Sylvester Stallone's Meteoric Rise to Action Star Icon

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The Ultimate Underdog

Sylvester Stallone

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Fifty-five and counting. That’s the number of films in which Sylvester “Sly” Stallone has appeared throughout his illustrious cinematic career. And there’s no sign he’s slowing down after four decades on the big screen. His newest film, Escape Plan 2, a sequel to the 2013 action thriller Escape Plan is due to premier in 2018.

A 40-plus-year career is impressive in its own right, but even more so in Stallone’s case. Much like Rocky Balboa, the character he created in his breakout 1976 film Rocky, Stallone has defied the odds, rising from obscurity to becoming one of the world’s biggest movie stars and box office draws.

But Stallone’s credentials extend beyond his screen presence. He’s not only a director, producer, and screenwriter (he wrote the script for Rocky in three days), but also a painter, novelist, art collector, and business entrepreneur.

However, it’s Sly’s body of work on film that has made him so adored and admired by countless fans across the globe. Here are just a few of the memorable movies Stallone has starred in throughout his illustrious career.

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The Lords of Flatbush: 1974

Lords of Flatbush

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Stallone teamed up with the little-known Henry Winkler in the 1974 film The Lords of Flatbush, playing the role of a young tough involved in a street gang called the Lords. Who knew then that within the next two years both Winkler and Stallone would shoot to stardom, Winkler for his role as “The Fonz” on the hit TV show Happy Days, and Stallone, of course, as the working man’s hero in Rocky. It was at this time that he married his first wife, Sasha Czak.

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Rocky: 1976

Sylvester Stallone

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Stallone’s break out year—the year he achieved worldwide fame for playing the part of underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in the blockbuster hit Rocky. Not only did he star in it, he wrote the entire script in only three days. To date, Rocky has grossed $1.4 billion dollars worldwide, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Stallone while the movie took home the Oscars for Best Movie, Best Director, and Best Editing.

Pretty impressive for a movie that almost never happened. The United Artists movie studio balked at Stallone’s insistence that he star in the movie, because at the time he was an unknown in the entertainment industry. But the film’s producers worked out an agreement with the studio, and Stallone got the lead role, and the rest is cinematic history.

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Paradise Alley: 1978

Sylvester Stallone in Paradise Alley

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On the heels of Rocky’s success, Stallone made his directorial debut with the 1978 sports-drama Paradise Alley—about three brothers who enter the world of wrestling in 1940’s New York. Though released two years after Rocky, Stallone wrote the story as a novel, and then a screenplay before he wrote Rocky.

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Rocky II: 1979

Scene from Rocky II

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It was inevitable. With the smash success of Rocky, it was only a matter of time for a sequel to hit the big screen. Rocky II not only starred Stallone but he wrote and directed the film, which grossed more than $200 million dollars. In a classic example of art imitating life, recently retired ESPN sportscaster Brent Musberger played the role of boxing ring commentator.

That same year, Stallone became the father of a second son, Sergeoh, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. To bring awareness to this condition, Stallone has raised about $1 million dollars to support the National Society for the Children with Autism.

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Nighthawks: 1981

Sylvester Stallone in Nighthawks

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Stallone is Deke DaSilva, a New York City police officer assigned to tracking and taking down an international terrorist played by Rutger Hauer in the cop thriller Nighthawks. Noted not only for its extensive use of New York City streets and landmarks, and memorable highjack scene, Nighthawks marks the first (but not last) film in which Stallone plays a cop. As for the movie’s title, it’s a reference to the NYC Crime Unit cops who patrol the city overnight.

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First Blood: 1982

First Blood movie

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Stallone was on a roll. On the backs of its two predecessors, Rocky III hit theatres in May and went on to surpass the box office receipts of Rocky II, raking in a whopping $270 million dollars worldwide. But Stallone wasn’t done. October introduced John J. Rambo to movie goers, a former Vietnam veteran fighting for his survival, in the blockbuster hit First Blood, based on the novel by David Morell.

Playing the role of Rambo, Stallone went on to reprise the character in two sequels that have since become cult classics. And the name Rambo? Hard to believe that a character so synonymous with raw, brute power is actually named after a variety of the humble apple.

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Rhinestone: 1984

Sylvester Stallone movie Rhinestone

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Stallone the comic? Strange but true. Eager to showcase his comedic talents, Stallone starred alongside Dolly Parton in the 1984 comedy Rhinestone, in which he plays an unpleasant New York cab driver who is selected to be groomed (by Parton) as a down-home country music singer. Drubbed by the critics, Stallone himself admitted in an interview that if there were any movies he wished he hadn’t done, this would be one of them.

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Rambo: First Blood II: 1985

First Blood: Part 2

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Another busy year for Sly, on and off the screen. The legacy of Rocky and Rambo continued in 1985 with the release of Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The same year, he married his second wife, model and actress Brigitte Nielsen.

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Rocky V: 1990

Sylvester Stallone

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Rocky V debuts, and while it was met with mediocre sales and reviews, it was significant for the acting debut of his 14-year-old real-life son, Sage, who played Rocky Balboa Jr.—his on-screen son. Sage Stallone went on to become a filmmaker in his own right, before he died suddenly of heart disease in 2012.

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Cliffhanger: 1993


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After taking a couple more unsuccessful stabs at comedic roles in the early ’90s, Stallone makes his cinematic comeback doing what he does best, playing tough-guy action heroes, like the one in Cliffhanger. As Gabe Walker, an experienced mountain climber, Stallone goes back to the scene of his previously botched rescue attempt to save another group of climbers only to become entangled with a band of criminals who’ve hijacked a U.S. Treasury plane.

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Antz: 1998

Antz the movie

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With so many hits already under his belt, where does the action hero icon go next to showcase his talents? How about a voice-over role in the hugely successful computer-animated adventure-comedy film, Antz? Joining a star-studded Hollywood cast, Stallone’s vocal characterization of working-stiff ant Weaver, helps catapult the insect flick to silver screen success, scoring $171 million at the box office. 

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Rocky Balboa: 2006

Sylvester Stallone is Rocky Balboa

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Thirty years after Rocky hit the screen, and three years after a hiatus from filmmaking, Stallone roars back with Rocky Balboa, the sixth chapter of his Rocky series. The show was a hit both with the critics and his fans, pulling in $155 million in worldwide ticket sales, and exceeding studio expectations. Stallone said the film mirrored his own struggles and successes over the last few years. “Things really started to slow down for me about 10 years ago,” he said. “That is why I wanted to write this film.”

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The Expendables: 2010

Sylvester Stallone Expendables

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$34,825,135. The highest opening-weekend box office receipt in Stallone’s career. That’s the smash success story of Stallone’s newest franchise, The Expendables. Paying tribute to the action thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s, and bringing together some of the biggest action stars in Hollywood, The Expendables follows a group of elite mercenaries hell bent on overthrowing a Latin American dictator, whom they later realize is the puppet of a CIA operative. With staggering worldwide ticket sales of $274 million, it was a no-brainer that two more sequels would follow.

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Expendables 2 & 3: 2012-2014

Sylvester Stallone standing in front of Expendables 3 poster

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Reuniting the cast of the original blockbuster, Expendables 2 continues to follow the deadly tracks of a band of mercenaries as they undertake a new mission which ultimately turns into a battle with a rival mercenary threatening world destruction. Grossing sales of $310 million worldwide, the movie is followed by a third sequel, Expendables 3 in 2014.

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Creed: 2015

Actors Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in movie Creed

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Nov. 25, 2015, the 40th anniversary of the 1976 release of the original Rocky, marked the premier of Creed—the seventh installment of the Rocky franchise. For his role as the trainer of the son of his old boxing rival, Apollo, Stallone received widespread praise by critics, and the film garnered Stallone a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor and a third Academy Award nomination, this time as Best Supporting Actor, his first Oscar nod since the original Rocky.

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Creed 2: 2018

Sylvester Stallone in ring prior to heavyweight boxing world championship fight


“Looking forward to directing and Producing The incredibly talented Michael B Jordan in CREED 2 next year. “One more round,”” states Stallone on his Instagram account. And as a throwback to his earlier Rocky films, the multi-talented actor with the muscular physique will be directing this one himself.

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