Oscar Icons: The Underdogs

Frank W. Ockenfels 3

Sylvester Stallone (2 nominations) and John G. Avildsen (2 nominations, 1 win)

It was one of the great success stories in Hollywood history, as improbable as Rocky Balboa's. A script nobody wanted to buy. An actor nobody wanted to hire. And a movie nobody wanted to make until United Artists and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff signed on. Those were just some of the obstacles Stallone faced on his path to two Oscar nominations as writer and lead actor -- only the third time in history an actor-writer had received noms for both categories in the same year, following Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Neither he nor director Avildsen imagined their low-budget film, shot in less than a month in Los Angeles and Philadelphia for about $1 million, would launch a franchise that has spawned five sequels -- let alone that both would then create further franchises of their own, with Stallone's Rambo series and Avildsen's 1984 film The Karate Kid. At the time of Rocky, Stallone was a minor actor who had received acclaim for 1974's The Lords of Flatbush but had not broken through. The 1977 Oscars -- when the movie won for picture, director and editing, on its way to a then-staggering $225 million gross -- changed all that, even though the film itself could have been very different. "Rocky was not a very appealing guy at first," says Stallone, 65, who recently completed The Expendables 2. "His face was bashed in; he didn't like anybody. It was a much harder film, more in the vein of Mean Streets. I saw this guy as an embittered fellow who had blown his opportunity and just took out all his frustrations on the street." The night of the Oscars, Stallone, then 30, was so sure he was going to lose (he did, to Network's Peter Finch and Paddy Chayefsky), he never expected to give a speech -- though he got his chance when the producers pulled him onstage and he was able to say a few words. Avildsen, 76, almost had his own disaster. "I'd written my speech on an envelope, but when I got onstage, perspiration had caused all the ink to run, and I couldn't read the names," he says. "Fortunately, I remembered everybody."

Photographed by Frank W. Ockenfels 3 on Feb. 17 at the No Good TV offices in Beverly Hills