I replied. “Lee Canalito is in command of things. What do your children think of him?”
“They think he’s a tree,” Stallone said. The actor leaned forward off the edge of the sofa. He gets very agitated and excited talking about Canalito. “He’s a mesomorph who can run the 40-yard dash in 4.7. He can dunk a basketball with two hands. In the gym the other day, he knocked out a guy who’d had 36 professional fights. He’s never been knocked off his feet. Seven KOs in eight fights since 1977. He totally represents what I would like to be physically—a manufacture of my fantasy, an exact duplicate of what I would like to be if I could rebuild myself. I’ve been looking for someone like him for years—a contender, an Italian, an underdog. Then I saw him fight on TV—a big, Jack Armstrongish kid. I put him in Paradise Alley—Kid Salami. Now I’m managing him. He’ll become everything I can’t be. So I worry about him. I telephone him. He’s got his own phone back there. I ask, ‘Do you have any blisters?’ We do roadwork together. I run beside him as he thunders along. But he’s always his own man out there.”
I asked if Stallone had ever introduced Canalito to Muhammad Ali “Oh yes,” Stallone said. “I introduced the two of them in a restaurant. Ali looked up from his table and said, ‘How did Mount Everest get in here? That’s the biggest white boy I ever seen!’ I said to Ali, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet. He’s still sitting down.’ ”
“What is it about fighters and fighting that fascinates you so much?” I asked.
Stallone said, “The champion represents the ultimate warrior—the nearest thing to being immortal while mortal. The champion lives on forever. I told Lee that if he became the heavyweight champion of the world, my relationship to him would be like a grain of sand compared to Gibraltar!”
“How did he take that?”
“He looked a little surprised,” Stallone admitted. “But it’s true. The great glamour of holding the championship is that it belongs to a single person who, because of the nature of what he does, has the respect of everyone on the face of the earth.”
“What are you like at the fights?” I asked.
“I’m awful to sit next to. I’m always rooting for the underdog. I want to be in there with him.”
It turned out that Stallone had been in the ring with a number of top-notch fighters when he was casting the Clubber Lang role in Rocky III—and he was amusing and self-deprecatory about what had happened to him. “Against Earnie Shavers [who lost a close title decision to Ali in 1977],” he told me, “there was an eclipse. He hit me on the arm and my knees buckled. My body size went from a 43 to a 42.” He laughed. “You want to know what it looked like? Like those cartoons when Tom of Tom and Jerry is slugged by a bulldog or something and just sails, stiff as a board, out of the frame!”
Stallone is apparently a glutton for this kind of punishment. He was in the ring with Roberto Duran when he was the lightweight champion (“like being lowered head-first into a Cuisinart”), with Joe Frazier when the former heavyweight champion was trying out in Rocky III (“I thought I was in a fire”), and even with his own fighter, Canalito (“He crippled me. He hit me and I saw the future for a few seconds. He knocked me ahead a day or so”).
The more famous extension of Stallone’s character, and one not as physically punishing as Lee Canalito, is, of course, Rocky Balboa of the film series…a film biography that parallels the course of Stallone’s own life—the rise from obscurity (an early job was cleaning the lions’ cages in New York’s Central Park Zoo), his determination to make it to the top on his own terms (with only $106 in his bank account, he turned down an offer of $360,000 for his script of Rocky, stipulating that he had to play the lead himself), and ultimately winning the championship (Rocky I won the 1976 Best Picture Academy Award and has grossed an estimated $250 million). Rocky III, in which Rocky Balboa loses and then regains his championship, parallels what Stallone believes success did to him—depriving him of his competitive urge, what he calls “the eye of the tiger,” and removing him from a sense of personal identity.
“What happened to me,” Stallone explained, “happened to the Rocky of Rocky III: He became civilized. He lost that edge…the eye of the tiger.”
“How did this manifest itself in your own case?” I asked.
“I began to get scared,” Stallone said. “Suddenly I began worrying about losing the material gains that came with success. I worried that everything I’d done was a fraud…a fluke…that I could not live up to expectations. It began wrecking my life. I lost trust in other people’s judgment. I’d pick from the menu for my wife. I became totally authoritative. I didn’t trust filmmaking people, which was a professional mistake. I had to be the one who would decide what color socks the sparring partners would wear in Rocky III. What rescued me from the craziness of all this was the character of Rocky himself. When I began writing about his getting back ‘the eye of the tiger,’ I was really providing a therapy for myself. It is not only what has happened but what is happening to me that is paralleled in the Rocky films.”
I asked Stallone if he had ever returned to the more humble stations of his earlier career—which is a pivotal decision for the champion in Rocky III. For example, how long had it been since he had been on a subway?
Stallone grinned. “Just the other day I got on one to remind myself what it was like,” he replied. “I took the 59th Street BMT. I only went one stop because, being recognized, there was quite a lot of shoving, very friendly, with guys yelling, ‘Hey, my man, you’re Rock, my Rock! Come over here and kiss my sister!’ ”
“Would you miss that sort of thing if it didn’t happen?”
Stallone nodded. “Sure,” he said. “That’s the real wealth—it’s not the money but the communication.”
I asked if Stallone had ever felt trapped by his relationship with Rocky. He nodded and said that at one point he had gone almost frantically out of his way to show that he wasn’t Rocky Balboa. “I did everything I could to crack the mold of being Rocky. I tried being neurotic, glib; I had a white canvas suit made for me that was covered with flowers and I went on the Dinah Shore show where I was asked to sing My Way. I carried on like this until I was brought to my senses by a fan who came up, just incredulous, and asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ”
It turns out that Stallone’s reliance on alter egos is by no means restricted to such contemporary figures as Lee Canalito and Rocky Balboa. We got talking about reincarnation. He believes strongly enough in it to talk easily about his past lives. He announced, “I have a strong affinity with the wolf.”
I mentioned that I had noticed a wolf skin on the floor of his den in Pacific Palisades. “That’s not you, is it? I mean a past you?”
“No, I doubt that’s my skin,” Stallone said. “But I’m quite sure I lost my head in the French Revolution.”
“I’d been reading about the Jacobins [the political radicals of the French Revolution] and that period, and when somebody at a party said how awful it must be to be guillotined, I found myself saying, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t hurt. You don’t feel anything—except your head hit the basket…and that’s it.’ My friend said, ‘You’re ill, Stallone.’ Perhaps, but I truly felt I knew what I was talking about. Also, I have been something very Central American—a Guatemalan monkey, perhaps.”
I asked about the future—what Stallone would like to come back as in another reincarnation. With an odd combination of gravity and awe, almost as if he could hardly wait to get going on the project, he announced what I should surely have guessed. “Without question I’d want to be the heavyweight champion of the world. That is, if I had all my faculties. That’s why Lee is out there in Pacific Palisades. Lee can become what I can’t be—the heavyweight champion—at least in this lifetime.”
Stallone still trains with the intensity of a boxer. I’d heard that what free time he has he spends on the exercise machine beside his pool—15 hours a week.
“What do you think about straining away out there?” I asked.
“Mortality,” he said. “I think how the regimen is preserving me, and I enjoy the fantasy that I’m pushing back time and giving myself the opportunity to do what I want to do. I don’t mind getting old, but it’s not being able to attain my goals.”
“And these?” I asked.
A series of projects spilled out—among others, a film on the rock music world that would show something more of the genre than simple hip shaking; a “lost weekend” film about drug abuse; a comedy, a vehicle to give him the chance to try a “mature” characterization; and then his priority—a film with “tremendous spiritual overtones…a film perhaps about a preacher or an evangelist.” It was such a barrage of ideas that it was difficult to imagine Stallone ever getting to a third of them until one remembered that he had dictated the script for Rocky to Sasha in a spurt of 86 hours, shouting at his wife, “This is it! This is it!”
I realized then that it was almost a certainty that he would accomplish whatever he put his mind to. Even those reincarnations had to be reckoned with. It would be provident for anyone fighting for some far future heavyweight championship of the world to try, as a last resort, whispering in the ear of the opponent, “If that’s you in there, Sylvester Stallone, give me a break. Calm down, and come over here and kiss my sister!”