Sylvester Stallone’s First Oscar Nomination Came 40 Years Ago — For Screenwriting

Sylvester Stallone has never won an Oscar. On Sunday night, he’ll get another shot, for his supporting turn as Rocky Balboa in Creed. It is Stallone’s third Academy Award nomination, but only his second for acting. In 1977, he was honored for penning the script for his iconic film, Rocky.

Back in 1976, the New York Times reported that Stallone was only a year on from being nearly penniless with a small family struggling to pay the rent. He wrote the script for Rocky in three-and-a-half days and sold it to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Despite his desperate circumstances, he put a condition on the sale: that he be cast in the starring role.

Forty years later, Rocky Balboa remains Stallone’s best-known and most celebrated character. In addition to his screenwriting nod at the 1977 Oscars, Stallone was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Rocky won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing.

This year, the only nomination for Creed is Stallone’s. The physically-intimidating actor, who became best known to audiences in later years for muscle-men roles, won the Golden Globe in January for his performance as an aging Balboa. As Vanity Fair reported, he spoke well of the character who has become his signature.

“I want to thank my imaginary friend Rocky Balboa for being the best friend I ever had.”

Stallone forgot to thank many of the filmmakers behind Creed at the Golden Globes, but Vanity Fair reported he took the stage at the commercial break to recognize those whose names had escaped him.

Director and cast of 'Creed'
'Creed' is the first of the 'Rocky' films that Sylvester Stallone has neither written or directed. He appeared with 'Creed' director Ryan Coogler and co-star Michael B. Jordan in April, 2015. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

When Creed was released, Variety writer Kristopher Tapley immediately identified Stallone as an Oscar contender. He said this outing, Sly’s seventh as Rocky Balboa, is his most compelling. He compared the appearance of Stallone in a Rocky installment to Harrison Ford’s return to Star Wars, as both are ’70s icons coming back to the screen. But with Stallone, Tapley argued, there is one difference.

“[I]t’s not for a stunt or a misguided spin-off cash-in. It’s a complex portrait, one that feeds the journey of the film’s main character rather than steal his spotlight.”

Sylvester Stallone as 'Rocky'
Rocky Balboa is Sylvester Stallone's best known character. (Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images)

Vanity Fair’s review of Creed made a similar point, praising the care Stallone took with the role and his engagement with fellow actor Michael B. Jordan. Jordan plays Adonis, the son of Rocky’s late foe, Apollo Creed.

“The role is written as a victory lap, but Stallone brings much more to it; it’s clear how much this character still means to him, but also how generous he is as a performer in support of Jordan.”

The Telegraph wrote that Creed follows the reliable Rocky formula — and that Stallone’s performance perhaps benefited from his lack of behind-the-scenes involvement. Stallone neither wrote, nor directed Creed — a first for the Rocky series. Telegraph critic Tim Robey said “[Stallone’s] actor-for-hire status translates into a compelling lack of vanity on screen.”

Stallone is appreciative of the accolades. The Hamilton Spectator quoted Stallone, now 69, as saying he is basking in the recent praise.

“This is a really special moment in my life because there are not that many moments left. You know they are really getting very special.”

Despite this sentiment, he admitted on an ABC News Oscar special he did not want to do Creed at first, because of the character’s frailty. The Telegraph described Rocky Balboa’s function as akin to Burgess Meredith in the first few Rocky films, sitting on the sidelines.

“I never wanted to do this movie. I thought sick Rocky is exactly what is so counter-intuitive to what the optimistic aspect of what Rocky really is designed for.”

But Stallone’s acting sensibilities and devotion to the craft eventually changed his mind.

“If you’re afraid of something, that’s the commitment of the artist. That’s his duty to pursue the unknown, to go someplace where he’s literally at odds with himself.”

The 2016 Academy Awards air Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT on ABC.

[Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images]