Yo, Sylvester Stallone! Happy 66th birthday!

Sylvester Stallone. Thomas Peter / REUTERS

Sylvester Stallone may be the ultimate self-made star. Whether you think of him as Rambo, or Rocky or some other character from his dozens of movies since the 1970s, the man born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone has never been just another muscled-up Hollywood macho man. And today, as the Italian Stallion turns 66, it's worth looking at just why he's got a lot to celebrate.

Stallone didn't seem like big-screen material initially -- part of his face was paralyzed at birth. But he transformed that turned-up lip and unique way of speaking into a memorable characteristic and an asset. Not that he grew up with only hard knocks -- Dad was a hairdresser and Mom owned a women's gym in the 1950s -- helping Stallone maintain ripped muscles and rippling hair for his entire career.

But he struggled while trying to make it as an actor in New York City in the 1970s, doing an erotic film (1970's "The Party at Kitty and Stud's," later renamed "The Italian Stallion" to capitalize on his "Rocky" nickname) and erotic off-Broadway play (1971's "Score") while trying to break through. He had bit parts in better films like "Bananas" and "The Lords of Flatbush," but was still just scraping by, as he told Tony Robbins, having to sell the script of 1978's "Paradise Alley" for just $100.

Everything started to change after he saw Muhammad Ali fight Chuck Wepner in 1975. Inspired, Stallone ran home and three days later had a script for "Rocky." Determined, Stallone insisted that he star in the film, which made it harder to sell. But the film, which came out in 1976, was an enormous success, garnering 10 Academy Award nominations -- including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay; it won Best Picture, plus two others. 

Stallone hadn't just broken through. He'd broken the mold and re-cast it in his own image. He went on to make more "Rocky" films, along with tough-guy roles that naturally led to him kicking off another major franchise as misunderstood Vietnam vet John Rambo in 1982's "First Blood." Over the years, Stallone has gone back and forth between Rambo and Rocky in ten films.

Yet when he's tried other genres, the actor has had less success -- his aspiring country singer in 1987's "Rhinestone" flopped, as did the dark comedy "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" in 1992. Since then, he's stuck largely to the muscle-man role, even as he's aged, with films like "The Specialist," "Demolition Man" and, most recently, 2010's "The Expendables," which united him with peers like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. ("The Expendables 2" is scheduled to come out Aug. 17.)

It's been a K.O. of a career for the actor, producer, director, musician, sometimes painter and Boxing Hall of Fame member. (He's also got three marriages under his belt, and five children.) But as a man who built not just himself but an award-winning career from the ground up, Stallone has never pulled his punches. Here's hoping he gets an extra-big birthday cake this year, something even John Rambo wouldn't want to shoot up.

Happy birthday, Sylvester Stallone!

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