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Sylvester Stallone on "Tulsa King" and how he keeps the torch going in Hollywood

TORONTO — Sylvester Stallone accepts that despite his incredible star power, he may not be the automatic box-office draw he once was.
Sylvester Stallone appears as Dwight Manfredi in the Paramount Plus original series “Tulsa King.” A still from the series is shown in this undated handout. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Brian Douglas/Paramount+ **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — Sylvester Stallone accepts that despite his incredible star power, he may not be the automatic box-office draw he once was. 

“At my age, you’re pretty much done, especially today, where, my God, youth is king,” says Stallone reflecting on a career as the star of a number of movie franchises that include “Rocky” and “Rambo.” 

“You do your job, make the studio a lot of money and everyone should be happy. But guess what? We don’t need you anymore, so you go take up golf or whatever,” says Stallone during an interview in Toronto promoting the new Paramount Plus series "Tulsa King."

“I shouldn’t be where I am today, but I’m just lucky to have a few franchises that have kept the torch going. Normally, you’re done at my age.”

However, the 76-year-old is definitely not in retirement working on his golf swing.

With recent credits that include his role as a sanitation worker with superpowers in Prime Video's “Samaritan” and the voice of King Shark in “Suicide Squad,” Stallone is proving that he can maintain his action-hero reputation while exploring new terrains as an actor.

In “Tulsa King,” his first television role, Stallone stars as a crime family capo named Dwight Manfredi who is released from prison after 25 years and is dispatched reluctantly to Tulsa, Okla., to expand operations, only to find himself coming to grips with a changed landscape — public weed dispensaries and all.

Despite the morally compromised actions and career choices of his character, Stallone says he could understand Manfredi because of the actor's own familiarity with accepting new transitions that come with age. Whereas Manfredi is pushed away from the lucrative location of New York and banished to Tulsa, Stallone knows the Hollywood pressure of moving away from the spotlight in favour of new blood.   

“There’s a great deal of perspective because what Dwight is going through is actually what I’ve gone through,” says Stallone, noting he's been told to leave the career he's used to. 

“I could retire ... I’ve had people beg, and plead, saying I’ve done enough; that I’ve had enough injuries, enough of this and that, but I go, ‘I don’t know man.’"

For Stallone, the pleas that come his way are akin to the concern others have for someone who has taken on too many fights and is on the verge of being knocked out. It isn’t about ego or money for him, he says  — it comes down to the profession he continues to love and a belief that he still has more to give. His many battles both in and outside of the ring have been publicly documented. 

Stallone recalls the early years of having to pitch the first Rambo film overseas.

“No one thought that ‘First Blood’ was going to get released,” he says, explaining how he had to promote the 1982 project to foreign buyers from Czechoslovakia and Germany because of a lack of interest in Hollywood. 

Of course, the film turned into a classic that still resonates decades later, especially in Port Hope, B.C., where it was shot. Last month, tourism officials celebrated the 40th anniversary of "First Blood" with a slate of events and a wooden structure of Rambo and his machine-gun.  

A more recent conflict is Stallone’s request to “Rocky” producer Irwin Winkler to give him some ownership over the franchise, the lack of which has been a sore spot in his career. Stallone created the character of Rocky Balboa and wrote the screenplays for the six films before the "Creed" reboot in 2015. But in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter published earlier this month, Stallone said a deal is “never going to happen,” and that he will not appear in the next instalment of the "Creed" series, due next year.

Still, he’s found ways to approach every battle with a sense of humour. 

“It’s just the way I’m built,” says Stallone, whose character Manfredi shares a penchant for comedy even in the worst of times.

“I’m a big believer in the non sequitur...where they go left, I’d rather go right,” says Stallone, adding that he likes to improvise during filming to imbue his own sense of humour into a role. 

For example, his character in "Tulsa King" has a habit of conducting business while holding candy in one hand, a contradiction that Stallone felt was important to show. 

“There’s a scene where I’m eating a lollipop the whole time. They went crazy and said that I had to take the lollipop out of my hand, and I said no.

“There's something about a mobster emphasizing his business plan with a lollipop. It makes no sense to them, but trust me, visually, it’s like, imagining Al Capone with a lollipop. It’s just interesting.”

Stallone adds that it isn't just a job instinct for him, but one that extends beyond the script. 

"My wife has to go through my jokes 1,000 times a day," says Stallone. "Some work. Some don't. But it's just the way I'm built."

"Tulsa King" premiered this week on Paramount Plus Canada, with new episodes premiering Sundays.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2022. 

Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press