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My Hero, Sly Stallone – The Atlantic

My Hero, Sly Stallone – The Atlantic

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Like millions of other Americans, I enjoy many of Sylvester Stallone’s movies. But in recent years, I’ve come to think that Sly might have also been teaching me something.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic.

Self-Deprecating and Graceful

My best friend growing up was the Italian Stallion. No, not that one—not Sylvester Stallone’s fictional boxer from Philadelphia, but an actual Italian. My pal Silvio emigrated from Italy and lived around the corner from me. When Rocky delivered a haymaker to the theaters in 1976, there was no way we weren’t going to see it, and throughout high school, if I heard someone in the hallway yell, “Yo, Stallion,” I knew my buddy was around somewhere.

But while watching Stallone in his 2022 Paramount+ series, Tulsa King, I realized that for some years, I’ve been thinking of the original Italian Stallion as my pal too—especially as we both get older.

I have to confess that in my youth, I wasn’t a huge Stallone fan. I saw Rocky in the theater when I was a freshman in high school, and then Rocky II (which was just … okay) the summer I graduated. Rocky III, in my view, is a lightweight cartoon. The final 1990 cash-in, Rocky V, is practically unwatchable.

Ah, but before that series-ending clunker, we had 1985’s Rocky IV, a gloriously cheesy Cold War parable. It’s not a great film, but it was the highest-grossing title in the series. (As a recent look back in Polygon put it, “It’s no one’s favorite Rocky movie, but no one in the history of the world has ever started watching it and turned it off.”) I saw it alone in a small theater in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and, as a budding Soviet expert, I loved seeing the Stallion whomp the bejeebers out of that Soviet creep Ivan Drago, the steroid-filled Commie golem who killed Rocky’s enemy turned friend and mentor, Apollo Creed, in the ring.

But despite Rocky IV, I was more a fan of Stallone’s then-nemesis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, not least because I just couldn’t get into Stallone’s Rambo fantasies. In 1993, however, Stallone starred in Demolition Man, playing a cop named John Spartan who screws up and is put in cryogenic storage for his crimes. He is then thawed out in 2032 and thrust into an insufferably politically correct and insipid Southern California to fight Simon Phoenix, a criminal from his own time.

In Demolition Man, Stallone lampooned every stereotype about 20th-century tough guys—including himself. I was in my early 30s, and every time Stallone (who was at that point in his late 40s but looked 10 years younger) sighed and rolled his eyes and explained to his clueless sidekick how to swear (she didn’t get that it’s kick his ass, not lick his ass), or when he was flummoxed by the “Three Seashells” that 2032 Californians use instead of wasteful toilet paper, I felt like I was seeing myself in the near future.

Stallone later made some forgettable films, but I always thought the critics were too hard on him. (Fine, look, I liked Judge Dredd, okay?) And I felt like he was willing to contend with age, just like the rest of us, especially in 1997, when he gained almost 40 pounds at 50 years old to play a sad-sack New Jersey sheriff in the underappreciated crime drama Cop Land.

But I didn’t really admire Stallone until he returned in 2006 to his greatest character, in Rocky Balboa, a coda to his earlier Rocky movies. This time, Rocky is old, nearly broke, nostalgic, and even somewhat pathetic. He owns a joint in Philly, where he goes from table to table mugging for pictures; the rest of the time, he’s utterly absorbed by grief over the loss of his beloved wife, Adrian, who died years earlier. His sadness is so suffocating that even Adrian’s brother Paulie finally walks away. “Sorry, Rocko,” he finally says to his brother-in-law. “I can’t do this no more.”

I was in my 40s when Rocky Balboa came out; Stallone was 60, and for once, the usually buff actor looked it. His nostalgia became mine. Rocky Balboa is an almost elegiac movie that ends (as all Rocky movies must) with personal redemption. During the end credits, real people reenact Rocky’s original iconic training run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and maybe it was just dusty in the theater, but I had something in my eyes that required dabbing at some tears.

I respected Stallone for giving Rocky a graceful exit. (When the character returned in Creed, it seemed natural and unforced.) The mournfulness of Rocky Balboa stayed with me for years, however, especially as I lost people I cared about and middle age became later middle age. Stallone returned to fighting form in the Expendables series, but by then, we were all in on the joke that he and Arnold and Bruce Willis were too hilariously old for this stuff.

And then I watched Tulsa King, in which Stallone plays Dwight Manfredi, a Mafia capo exiled from New York to Oklahoma after a 25-year stretch in prison (where he valiantly kept his mouth shut to protect his bosses). Tulsa King has been renewed for a second season, so I don’t want to say too much and ruin some of the twists, but Stallone, at the time 75, plays a 75-year-old gangster with grace, laugh-out-loud humor, and credible physical menace.

Manfredi survives prison in good shape, and when he has to make a new life—of crime, naturally—in Tulsa, he goes to work. But he’s no Superman or Terminator; he’s old, and he knows it. Soon, he assembles a ragtag crew, and that’s all I can say without spoiling the fun.

Okay, I’ll spoil one moment. Manfredi picks up a handsome 40-something woman in a bar and takes her to his hotel room. We are spared any graphic scenes, but afterwards, he apologizes for being a bit out of practice in the sack. The woman finally gets around to asking his age, and when he tells her, she freaks out, gathers her clothes, and flees. (She’d guessed him to be a “hard 55,” not 75. I wish someone would mistake me for a “hard 55.”) Manfredi takes the news with equanimity in a great scene that is both funny and wince-inducing.

Tulsa King has plenty of violence, but it’s only incidentally a crime story. It’s about a lot of other things, including aging, time, family, fatherhood, loyalty, and what it means to be a man. As in Rocky Balboa, Stallone treats his character—and the problem of aging—with self-deprecation and respect.

I was 18 when Rocky finally beat Creed, 24 when he floored Drago, 33 when Spartan demolished Phoenix, and 46 when Rocky finally retired once and for all. But watching Tulsa King at 62, I wished—for the first time—that I could be Stallone. Thanks, Sly. I miss Silvio, but I’m glad to be hanging out with the original Stallion as we both take a shot at aging gracefully.


Today’s News

  1. According to a report unsealed today, a special grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, that helped investigate election interference allegations in the state recommended charges against more than three dozen people; Lindsey Graham, David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and Michael Flynn were among those not ultimately charged.
  2. Hurricane Lee, now a Category 4 storm, is expected to cause dangerous surf conditions in parts of the Caribbean and most of the U.S. East Coast, although it does not currently threaten any land.
  3. A major United Nations report assessing the world’s climate efforts warned that there is a “rapidly closing window” for securing a liveable future on Earth.


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Evening Read

Illustration of Josiah Henson
Illustration by Matt Williams

The Man Who Became Uncle Tom

By Clint Smith

“Among all the singular and interesting records to which the institution of American slavery has given rise,” Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote, “we know of none more striking, more characteristic and instructive, than that of JOSIAH HENSON.”

Stowe first wrote about Henson’s 1849 autobiography in her 1853 book A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an annotated bibliography of sorts in which she cited a number of nonfiction accounts she had used as source material for her best-selling novel. Stowe later said that Henson’s narrative had served as an inspiration for Uncle Tom.

Proslavery newspaper columnists and southern planters had responded to the huge success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by accusing Stowe of hyperbole and outright falsehood. Benevolent masters, they said, took great care of the enslaved people who worked for them; in some cases, they treated them like family. The violent, inhumane conditions Stowe described, they contended, were fictitious. By naming her sources, and outlining how they had influenced her story, Stowe hoped to prove that her novel was rooted in fact.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Olivia Rodrigo
Kevin Mazur / Getty

Read. Red Comet, a 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, provides a nearly day-by-day account of Plath’s activities—and somehow, it’s riveting.

Listen. Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album, Guts (out today), is less an evolution of Rodrigo’s sound than a persuasive fortification.

Play our daily crossword.


Some news: I’ll be onstage at the end of September. The fight’s gonna be in Moscow, and …

No, wait, that’s still Rocky IV.

I’ll be at The Atlantic Festival, in Washington, D.C., and you can join us September 28–29. The festival brings together influential and provocative political, cultural, business, tech, and climate leaders for in-depth interviews, timely forums, intimate breakout sessions, book talks, screenings, and networking opportunities. This year’s participants include Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former U.S. Representative Will Hurd, the actor Kerry Washington, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, the filmmaker Spike Lee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and many more.

They’ll be joined by Atlantic writers including Arthur C. Brooks, Shirley Li, Tim Alberta, Caitlin Dickerson (our newest Pulitzer Prize winner), and others, including me: I’ll be discussing the future of conservatism with Helen Lewis, David Frum, and Rebecca Rosen.

You can see the full schedule and get your pass here.

Join us!

— Tom

Nicole Blackwood contributed to this newsletter.

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