Here on Planet Hollywood, where action stars grow old but never say die, Sylvester Stallone is the last ‘80s hero standing. It has been three years since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most recent big onscreen outing. Bruce Willis’s health troubles are now sadly well-documented. But Stallone is just as busy as ever – and not in the bargain-bin safety-net way that has become a refuge for so many of his contemporaries and imitators.
The triple threat – audiences tend to forget that Stallone is just as accomplished a writer and director as he is an actor – is still balancing three active theatrical franchises (The Expendables, Rambo and Rocky/Creed, though that last one is a little tricky), has a strong foothold in two separate superhero universes (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and DC’s The Suicide Squad), and boasts a streaming movie topping the charts (Prime Video’s Samaritan). But now the actor – whose films have collectively grossed more than US$3-billion and have ensured that the star has topped the box office across six consecutive decades – is going to try something completely different: television.
This Sunday, Stallone’s first-ever series, Tulsa King, makes its premiere on Paramount+, just as the nascent streamer expands its programming in Canada. Created by television’s new empire builder Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone) and run by prestige-cable mainstay Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), Tulsa King casts Stallone in a role that the Italian Stallion has long coveted, but somehow never landed: an old-school mafioso.
“Why did it take so long? I can beat all these guys up, so why not cast me, Marty?” Stallone says with a laugh during an interview this week in Toronto, referring to industry giant Martin Scorsese. “I’ve tried, but the gangsters that were presented to me in the past were truly thuggish characters that I didn’t like. I need some personality, not the cliched dead-eyed guy. Let me make this one accessible, clever.”
The other twist in Tulsa King is that Stallone’s gangster Dwight Manfredi isn’t running around New York or Las Vegas causing mayhem – he’s set up in Oklahoma, a “gift” of untouched criminal territory for the bruiser who served 25 years in prison to cover for his mob boss. It is a classic fish-out-of-water tale – if the fish had a fierce right hook and the magnetic presence to woo women half his age into bed, as one scene in the series premiere illustrates with a healthy dose of “this guy is 76 years old???” incredulity.
“Ah yes, the ‘age canyon.’ That was in the original concept with Taylor but then we amplified it,” Stallone says, adding that, as is typical for his process, he helped polish Tulsa King’s dialogue. “I know what works for my speech pattern,” he says. So he told the creators: “Just let me write it for myself. We keep the integrity of what Dwight is saying, the innuendos, but it’s just in my words.”
Tulsa King isn’t simply an easy way for Stallone to show that he still has the muscles to beat guys to a pulp and the sex appeal to draw in co-stars like Andrea Savage. Filming 10 episodes in a row was serious work – perhaps the hardest of Stallone’s career, in which he’s been bruised and battered to the point that he’s had five operations on his back, plus undergone work on his neck, shoulders, fists.
“Filming the show is equivalent to doing five sequels in a row, Rocky one through five non-stop. It beats you up, so I now have great compassion for people doing their ninth season of something,” Stallone says. “Is the pleasure worth the pain? There’s also the isolation. How long have I been acting? After 46 or 47 years, I’ve spent at least 15 away from home.”
The toll on his personal life isn’t hard to hide – in August, Stallone’s wife, Jennifer Flavin, filed for divorce after more than two decades of marriage. But about a month later the pair reconciled, and during Stallone’s press stop in Toronto, there Flavin was, whispering with the star between interviews and kissing his hand tenderly as he cycled between junket obligations.
Is the actor, then, in the midst of a rebuilding and recalibrating stage in his life and career? Look closely and there are signs that Stallone is thinking about his future, and his legacy, more closely than before.
He appears ready to wrap up The Expendables series after the fourth instalment comes out next year (“I think Jason Statham should carry that torch. I don’t know how much more I can do there except break another bone”), has a Rambo prequel series in development, plus a Paramount+ reality series following him, Flavin and their three daughters (making Stallone arguably the biggest star to ever lead a reality series). He also seems done with Rocky – at least for now, given that he won’t be appearing in the upcoming Creed III (“It was taken in a direction that is quite different than I would’ve taken it,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter), and in a now-deleted Instagram post this past July slammed Rocky producer Irwin Winkler for denying him “at least a little WHAT’s LEFT of my RIGHTS back” to the character that he created.
Meanwhile, a cultural reassessment of Stallone seems to be taking place, too – comic-book king James Gunn went out of his way to cast the actor in his Marvel and DC films, while Quentin Tarantino devotes an entire chapter to Stallone’s brilliance in his new book of essays, Cinema Speculation.
“Ah, I’ve heard about that! Can you imagine? I’ve never told this story, but we were at Caffe Roma in Beverly Hills when I was editing Rocky Balboa, and I had trouble with this one scene,” Stallone recalls. “So Quentin took a turn editing it, and Robert Rodriguez edited it, and I edited it. Quentin brings his cut on a master, smooth. Robert’s cut is boom, slash, boom! And then there’s my style. I learned from that point on that editing is so intrinsic to the success of a film, and the truest reflection of a filmmaker. You want to tell me about a personality? Show me the way a man edits his film, and I’ll tell you about that director.”
As for Stallone’s thoughts on today’s action stars, or lack thereof?
“I just had a long conversation with a person over at Amazon about this, because after they saw Samaritan, they asked, what’s the future? I’m a purist for action films – I’m talking about the singular guy, the high plains drifter, the Charles Bronson, the Dirty Harry type. The kind of action movie that is grounded in a cinematic reality that can hook you emotionally. I can’t relate to people who can hit the Earth and it splits in half,” he says. “That’s not an action film. That’s Joseph Campbell on steroids, mythology at its best. So we’re talking about going into business, trying to do a revival of those ‘70s and ‘80s kind of movies.”
So, Hollywood isn’t ready to kill Sylvester Stallone yet. And he certainly isn’t ready to say die.
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