Donald, Sly, Andy, and Me
Had Sylvester Stallone not lobbied him, President Trump wouldn’t have posthumously pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. The White House doesn’t say how often Trump and Stallone communicate, but the president seems infatuated with this actor whose specialties are tough guys with machine guns and boxers with inferiority complexes.
Like Trump, Stallone makes a show of signing his name. After the 2016 election he sent the president a framed page headlined “Sylvester Stallone-inspired Trump ad transcends politics.” On top of the print, in large black lettering, Sly inscribed, “To President Trump, A Real Champ! Greatest Knockout in History!” Below that, lavishly scrawled in thick, sharpied curlicues, is the signature: Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone’s successful Trump strategy and signed flourish are foreshadowed, for me, by a 1976 event. Sly (like Donald, a thrice-married 71-year-old now wed to a former model in her 40’s) never sent me an autographed photo, but I did have a signature Stallone experience. When United Artists was about to release the first film in the Rocky franchise, they commissioned my boyfriend, Andy Jurinko, to paint its publicity image.
Over six weeks, Andy, silent and intent, worked on the painting in a makeshift studio of our rent-controlled apartment. The wall-size work gradually became an uncanny likeness of an exhausted Stallone draped against the ropes of a boxing ring, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross.
The finished oil painting was a monument of craft and inspiration. But when United Artists said, “It’s gorgeous, but there’s no way we can use it,” Andy and I were crushed. Then I thought maybe Stallone would be interested. When a colleague told me he might be staying at The Sherry-Netherland, the hotel’s receptionist put me through to his room, and I heard that rough, unmistakable voice.
“Sure,” he said after I explained about the painting. Would he like to see it? We made a date for the next evening.
I didn’t breathe a word to Andy, who was working in his studio with the door closed when, at precisely seven pm, I looked out our kitchen window. A long white limousine pulled up. Out swaggered Stallone and two other muscular guys. Last to emerge was a lovely, smallish, blonde woman, Stallone’s then-wife Sasha. It was Sasha, I’d later learn, who’d typed the full Rocky screenplay.
Andy was startled to see the man he’d been painting for weeks, and the star seemed equally startled. After staring at the masterpiece for two minutes, Sly said, “Duh, do you want me to sign it?”
Familiar as I was with Andy’s humility and generosity, I tried to silently signal him not to offer the painting to Sly, but offer he did, and Stallone, grinning, stretched out his hand to shake Andy’s. There was no talk of paying Andy, who’d gotten only a kill fee and could’ve used some cash. I’m horrified to admit, now, that I helped take the huge canvas off its stretchers, roll it up, and ship it, at our expense, to Hollywood.
Andy never received even a thank you note. A couple months later, I saw, in a Time magazine spread, a photo of Stallone at his Hollywood desk, Andy’s striking painting behind him.
The following February, as I crossed the busy intersection of Central Park West and 86th Street, Stallone was crossing from the opposite direction. Recognizing me, he shouted “How’s Andy?” There was no time for me to respond to his throw-off line. I could only watch as Sly strode off, head high and grinning, between two statuesque, spike-heeled blondes, each gripping an elbow of his ermine-trimmed fur coat.
I’ve since tried, repeatedly, to find Stallone and request that he pay for the painting — especially when Andy, who’d married, moved across the street from what would become ground Zero, and endured a year-long evacuation, was going through an unusually long bout with Pancreatic cancer. But the actor became less easy to locate than when he’d personally picked up the hotel line.
After Andy’s premature death, I continued searching for conduits to Sly — in hopes that his widow might appreciate the payment. But Stallone’s remained beyond my reach. Now, however, I have the name of the world’s most powerful boxer-loving strongman who could easily lead me to that pot of gold.