Tonight is Sylvester Stone‘s big-bop tribute at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. And virtually no handicappers are predicting that the Creed costar won’t take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar on 2.28. But what’s the Stallone love basically all about? Why is it such a slam-dunk thing? 

All I can figure is that people love the idea of a guy who’s come full circle and returned to home ground– a guy who started out as a Philadelphia soul man whom everyone was pulling for, and then went astray a bit, and went up and down and lost some of the old mojo, but got it all back by returning to Philly and the lug who launched his career.

40 years ago Sly was a struggling guy near the end of his rope who gloriously broke through with Rocky, and after that he made exactly…what, five or six quality movies during his whole career? Mostly he’s played studly action heroes who glare and seethe and flex their forearms. He tried like hell and did the best he could to stay in the game, but after Rocky the only films he can really and truly be proud of in a quality vein are First Blood (’82), Demolition Man (’93), Judge Dredd (’95), Cop Land (’97) and Creed (’15) (He also scored with some amusing voice work in 1998’s Antz.)

Mainly Sly stayed in his tried-and-true machismo realm and went for the box-office rather than reviews or awards. That’s not a crime, of course, but it’s not exactly the sort of thing that would normally bring an industry audience to their feet.

I got to know Sly a bit from the mid ’80s to early ’90s. I worked under him in ’85 and ’86 when I was employed as a writer/publicist for Bobby Zarem and Dick Delson, who had formed a p.r. partnership and had landed Stallone as their star client. I knew his vibe, hung in his orbit, watched him train and box, visited his home once or twice, did what I was told. But there wasn’t a lot of openness from the guy. He was guarded, sullen. When I was over at his place one evening I noticed an original Francis Bacon painting hanging in his foyer, and I said with some excitement, “Whoa, Francis Bacon!” Stallone’s total reply: “You got it.”

In ’92 I interviewed Stallone on the Italian Cliffhanger set (i.e., Cortina d’ampezzo) for the N.Y. Times. And a couple of years earlier I’d helped bring industry attention to a pair of screenplays that led to two of his better projects — Peter Lenkov‘s Demolition Man (’93) and Alexandra SerosThe Specialist (’94).

In ’88 and ’89 I was working for a going-nowhere production company, but I knew that The Specialist was a really top-notch script. (The ideal stars would have been Steve McQueen or Robert Duvall in their heydays). When it became clear that the guy I was working for wouldn’t move on it aggressively, I took The Specialist to the Intertalent guys (Bill Block, Tom Strickler) and they signed Seros and eventually helped set the film up as a Stallone vehicle at Warner Bros. Alas, the Luis Llosa-directed film, which costarred Sharon Stone, didn’t turn out as well as it could have.

I also semi-discovered (or was certainly among the early fans of) Demolition Man through a relationship with Lenkov, and when I again realized it wasn’t going to be made expeditiously by my employer I took it to Nina Jacobson, who was then working for Joel Silver. The film was eventually produced by Silver. Directed by Marco Brambilla, it turned out reasonably well.

Half-decent but less than fully satisfying Stallone films: The Lords of Flatbush (’74), Rocky II, Rocky III (’88), F.I.S.T. (’78), Cliffhanger, Assassins, Daylight, the new Rambo (’08).

Stallone shortfallers & stinkers: Staying Alive (’83 — director), Rhinestone (’84), Cobra, Over The Top, Lock Up, Tango & Cash, Oscar, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.

Visit to the Cliffhanger set, on or about 5.20.92 in the Italian Dolomites, about 90 minutes north of Venice — a little below 30 degrees, elevation of 11,000 feet, maybe a bit less.