Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Caught in the Rye

An actor's quest for movie stardom

When I was five, my family moved to a small town in England called Boston, where American TV shows became a huge part of my life. The Six Million Dollar Man. The Incredible Hulk. CHiPs. The Fall Guy. The Man from Atlantis. The Dukes of Hazzard. Deep down, I knew that these shows, in some way or another, were going to be a part of my life. How exactly I had no idea.

When I was ten, my friend Simon Ellis invited me to his house. We made our way to the front room and settled in front of the television. Simon put on a video and we began to watch this movie about a man training rigorously in a gym, running through the streets with thousands of kids behind him, sprinting across main roads and up the steps of the Philadelphia art museum, all accompanied by a thrilling musical composition. As the scene ended, freeze-framing on the victorious and triumphant face of the man, I turned to Simon and asked the title of the film. “Rocky,” he said. “It’s Sylvester Stallone.”

It wasn’t long before I received a biography of Stallone—a man born with partial facial paralysis who suffered from a speech impediment and the bone disease rickets, witnessed the separation and divorce of his parents and was kicked out of over ten schools by the age of fifteen. For some strange reason, I found that I could identify with him, from his heroes on screen to his failures at school to his parents divorcing, even to his attention-span problem—all this I could relate to. But it was his attempt to launch himself into the world of acting that really made Sly stand out. To say that I was inspired by his courage and belief is an extreme understatement. Here was a man who suffered the trials and tribulations of real life—at one point, spending eleven homeless nights in the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City—and yet his self-belief and determination resulted in a character that twenty-seven years later is still loved by millions.

Sly completed the first draft of Rocky in three days. Producers took an interest in the script, but did not want Stallone to star. With $106 to his name, living in a fleapit in Hollywood with a pregnant wife, Sly was reported to have turned down offers of up to $360,000. Unless he played Rocky, he said, the movie, quite simply, was a no-go. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

I remember walking to school one morning and thinking that Rocky was actually a reflection of Sylvester Stallone’s real life. Here was a man who was fighting for that one opportunity in life to “have his moment”—to actually star in his picture—while the character he was playing was also fighting for his own opportunity—to win the world heavyweight boxing championship. It was, indeed, just as Stallone had said: “When people root for Rocky, they are really rooting for themselves.” It was this story that finally showed me the story I wanted to tell.

What would be better than if another complete unknown were given an opportunity to write and star in his own movie script about his own life story? What would be better than if that opportunity were given to him by the man who had inspired him in the first place? This would enable the film to come full circle, to show a little boy from England growing up, going to school, living an everyday life, but with a dream of one day claiming international movie stardom.

By the time I was seventeen, I had written to over eighty film companies in and around London, requesting advice and even hoping for a foot in the door. Only one person took the time to hear what I had to say. His name was Carlo Kassar of Carolco Pictures. Carolco, funnily enough, was the producer of the Rambo films. Like a kid in a candy store, I was soon chatting away in Carlo’s office, surrounded by pictures and posters of Rambo and other movie memorabilia. The years went by, school and college came and went; I was going with the flow, just like everybody else. A week or two after my twenty-first birthday, I assessed my life. Other than tell my story, there was nothing in particular I wanted to do. I sold the little I had, bought a plane ticket, said my goodbyes and took off alone for New York City.

Within a matter of weeks I was sharing an apartment near Times Square with two good friends (Carlos Milian and Kingsley Palauni) and working as a bathroom attendant at Planet Hollywood. The names I met during my time at Planet Hollywood are endless. Sly, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Samuel Jackson, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Charlie Sheen, Muhammad Ali, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Reeve, Wesley Snipes—it was clear that New York City was the place to be. It was lending additional glamour to my story. I finished the first draft of my script, Follow Your Heart—A True Story, in May 1993.

The next four years were an emotional roller-coaster ride, from suicidal depression to marijuana and other addictions. Around 1995, I met a man named0Bruno Rosato. He had come into the men’s room at Planet Hollywood and within minutes was asking me about Sylvester Stallone. Much to my surprise, he respected Stallone for his accomplishments and saw the man the way I did. A friendship began and we spent many hours in my dingy little hotel room watching videos and listening to interviews, all the while discussing Stallone, the situation of my story and what exactly I was trying to achieve.

I was three thousand miles away from home in one of the largest cities in the world, living out my dream, meeting all the big names, yet becoming an emotional wreck. As if that wasn’t bad enough, someone informed immigration authorities that I was overstaying my visa and working cash-in-hand, and I was banned from entering the United States for ten years.

Back in England, questing for knowledge, I began to buy books based strongly on spiritual teaching. Much to my astonishment, the experiences and realities that I had endured throughout my journey had uncanny similarities to those described in many of these books. I realized my story was no longer about me meeting Sylvester Stallone, but about trying to face the harsh realities of loneliness, depression and fear while still believing I could accomplish something most people believe is just not possible. I began to understand the term “creating your own reality.”

It was time to head out once more—this time to London. After a few weeks of bouncing around sleazy hotels in Paddington, I finally found work and a more permanent room around Piccadilly and Leicester Square. Moving through a succession of odd jobs—souvenir shops, sex shops, record stores and cinemas—I understood I had a long way to go before any movie was going to be made with me in it. However, I did my best to maintain belief in myself by designing four different posters for the film, as well as a colour brochure and two videos. On the posters, I used the names of people I had met along the way who believed in me and expressed interest in contributing to the film. Making this picture would clearly show the power of a dream.

I tried all sorts of ways to contact Sly, but I was getting nowhere. I had meetings with British director Peter MacDonald, spoke with cinematographer Alex Thomson (who I first met on the set of Demolition Man); I received written replies from life-expert Tony Robbins and Rocky composer Bill Conti. The British rock band FM (now known as SO) also expressed interest. Despite all these encouraging signs, however, I was still virtually broke, stuck in a room in an attic in North London—and had been like this for over four years. No matter who I spoke with or met, or however much interest there was, one fact remained: without Sylvester Stallone, the movie would not happen. By March 2000, once again I felt like I was losing my grip. Then life gave me a nudge.

I received a phone call from my mum one night telling me that, astrologically speaking, the planets were supposed to be aligning, that it had something to do with Aquarius and that opportunities would be offered. I found it difficult to be so optimistic. Yet two weeks later, at two am, my phone rings. It’s Bob from New York telling me he has just hired a new bathroom attendant at Planet Hollywood called Guido Grasso. Guido had asked him if he knew an English guy who had written a script about his life and Sylvester Stallone. Bob couldn’t believe it and wanted to know why he was asking. Guido replied, “My cousin wants to know, Bruno Rosato.” Not only did Bruno remember me and the script after eight years, he was also part owner of a casting agency in Montreal called the Montreal Casting House, whose recent credits include George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind.

In August 2002, I took off once again—for Montreal. Bruno has brought me close to people who, for the first time in my life, really believe in my story and are willing to help in any way possible. There’s no question things are moving forward.