By Lois Armstrong
Updated December 13, 1976 12:00 PM
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Without waiting for Kong to thump his kingly chest, Hollywood has already gone ape over another noble savage. He’s Sylvester Stallone, writer-star of Rocky, the new movie about a deadend club fighter who miraculously lands a heavyweight title bout. Shot on a zilch $1 million budget with a no-name cast and an unfashionably upbeat ending, Rocky nevertheless stirred such excited up-front word-of-mouth that in blasé L.A., 1,600 industry types tried to jam a preview theater seating 1,100. At its world premiere engagement two weeks ago in Manhattan, Rocky broke the house record and got just about universal gaga notices except from the New York Times critic, who perhaps peevishly felt compelled to bend his lance against the avalanche.

As a result, United Artists has sped the national distribution ahead to January, and Stallone (rhymes with unknown) is being talked up for an unprecedented Oscar parlay (Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay) for what happens to be his first real lead and first produced script. Sly, as Sylvester is called, is 30.

A self-described street tough turned “journeyman actor,” Stallone recalls that the Rocky scenario played in his head for nearly a year before it steamed onto paper in three fevered days and nights. Bidding for the finished work started at $100,000—and as Jimmy Caan, Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal all reportedly weighed in, it soared to $285,000. But though Stallone’s wife, Sasha, was pregnant and their savings account down to $106, he exercised his author’s veto: he alone would play Rocky. It seemed foolish, irresponsible. Sly explains, “If you’ve never seen that kind of money, you don’t miss it.” Co-producer Irwin Winkler’s first reaction, laughs Stallone, was to “tell me, ‘Kid, why don’t you take up skydiving without a parachute?’ ” Sly prevailed, though he had to sign a contract full of “out” clauses in case he flopped. He earned a paltry $23,000 for script and acting combined. “My whole life was on the line,” he now admits, but his reward for the gamble is 10 percent of the net of the picture, which United Artists figures will gross $40 million.

Like Rocky’s fairy-tale treatment, Sly accentuates the positive and, in fact, attributes its box office appeal to a backlash against the run of pictures with “no heroes, no human decency. This is the year,” he says, “of the maniacal director who puts his demons up there and we have to pay $3 to see what’s given him ulcers.” Rocky is a fable of curing ulcers with the milk of human kindness and courage. “I felt the way Rocky does when I was cutting off fish heads in a deli or cleaning lions’ cages in a zoo,” Sly elaborates. “It’s really my story set in a much more commercially acceptable format.”

Which is not to deny the showbiz quality of Stallone’s youth, which segued from seedy Hell’s Kitchen in New York to the Maryland suburbs to Philadelphia’s meanest streets. When not farmed out to a foster parent, he was raised by a mother he describes as half-French, “half-Martian—she lives in fantasy,” who was variously a Billy Rose chorine and a professional astrologer and always “a university of the bizarre.” His Italian dad, owner of a beauty parlor chain, was, by contrast, “a brutal realist,” though Sly concedes to being a child who begged for abuse—he claims to have once swatted flies on the hood of his pop’s brand-new Caddy with a lead pipe. By 16 Sly, a “cerebral tortoise,” had been ejected from a dozen schools, including one “for exceptional deviates,” and had gone “absolutely nutso” in a beauty school. “After 300 hours of pin-curls my hands were stiff with lotion, but I grabbed a razor and scalped a row of mannequin heads.”

His mellowing began at 18, when he was hired by a Swiss boarding school for girls as a gym teacher and dorm bouncer (an experience he still smirks over). There, at least, he found his vocation, acting in Death of a Salesman. After studying drama at the University of Miami, he finally fetched up back in New York with bit parts in the film Bananas and Off-Broadway’s raunchy nudie musical Score but still had to support himself as a $37-a-week movie house usher. Before he was canned (for trying to scalp a ticket to the theater’s owner), he met usherette Sasha Szack. The first time “she took a look,” Sly grins, “it was as if I had lice crawling all over me.”

Yet she soon moved in, and now after five years together, the last two married, Stallone notes they are absolute soulmates (“The only difference between us is the obvious physical apparatus”). It was at that time that Sly began writing because “I was losing my grasp on reality—I wasn’t allowed to act, so I wrote my own psychodramas and eventually refined them into workable screenplays.” Sasha waited tables by day and typed his masterwork at night. Stallone sold several TV treatments and acted in that drive-in dreadful, The Lords of Flatbush. But eventually, in 1974, feeling “professionally extinct, finished, frozen” in New York, Sly, Sasha and their 145-pound bull mastiff, Butkus (the one seen in Rocky), headed for Hollywood.

“I haven’t made it to the Elysian Fields yet,” Stallone maintains. The family rents its $250-a-month apartment in Hollywood even though last May they added son Sage Moonblood Stallone, who was “totally planned astrologically” and, claims Sasha, born “on the day and hour I wanted him.” Sly still exercises diligently to maintain his 5’10”, 180-pound shape and beds down before 10. “I want to have a classy chassis,” he says. He shuns tobacco, alcohol and red meats because “you wouldn’t put sand in your gas tank, so why put bacon, candy and junk in your body?” He also paints (primal oils) and reads tomes on criminology and American lit from the Puritan period.

One of Stallone’s inconsistencies is that he sermonizes against violence on the screen but seems to advocate it in life. With a vigilante sense of justice, he favors “an eye for an eye” (immediate death or castration for crimes like child molestation and rape) and cautionary “public executions on TV at 11:30 Sunday night.” A gun rack hangs by his apartment door, but the only offenders he has plugged are his own paintings. “I take the worst out to the rifle range and shoot them up.”

That foible aside, he reports, “I’ve turned in my street-corner membership, and I’m scrubbing the soot off my image.” He has scripted and wants to star in a biography of Edgar Allan Poe and now bills himself as a writer who can act, rather than vice versa. “The superstars have kind of like had it,” he says brashly. “I look at a Redford or a Hoffman—if they were writers, I’m sure they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. A lot of actors put a great deal of faith in a movie, and then they screen it and want to go out into the alley and throw up.” That, he says, “must be like impregnating your wife and coming back nine months later to see that she’s given birth to a troll.”

Ignoring that braggadocio, Sly’s head is basically and healthily aloof from Fat City or Hollywood. “You know what a star is?” he asks, stealing a line from Rocky co-star Talia Shire. “It’s a big ball of gas.” Sly adds coolly: “Now I’m surrounded by agents, producers, everybody looking for a piece of Stallone. My answer is, ‘I’ve been here all the time—where were you?’ ”