Taylor Sheridan wrote the first draft pilot script for Tulsa King in less than 24 hours.
That’s the tale, at least, told by his producing partner David Glasser. And it certainly sounds possible given Sheridan’s hyper-prolific reputation — the Yellowstone co-creator has seven shows in various stages of development at Paramount, and he pens a great number of episodes himself. He’s known to isolate for stretches at a time, relentlessly focusing on banging out stories.
Glasser says that one Friday night in 2021, he casually mentioned to Sheridan that Sylvester Stallone had always wanted to play a gangster. “Taylor starts to spitball the idea of a fish out of water story for an hour,” Glasser recalls. “Then, Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., he goes, ‘Check your inbox.’ There is a script he’s already written called Kansas City King and it’s incredible.”
The duo pitched the idea to Stallone that Monday, and then secured Emmy winner Terence Winter to creatively take the lead on the project as showrunner. Winter says Sheridan met with him just once, then moved onto his other projects. “Taylor said: ‘It’s your baby, I just have visitation rights,’” Winter recalls.
Actor/writer/director Stallone had long pined for a Sopranos-esque role. The 76-year-old is acutely aware — through a long series of hits and misses across nearly six decades in cinema — of what types of roles best fit his imposing frame. A gangster, yeah. “Yo Paulie!” That could work.
Tulsa King follows a mafioso named Dwight “The General” Manfredi, who is released from prison after 25 years and gets promptly exiled by his crime family to Oklahoma. The role allows Stallone to do what he does best: play a down-on-his-luck tough guy who has a lot more going on behind his brown eyes than everybody around him assumes. Yet, he had some notes.
“In the original concept, Dwight was a thug,” Stallone says. “A tough, strong-arm guy. His name was like Tony or Sal — that kind of thing. Then we started adding things like: How do you get sentimentality in there? It’s about the journey. It’s the inability to be recognized or taken seriously, or about pride or hope — those kind of things.”
Winter was likewise keen to avoid mob drama clichés after his acclaimed work on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. “This felt like a new way into familiar territory,” said Winter, who only met Sheridan once throughout making the first season. “The genius of Taylor’s pilot is it’s a marriage of two genres: the Western and the gangster movie.”
Winter changed the story’s setting from Kansas City — which felt too urban and mob-y — to Tulsa. “It didn’t feel remote enough,” Winter says. “The New Yorker in me started thinking, ‘All right, what sounds like the middle of nowhere? I looked at the map and I’m like, ‘Oklahoma.’”
While Sheridan took a hands-off approach to his project, Stallone was the opposite — which occasionally sparked a bit of behind-the-scenes creative friction. On The Sopranos, Winter was accustomed to a cast that adhered to every word of his scripts. “It was verbatim,” Winter says of the HBO series. “Every pause, every ‘um,’ every ‘you know’ — it’s all [in the scripts].”
But Stallone has never been just a dutiful performer. He has 42 writing credits (including an Oscar nomination for his Rocky script) and often reworks projects when he joins them. “The beautiful thing about working with Terry is it got to the point where some of our ideas would overlap,” Stallone says. “Usually they’re very strict about adhering to what’s written on the page. But I tend to go off the page every now and then and throw in ad-libs. They were a little disturbed at first.”
Winter says he viewed Stallone’s input as a benefit. “With Stallone, you’re getting a writer, a director, a producer, an editor,” he says. “He’s got great ideas, and he’s got strong opinions about things, and he’s been doing this for a really long time at the highest possible level. He’s also been in his own skin for so long that he knows what works and knows what he does well.”
Stallone was especially focused on the editing, Glasser notes. “He’s been heavily involved in the editing process, and it’s been fascinating to watch him make those tough decisions where it’s not just about his character but the universe of the world.”
The biggest challenge for Stallone was the show’s commitment. The actor says his devotion to his career has been a disruption to his family life — within days of the show’s production wrapping in August, his wife of 25 years, Jennifer Flavin, filed for divorce (they’ve since reconciled). “You call it one season,” Stallone says, “I call it doing 10 sequels.”
Winter says the result is worth it. “You’re going to see colors in him that you have never seen,” Winter says. “I’m really excited for people to see how funny and charming and emotional he gets. He’s gotten to do things in this show that he’s never done, ever.”
For Paramount+, Tulsa King represents the latest in its burgeoning Sheridan-verse, which is now up to seven shows that are even starting to overlap (Tulsa King will roll out in tandem with Yellowstone season five). Glasser expects their streak of landing Stallone-like movie stars for TV roles to continue (which kicked off with Yellowstone‘s Kevin Costner and next sees Harrison Ford in its upcoming limited series prequel 1923). “Taylor has the ability to say, ‘Come take a chance with me, and you’ll feel like you’re on a movie set,’” Glasser says. “You’re going to see even more coming to the table that want to be a part of his incredibly rich material.”
Taylor Sheridan Might Have Set a Screenwriting Record With Sylvester Stallone Show ‘Tulsa King’