His Beginnings Were Rocky, but These Days Frank Stallone Is Staying Alive with Style

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Most people don't realize it, but there was a time when Frank Stallone was in the chips and his older brother, Sylvester, was reduced to eating them, a la carte. That was in the mid-'70s. Both had been living in Manhattan. Frank, in fact, had been living in a tiny rented room, selling shirts at Bloomingdale's by day and pursuing his singing career by night, crooning for tips on the corner of 60th and Third. Then he got some gigs in Jersey. "I was a head-liner," smiles Frank, who at 33 is four years younger than Sylvester. "I used to sneak my brother in to see my act. I used to say to him, 'Sly, when I make the big money, I'll back your films.' "

As the world knows by now, Sly not only was the first to see his ship come in but he also helped float Frank's career. The latest John Travolta film hit, Staying Alive, which Sly co-wrote, co-produced and directed, features eight Frank Stallone songs (versus five new ones for the Bee Gees), among them the hit single "Far From Over". But along with his Staying Alive credits (he also has a small role in the film), Frank has gotten some catcalls. "The word for me this year," he shrugs, "is nepotism. The critics weren't reviewing my music, they were reviewing me, as Sly's brother." No matter that he had written songs for four previous movies—or that, as Sly himself says, "Frank was the first serious artist in the family. I followed in his footsteps."

Frank didn't just walk into Staying Alive, either. Several songsmiths were tried out, and the first five numbers Frank wrote were rejected. Working with collaborators Vince DiCola and Joe Esposito, Frank decided to try for something "theatrical." "Think Jerome Robbins. Think West Side Story," he remembers saying. "We sat in a garage and put the music on a $50 tape recorder. It was a real collective effort." When Sly played the demo for Travolta and Robert Stigwood, head of RSO Records, he withheld the composer's identity. Notes Staying Alive executive producer Bill Oakes: "In a sense, Frank was the victim of reverse nepotism. We had other artists who came and went. But Frank consistently came up with the right mood for songs."

Frank and Sly's early years were spent in Maryland, where their father owned a chain of hair salons. Following their parents' divorce in 1957, both boys lived with their mother in Philadelphia. After high school, Frank focused on making it as a "folk-style" musician. In the early '70s he joined big brother in New York, where Sly was a struggling actor and writer. "He'd show me how to get by on $3 a day," Frank recalls. "I had a tendency to blow money, and he was real thrifty. Now he blows money and I'm thrifty." At one point they both worked in a movie theater where Sasha Czack was the head usher. Though Sasha, according to Frank, first thought Sly a "jerk," she married him in 1974.

In 1975, when Sly finally got backing for his movie fairy tale about a fighter named Rocky Balboa, he turned to Frank for a song; he wound up splashing it across the first sequence in Rocky and nominating Frank for a bit part as a street-corner musician. In 1977 Sly scripted Frank as a nightclub singer in Paradise Alley and included two more of his songs. Two years later Frank got two tunes and a role in Rocky II. That same year he packed his guitars and drove his Datsun to California. Though he now says it "was the best move I ever made," it didn't seem so at first. Producers didn't want to deal with a No. 2 Stallone. Frank was depressed, but resisted advice that he change his name. "What am I going to call myself?" he thought. "Frank Slingshot? Ralph Rotten?"

Once more big brother came to the rescue—with Rocky III, in which Frank reprised his street-troubadour bit and collaborated on the music. Now, with Staying Alive, Frank no longer has to worry about changing his name: He has a contract with PolyGram and is planning his first solo album.

Even so, he has hardly gone Hollywood. In July, Sly gave him a gold Rolex. Frank said he didn't want it, and even caused a scene outside the jeweler's shop on Rodeo Drive. "Why do you feel if you're talented you have to be a slob?" asked Sly. Frank took the gift, and has also turned in his wheezing Datsun for a Mercedes. But he's sticking with his modest one-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment, and still does his own cleaning, laundry and cooking. While he talks about finding an old-fashioned woman with mounds of hair and fragile features, he remains "very much a bachelor." Says he: "If you get married, you become vulnerable."

In any case, he's closer to Sly these days—"more like a contemporary, less like a little brother getting in the way," he says. Not so close, however, that he won't tell one on his sibling. It seems that during a trip to Hawaii, people asked Sly if he was Frank Stallone, the singer. Apparently, they judged him too small to be Rocky Balboa. When Sly later admitted the question upset him, Frank couldn't resist the chance to rub it in. His response: "Now, how do you like it, pal?"

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