An Open Letter to My Holy Goal Guide on His Birthday: Sylvester Stallone 

By Carmen Schober

Dear Mr. Stallone, 

First off, let me just say that if you end up reading this and liking it, and I find out about it, I will probably cry and hyperventilate with happiness, and it’ll be very dramatic and unbecoming of a 24-year-old woman. But I probably won’t be able to do anything about it.

Still, even if you don’t read it, but the world finally understands how awesome you are, I could live with that, too.

Secondly, Happy Birthday! I hope you feel like a wise badass and spend some quality time with your very lovely family.

Anyway, you don’t know me. We’ve never met, and even though meeting you is on my bucket list like 14 times, the odds are unlikely since I’m not in show business, and I’m not an athlete (though I do kick ass in my garage, punching a dusty mattress, all Rocky style.) I’m just an aspiring writer/teacher, and I live in the middle of Kansas, in a cute town called Manhattan (kind of like Hope, Washington, only the people are a lot nicer.)

Still, even though we don’t know each other, I wanted to write you this letter on your birthday because 1) I can still remember the first time I watched Rocky, and (as the story goes) it changed my life, and 2) I wanted to set the record straight for people who may not fully understand why I admire you and your work so much.

When I tell people I’m a big fan of yours, a lot of them agree that you’re awesome, but then some of them say stupid stuff like, “Oh, he just plays himself all the time,”or “He’s just into shallow violence, not real acting.”  

When people say crap like this, I just assume they haven’t seen Oscar, or Coplad, or Paradise Alley, or the whole slew of other undeniably good/unusual movies you’ve worked on.

I also assume that they don’t know that you’ve written more than a dozen screenplays, directed critically acclaimed movies, and are on the same professional level as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. NBD, right?

And then I also assume that by “he always plays himself” they’re talking about Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa, and with “he’s into shallow violence,” they’re referring to John Rambo – undoubtedly your two most popular character portrayals.

But considering that those two are literally opposite characters representing opposite worldviews, and you play the hell out of both of them – well, that pretty much proves that your haters really don’t know what they’re talking about, because 1) you don’t always play yourself – you’ve played complete opposites, and 2) you are far from a “shallow” actor (anybody with a brain or at least a heart knows that Rocky and Rambo are anything but shallow characters.)

But I’ll finish off the haters later. First—

I’ve seen almost every movie you’ve ever been in/worked on/wrote (some are way better than others, sure, but you’ve been in A LOT of movies – I think you’re allowed to have some bad ones. Your great ones make up for it.) I’ve also seen most of your interviews. (I’m not a stalker, I swear – just a Pisces. I like learning as much as I can about the stuff I’m inspired by.)

Anyway, I know from your interviews that you have a really interesting love-hate relationship with your character Rocky Balboa.

It’s clear that you love him. You love the story of a modern day gladiator, a real life warrior, and writing his story, directing the movie and performing it – being Rocky – was your first big shot, your chance the to go the distance, and you did it. That’s hella cool and very meta. Creator and creation, your different stories working in tandem to inspire people – people who might otherwise feel like bums from the neighborhood – to fight the good fight and do something great. Pretty epic.

Before I watched Rocky, I was quitter. I quit everything that was hard, and, worst of all, I’d gotten to a point in my life (at only 12 years old) of thinking I couldn’t win. At anything. (Probably thanks to a combination of elementary school bullies and general childhood angst.) I’d developed this weird, destructive mindset that some people are just special, some people are just lucky, and some people get breaks and some people don’t no matter how hard they try or how much they want it, and I believed that I was one of the unlucky ones, so I should go ahead and quit – because quitting stung a little less than failing.

And then I watched Rocky.

And it’s been my favorite movie ever since.

This past Valentine’s Day my husband surprised me with nachos and Rocky (the perfect way to celebrate falling in love, in my opinion), and we watched the film on a pile of pillows in our basement. I hadn’t re-watched it in years.

It was more beautiful than the first time, 12 years later, and I went to bed restless, inspired, melancholic, and happy. Every time I watch it, I feel changed – like I’m in the process of some kind of transformation. It’s an incredible feeling, and it doesn’t happen all that often via popular books and movies. There aren’t many artists that tell such a good story and manage to tell it so well.

And then at the Golden Globes you called Rocky “the best imaginary friend you ever had,” and that was possibly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard a writer say about one of their characters.

But, on the flip-side, you’ve also said (more than once) that one of the hardest parts of your career was people thinking that you are Rocky. Or, in your own words*, that you should just “stay down, stay in the corner, stay lucky” – and not ask for certain privileges or acknowledgements for your INCREDIBLE work.

People want to think that you – Sylvester Stallone – are Rocky Balboa.

And you’re not.

That’s got to be frustrating. I mean, you created this stunningly real character (hard to do), wrote one of the most inspiring stories ever written (about a guy who loses! – also hard to do), and everyone wants to make his story your story and this character – this creation of your imagination – your actual identity. That you’re just this lucky, dumb, lovable guy with nice muscles.

But, like I said – you are not Rocky Balboa. The similarities are there, sure, but the differences are striking. And important. The most notable:

Rocky comes across as dumb. He is beautifully, gracefully, lovably, artfully dumb. Or maybe “simple” is a better word (not shallow, though…a person can be simple and deep at the same time.) He’s wholly good-natured, and he has a total of two passions. Adrian and fighting. That’s it. Boom. Done. He loves Baby Rocky, too, but not in the all-encompassing way he loves the other two. He also loves Paulie too, but, again, that friendship doesn’t come close to touching the furious intensity of his two primary pursuits: the girl, and the game. It makes for a very good, very clear, easy-to-follow narrative, just pointing back to your mad storytelling skillz.

But what it also means is that Rocky definitely isn’t you – because you are not simple. You are far from simple. And you are far from dumb.

Sure, your voice is really deep and your mouth slants to one side, but if people actually considered your body of work and listened to what you have say – about Greek morality plays, about art, about time, about age, about story-telling, about violence and love and perseverance – then they’d get that you are incredibly intelligent. They’d have to admit that you’re smarter than most of us.

And, sorry, but one person cannot sustain so much tumultuous art and love and disappointment and victory over a 40-year career span without being a very complex, complicated individual. The ups and downs of your career, and your relentless pursuit of art and fame and action speak to your complexity.

But here’s why I think people get you and Rock mixed up:

You’re both good. (He’s good, and you generally play the good guy, the hero, the noble character. And you seem like a good guy.)
You’re both strong. (You can both bench press a lot emotionally and physically.)
You’re both underdogs. (You both had to overcome some significant odds to rise to the top.)
You both never give up. (The Rocky story is 40 years old and still very much alive. You’re 70 years old and still very much a force of will.)
The similarities are there, yes – but you’re not Rocky. You’re you.

Anybody who says you’re not smart has never listened to what you have to say. And anybody who wants to think you’re simple and shallow has clearly never tried to make and sustain art over a lifetime and tell the truth about what’s inside them. (And they probably wouldn’t know real art if it punched them in the heart, Dolph Lundgreen style.) And anybody who says you always play yourself doesn’t know the beauty of good story-telling and good acting – that it’s true and not true at the same time. And they don’t know just how much skill it takes to create something so real that it’s hard untangle the imagined from reality. And they’re also missing a very important point – that you are acting. You’re being Rocky, Rocky isn’t being you, and you’re doing a damn brilliant job of it.

Which brings me to—

The Oscars.

I’ll be honest and be say that I was pretty upset (like almost-flip-a-table upset) when you didn’t get the Oscar for Creed. Recap: you’ve played America’s favorite underdog for 40 years (40 YEARS!), and you’ve played him like a true professional – so close to your heart we confused your heartbeat for his…and you lost? *here’s where I almost flip a table*

(Who are you, Mark Ryland? And what the hell is Bridge of Spies?)

I was mad about it for a day and a half, but then I realized – it really doesn’t matter much, does it?

I mean, really, what’s a little shiny statue mean when you hold it up against a stunning, life-spanning, game-changing, awe-inspiring career as artist, writer, actor, icon, and auteur?

Not much.

You didn’t need it anyway. You bet ‘em all with heart a long time ago, and you’ll do it again today, and tomorrow, and beyond.

All of that’s to say – Happy Birthday, Mr. Stallone.

I’m happy you created Rocky Balboa. He’s been one of my best imaginary friends for a very long time.

And I’m happy that you’re you. You’ve inspired me to tell the best stories I can and to always keep punching.

Here’s to you.

Yours in the fight,

Carmen Schober


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