Episode 2: Life Imitates Art
We go down the Rocky rabbit hole to understand how the fictional fighter grew from one man’s rough sketch into a global icon. Exploring Stallone’s Instagram art history lessons, interviews about his paintings with Oprah, and a limited-edition art book worth thousands of dollars, we learn that hiding behind the macho action star is a man who longs to be understood as a thoughtful artist.
- Sly Stallone meets Rocky Balboa
- Official website for filmmaker André Robert Lee
- Sylvester Stallone, Rocky. The Complete Films
- Sylvester Stallone, The Official Rocky Scrapbook
- Stallone on the Oprah Winfrey Show
- Stallone giving a tour of his painting exhibition, 2011
SYLVESTER STALLONE: Yes, there is life after Rocky. As a matter of fact, I’ve been doing a great deal of painting. This is a little something I worked up called Superman in the City.
PAUL FARBER, HOST: There’s this grainy clip on Youtube from the early ‘90s. It starts with one of the world’s biggest movie stars at the time, looking right at the camera.
Originally, this was a DVD extra. Sylvester Stallone is strolling through an art gallery of all places. He’s showing off an impressionistic painting of Rocky Balboa when he bumps into the man himself.
SS: But I do have something you will recognize.
ROCKY: Yo Sly! I just come to California for a vacation. So I just drop in, you know?
PF: Thanks to some beautifully retro split screen editing, Stallone plays both himself and his greatest creation. This clip is fascinating. I mean, this is Stallone — the action hero, best known for throwing punches and dodging bullets.
[RAMBO SHOOTING AND YELLING]
But here he is, wearing a charcoal blazer and stylish glasses, surrounded by oil paintings and what looks like a Rodin sculpture. Balboa, a leather coat and his trademark fedora. On screen together, they look like long-lost cousins. What are they doing surrounded by all this art?
SS: Listen, I like you to do me one favor, if you would. Let’s go to Philadelphia and race up the steps. I’d like to see who’s the better man. Meet you in Philly?
R: You got it.
PF: Welcome back to The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber.
Today we’re going to talk about Sylvester Stallone, the artist. Yup, the artist. We went through reams of archival materials — books, interviews, Youtube clips — and found out that the same guy who played Rocky and Rambo also analyzes fine art on his Instagram. And shows off his paintings on national television.
Visual art is a throughline of Stallone’s life, on and off screen.
SS: ‘Cause this painting here represents what I was feeling as a young man.
PF: Getting to know Stallone the artist – in his own words – helps us understand how Rocky went from a rough sketch in one man’s mind to monumental status. And the impact that this underdog hero has on our public memory.
Because it seems like what Stallone wants as much as anything is to be taken seriously as an artist.
When I started researching Rocky’s origin story, I knew exactly who I needed to talk to.
ANDRÉ ROBERT LEE: Rocky Balboa was different. We felt connected to it.
PF: That’s filmmaker and lifetime Rocky fan André Robert Lee. He’s from North Philly, and later worked in Hollywood. He was once Diana Ross’ personal assistant. We go way back.
ARL: I was a high school student and Paul was in what was called the after school program. Little Pablito. Yeah, it was kind of amazing to see this little kid. The timbre of his voice was like, “You’re going to hear me.” That was Pablito. That was Paul.
PF: André can’t remember a world without Rocky.
ARL: I was four years old.
PF: When he thinks back to his teenage years, the soundtrack plays on a loop.
ARL: Playing on the streets in North Philadelphia. We took egg cartons and cut the bottom out and nailed it to a wall. That was our basketball court. And it was tradition to hum the Rocky theme. Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun, da da da da da da da da da da.
PF: That’s why Rocky came alive for André and his friends. Because somehow, it represented home.
ARL: This was about the city I was living in, Philadelphia. I know pretzels, I know hoagies, and I know Rocky.
PF: When I told him what I was up to, he said he had something for me to check out.
ARL: When you see this book, you’re going to be impressed.
PF: He invited our team to come see a piece of Rocky lore hiding in plain sight at the Fitler Club, a private workspace and library just down the river from the Art Museum. There, nestled in the stacks of rare art books, André found a gem.
ARL: I would say this is a good 25 pounds you have to get to, maybe 30.
PF: So you’re kind of doing reps there.
PF: The book is called Rocky: The Complete Films. It’s enormous, with a bright yellow cover embossed with thick, red and black text. This book is encased in a keepsake box and comes with white archival gloves. Each copy is numbered and signed by Sylvester Stallone himself. It retails for $2,000.
Inside, there’s an exact replica of the red spiral notebook where decades ago, Stallone originally drafted the film’s script.
But the piece that really got our attention was an art print called Finding Rocky. A mixed media composition by Stallone, the first-ever rendering of the boxer. Deep, red lines surround his eyes. It was created a full year before the film’s release.
André read Stallone’s words from the inscription printed on the back.
ARL: So I began to work on this image. But I didn’t want to use a brush because I felt that the character was made out of industrial tools. He was a man that was forged by the hardships of life. So I put this image up there and I started to actually carve it with a screwdriver. Oh my God. Then I took newspaper clippings, which would reflect what it would be like to be a very poor, unsuccessful man, especially a boxer. And then all of a sudden the image came alive. And then I said, “OK, this is a character I would like to see written about because he looked interesting visually.” I know it sounds ambitious, but that was the genesis of Rocky. Wow.
PF: Stallone didn’t just write about Rocky in a screenplay. He carved him into existence, with a screwdriver.
It’s easy to guess where he might have gotten this industrial vibe. Stallone grew up in New York, but then moved to Philly and attended Lincoln High in the Northeast. He worked jobs along the waterfront, with shipyards as the backdrop.
This all got infused into Rocky’s story. Here’s Stallone describing Rocky in a video from his 2011 painting exhibition.
SS: I said, “OK, he comes from the city and his world is dark, nighttime, purple. This is a guy who really doesn’t have any sunshine in his life.”
PF: Seeing the world through the lens of art comes as naturally to Stallone as breathing. You can tell from decades of his paintings, his world-class art collection, or by turning the glossy pages of this rare Rocky book.
Stallone deliberately blurs the line between art and life — sometimes using it as a kind of shield from reality. He certainly did while stepping into the role of Rocky. Here he is an interview with Oprah.
SS: And as I’m stepping out of the trailer, I passed this mirror and I said, “All right, now you going to do it? Or are you going to sit here and become a bum for the rest of your life?” And someone outside said, “Alright, Sylvester, let’s go.” I said, “No, no, you got the name wrong. It’s Rocky.”
PF: In his view, art is a way to engage the world. To fully become yourself. Before his career took off, Stallone called himself a “movable statue.” He wanted more.
Again, Stallone from his 2011 exhibition.
SS: I realized that you really can’t hold in anything, no matter what. Anything that has come out of your subconscious. And that’s just not for painting. Anything. Art. Every artist I’ve ever met says, “I wish I could do that over again.”
PF: He talks like this a lot. He’s a regular at art fairs — both as a collector, and an artist. His paintings were featured in a German museum exhibition called Sylvester Stallone: The Magic of Being.
One time, he gave Oprah a tour of his studio.
SS: Well Oprah, when I first got started in art I was about 13 years old. This is where I do most of my painting, and the styles have changed quite drastically.
PF: And recently, he brought his 15 million Instagram followers along for an impromptu art history lesson on sculptures at the Vatican.
SS: I’m next to Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is probably considered the greatest sculpture of all time.
PF: Last year, Stallone revisited the Rocky Statue. He had a sort of pilgrimage experience, just like the millions of people who go every year. Here he is again on his Instagram.
SS: I don’t get to visit Rocky very often. When I do, it’s emotional.
PF: Amazingly, this longtime art-lover managed to create a character that has exploded into an entire universe. Rocky is not the first sculpture of a boxer. That goes way back to antiquity. But today, people who likely never would have seen themselves represented in a work of contemporary art see themselves in Rocky.
André could always relate to the story. He knew to hum the theme song while shooting a free throw. When his family went grocery shopping in the 9th Street Market, he pictured himself in Rocky’s training regimen.
He knew the statue before he even knew the historic building behind it.
ARL: As a kid, it was that statue at the top of the steps that you would run up to. I didn’t know it as a museum, you know? As a little kid from North Philadelphia, with my background, it wasn’t clear to me that this was, you know, a place that held some of the most incredible works of arts in the world.
PF: When André went on to make his first feature film set in the city, he thought of one specific location where he needed to shoot. The top of the Art Museum steps.
ARL: I went to the spot where Rocky was standing and I wanted a shot from that space. As a filmmaker, I think that this it’s a way to show Philadelphia and establish it. The Rocky statue is the visual moment to mark place.
PF: Rocky is essential to understanding Philly, and Philly is essential to understanding him.
The Rocky legend has expanded to fill in all sorts of cracks in the city, standing in as a representation of Philadelphia’s identity. It’s why the airport sells stacks of Rocky t-shirts, pencil sharpeners, and tchotchkes of all kinds. Now, the statue has a life of its own.
It’s why millions of people every year, locals and tourists alike, line up to complete the pilgrimage to the world’s most famous underdog. In hindsight, it feels like Rocky was always destined to become a statue.
But when a fictional character becomes this popular, is there a cost to real people?
Statues are not neutral symbols. They’re always about representation, identity, and power.
ARL: We can’t ignore race in this conversation. We can’t ignore that. And we can’t ignore race in Philadelphia in the mid-’70s.
PF: André has grappled with the fact that this meteoric rise to fame happened for a fictional, white boxer, while so many stories of Black achievement never end up in bronze.
ARL: I look at it from my personal experience. I was a lower-income Black kid living in North Philadelphia. I never saw the Rocky statue up on the steps until college. I knew about it. I knew the song, I knew the pose. But I never went there, ‘cause I didn’t feel like it was a place for me.
PF: André wanted to show us how these lost stories manifest in real life. So he took us to another sacred Philly spot, on North Broad Street. It was raining.
ARL: Have you ever been to this corner? Like, stood here? Been here?
PF: I’ve driven by it many times. But I’ve never stood here.
ARL: There are weeds growing next door to it in a fenced off area next to the train tracks. It’s very Philadelphia in the sense that, it’s not open, it’s not preserved, it’s not in use, but it’s here. And it’s strong.
PF: We stopped, lost in thought, at what looked like an abandoned building.
ARL: We’re looking up at a pair of boxing gloves across from a sign that says Joe Frazier’s Gym. Right under that, there’s a sign that says, “furniture and mattress, grand opening sale, home gallery, furniture and bedding.” This was a discount furniture space. You can also see, I notice in the detail for the design of the building, you see that keystone looking thing?
ARL: The Pennsylvania Keystone in the details. This is a grand building. It’s a shame it’s empty and deserted.
PF: Joe Frazier’s Gym.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: The heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Frazier!
PF: The place where a real Philadelphian lived and trained. A Black boxer, who took gold at the Olympics and became world heavyweight champion. His building, in the heart of North Philadelphia, is now stripped of its purpose. Left alone.
Growing up, André knew about Frazier.
ARL: Yeah, you know, I grew up knowing the name Joe Frazier. He felt familiar. I had a memory as a child of him coming to my church for a funeral. And I remember he was there. And it was a funeral and it’s sad, you know. And people were running up and asking for his autograph. And so folks were like, “Don’t do that. It’s inappropriate.” And he was like, “It’s cool,” and was signing autographs at the funeral.
Joe Frazier I found was, underdog is not the right word, but he was about doing the work and not about the flash and the glitz and glam. He was someone that just performed and worked hard.
PF: In this moment, Rocky feels both extraordinary and ordinary.
Over at the Art Museum steps, the story that lives through the statue is profound. It’s meaningful to multitudes, across lines of difference, of race, gender, class, sexuality, for more than a generation. Something extraordinary is happening there.
And when you stand at Joe Frazier’s Gym, shuttered, just a few miles away, you feel a lack of preservation or acknowledgement of real-life boxers, especially Black boxers, in places of prominence and esteem.
The same goes for real-life Black politicians, artists, workers, caretakers. There’s a disparity of spotlight and resources. This happens all the time. Something ordinary is happening here.
The monument to Rocky, and all monuments for that matter, permit us to get swept up in a fantasy, to put on our blinders.
The rain picked up, so André and I sat in the car.
ARL: Thinking about Joe Frazier staying in the building, thinking about the monument that the building is, just as it stands, without any celebratory markings, except for what they sort of, like, Roman-version carved into the building. Those boxing gloves are etched into the stone. The Joe Frazier letters are etched into the stone. They are going to be there. The weather took away the paint. But I’m looking over my shoulder out the car window at it, and it’s very clear. Even though there’s a huge, bright red sign that says “home gallery” under it, you still see Joe Frazier on top of it.
So the building may not be put forward and identified and celebrated as a monument, in the sense of, “This was built as a statue to honor.” But it is that. I don’t imagine when Joe Frazier built the gym he was thinking about building a monument. He was like, “The people need a place to go and get off the street and feel supported and loved, in a community that was denied support and suffering.” And here he was, bringing like a heart, a heartbeat and a place to be for many people.
[CHATTER IN THE BACKGROUND]
ARL: I know, I wish. I wish, right? Nice.
PF: What did he just say?
ARL: The guy just walked by and said, “I was hoping this was turning back into a boxing gym.” Yeah, we all do.
PF: Next time on The Statue, we’re going to talk about Joe Frazier. The heavyweight champion. And where he is and isn’t remembered in the city.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT TAPE: Listen to the roar of this crowd. The tension and the excitement here is monumental.
PF: A Philly boxer who helped inspire the Rocky character — and even made a cameo in the first movie.
AMARI JOHNSON: He was the one who would train by running up those steps. He was the one who would train in a meat locker, punching. So those were things that Rocky sort of took.
PF: But Joe Frazier doesn’t get a fraction of the attention. What does that say about our monuments, and how we remember?
MARK KRAM, JR.: One of the enduring tropes of boxing over the years has been a yearning for a white champion. Rocky gave that to them. But he wasn’t real. He was fiction.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber. Our producers are Michael Olcott and Michaela Winberg. Our executive producers are Tom Grahsler and Paul Farber. Our engineers are Charlie Kaier and Al Banks.
Sound design and mixing by Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions. Rowhome’s executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
Marketing support is provided by The Podglomerate.
Our tile art was made by William Hodgson. Our theme song is a remix of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, created by Moqita, that’s Justin Geller and Billy Dufala. Special thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Sophia Schmidt, and the Monument Lab team especially Laurie Allen, Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, and Florie Hutchinson.
The Statue is a production of WHYY, and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects, with in-kind support from Monument Lab. Find us wherever you get your podcasts.collapse
Executive Producers: Tom Grahsler, Paul Farber
Producers: Michael Olcott, Michaela Winberg
Engineer: Charlie Kaier, Al Banks
Sound Design and Mixing: Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions
Executive Producers, Rowhome Productions: Alex Lewis, John Myers
Tile Art: William Hodgson
Theme Song: Justin Geller and Billy Dufala of Moqita
Special Thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Sophia Schmidt
Special Thanks to the Monument Lab team including Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, Laurie Allen and Florie Hutchinson.
Gonna’ Fly Now by Bill Conti, courtesy of Sony Music
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects and with in-kind support from Monument Lab.collapse
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