In the year of America’s bicentennial, we were introduced to a new American hero for the first time. An underdog with heart, given a miraculous opportunity, who gives it everything he’s got. The film would wind up winning three Oscars, including Best Picture, and inspire a string of sequels that would extended 30 years.
A true testament to the human spirit…
Sylvester Stallone, like the character of Rocky Balboa, could relate to being down and out. Born in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, in New York City, he suffered an injury during birth (when forceps were used) which resulted in facial nerve damage. This would eventually lead to his trademarked slur. As he grew up, his parents struggled both financially and emotionally. By the time he was age nine, they would divorce.
Stallone received an athletic scholarship and studied abroad at the American College of Switzerland, where he got a part in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. It was then that he was bitten by the acting bug. He returned to the States and studied drama at the University of Miami, and upon graduation, decided to move to New York to pursue his dream of being an actor.
He was NOT immediately successful.
Parts were hard to come by for Stallone, and he faced tremendous financial hardships during those early years trying to make it. He couldn’t feed his dog, so he sold it. He was evicted from his apartment. For a brief period in time, he was homeless, sleeping in a bus station for several weeks. He even answered a posting for a softcore porn film in order to make a couple hundred dollars. He stuck with it though, and even began writing screenplays. He landed bit parts in “Klute” and “Bananas”, both in 1971, but his first major part didn’t come until 1974, after he moved to California, when he got a leading role in “The Lords of Flatbush”.
The following year saw him put seven credits on his future IMDb page, so he was getting work, but they were all small roles and TV credits.
It was that year, 1975, that Stallone saw Wepner vs. Ali on tv.
It was a remarkable bout. Muhammed Ali was World Heavyweight Champion at the peak of his career. He had just regained the title against George Foreman in the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle”, and the “Thrilla in Manilla” still lay ahead. Chuck Wepner was a bouncer and an ex Marine who fought in local clubs. He had a 30-9-2 record, and his nickname was “The Bayone Bleeder”, because he had received some 300 stitches over the course of his career. He entered the fight a 30 to 1 underdog but almost went the distance (TKO in the 15th) and knocked Ali down in the 9th.
It gave Stallone the idea for a movie. He was inspired by the overwhelming underdog… someone who no one gave a chance to giving it everything he had. It reminded him of what he was going through, himself.
Later that year, as Stallone met with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to audition for acting roles, he brought up the fact he had written some screenplays, as well. They were skeptical, but agreed to read one. So Stallone sent them “Paradise Alley”. They turned out to be uninterested in making that film, but they were impressed with Stallone’s writing. While discussing the rejection, Stallone told them he did have another idea, and would write it up if they promised to read it. It was then that he pitched them “Rocky”. Chartoff and Winkler agreed to give it a look.
Stallone went home and wrote an 80 page first draft of the screenplay in 3 1/2 days.
Chartoff and Winkler were impressed. They wanted to make the movie, and after some more work on the script, they approached United Artists about greenlighting it. UA was impressed with the script, but they weren’t interested in having Stallone star. They envisioned Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan… someone who was established. A “name” actor, not a nobody that movie-goers had never even heard of.
Stallone refused to sell the script without starring, however. He had written the part for himself and realized he would never get such a chance again. It was tailored for him. It would allow him to inhabit the role naturally. The way he saw it, this was his one chance to make it. His big shot.
It wasn’t an easy decision to stand his ground, though. The bid for the script went as high as to $350,000, which was an enormous sum of money considering his finances at the time (he claims to have had $106 in his bank account at the time). But he held fast.
Skeptical United Artist executives decided to screen Stallone’s appearance in “Lords of Flatbush” prior to finally approving a deal. In an error that would make history, they mistakenly thought that Perry King was Stallone. King had more traditional leading man looks, and no one knew in the screening actually knew who Stallone was. Thus they watched the film with their attention on the wrong actor.
Fortune was favoring the film.
United Artists gave in, and greenlit the movie.
United Artists wouldn’t approve a large budget gambling on an unknown star, however. The film was initially set to cost $2.5 million, but the producers were forced to lower that below $1 million in order to cast the film how they wanted. Making the film for a reasonable amount of money became a priority.
Director John G. Alvidsen had done “Save the Tiger” in 1973, a film that had received a fair share of acclaim and had won Jack Lemmon an Academy Award. However, it hadn’t exactly vaulted Alvidsen to the directing A-List. In fact, the film he completed just prior to “Rocky” was the little known Burt Reynolds film “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings”. When “Rocky” was proposed to him, he initially wasn’t thrilled with the idea of doing a “boxing movie”, but he read the script and realized that the story was so much more.
His talent and price point were both right for the project. The film had a director. Now it needed a cast.
“Apollo Creed seemed to me to be a compilation of Ali and all the great heavyweights at that time. This character was a showman, was a salesman, was pretty bombastic. I think very smart, articulate, but at the same time, knew how to play the game.” – Carl Weathers
With Stallone in the title role, the producers needed their Muhammed Ali. At first, they wanted to cast a real boxer. Ken Norton, Joe Frasier. But those men turned out to be far too big in comparison to Stallone, and far too good at boxing. Frasier gave Stallone stitches within minutes in the ring.
After an extensive casting process looking for someone with both the charisma and the athleticism for the role, they found former NFL linebacker Carl Weathers. Weathers came across arrogantly in his audition, he even dissed Stallone on his line reads (unaware that Stallone was to star), saying he could do his reads much better if he was working off of a REAL actor.
His brashness helped get him the part, however, and he wound up bringing a remarkable life to the role. Entertaining, intelligent, business savvy, and formidable in the ring. There aren’t many actors who could bring all of that to the table. Weathers did. He was able to create a character that would become a beloved member of the franchise.
The role of trainer Mickey Goldmill was written with Lee J Cobb (“On the Waterfront”, “12 Angry Men”) in mind, and Cobb was willing to play the part. However, he refused to read for the role when asked by Alvidsen. He considered it insulting to have to audition for a part, considering his body of work. So, when asked, he refused, and left the meeting, turning down the role in the process.
It was a blessing in disguise. The next in line for the role was Burgess Meredith, a veteran of stage and screen who was most known for his work on TV, in “The Twilight Zone” and “Batman”. In 1975, however, the year just prior to Rocky, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “Day of the Locust”. He would earn that honor again here, as well. He brought an extraordinary amount of class to the film with him.
The character of Paulie wasn’t actually n early drafts of the script, that part in the story was actually Adrian’s mother at first. But Chartoff and Winkler had worked with Burt Young and wanted to work him into the movie, so the script was rewritten to give him the part.
The most difficult role to fill was that of Adrian, Rocky’s love interest. Per Stallone, several notable actresses were considered, including Susan Sarandon, Cher and Bette Middler. Actress Carrie Snodgress was actually offered the part, but her agent wanted too much money. The role was uncast as late as three days prior to shooting, when Talia Shire came in to read. Everyone involved in the production immediately knew that they had found the perfect actress for the role.
With the cast set, it was time to get to work. With less than a million dollars to work with, money was tight. The schedule would have to be too.
They shot on location in Philadelphia, partly because the city was such a perfect home for Rocky, and partly because it was out of the watchful eyes of the Hollywood unions. Some of the clothes the characters wore were the actors own, and the amenities were sparse. The film had to be shot in under a month in order to stay under budget (it was, in 28 days). There was no chance for reshoots, and not a lot of coverage. The production couldn’t afford Union related expenses, so they shot guerilla filmmaking style, out of a van. They would drive around to various locations, Stallone would hop out, and they would quickly grab shots in 5-10 minute bursts of shooting.
A (then) new camera technology, the Steadicam, allowed them to get shots such as the infamous run up the steps of the Museum of Art. “Rocky” was literally just the third film ever to use the technology. The savings in time and costs it provided helped them to stay under budget. It also made “Rocky” a technologically innovative movie. Though audiences may not have realized exactly how, it looked and felt different… with a frame much more active than most films of the time had.
As is frequently the case with great films that were made on the cheap, the need for frugality was ultimately fortuitous. Rocky and Adrian’s first date, for example, was initially six or seven pages of script, set in a cafe. Alvidsen knew it would be too costly to film… a “Kiss of Death”. He suggested that they set the scene ice at a skating rink, instead. The production couldn’t afford extras though, so the scene wound up being set “after the rink was closed”. Of course, it wound up being classic moment. Two awkward people, uneasy on their feet. A perfect visual metaphor for the two characters.
The budget restrictions helped in other ways as well. Bill Conti, who would make his name by scoring this film, earned the job of scoring the movie by being the first conductor to accept the $25,000 all totalled pay. The $25,000 had to cover all aspects of the music production, and whatever was left over would be profit for Conti.
Once Conti had the music written, the score to “Rocky” was actually recorded in 3 hours.
The training montages – now SO famous – were considered “padding” initially to supplement the runtime. They began simply with a few basic fight training techniques: speed bag work, heavy bag work, etc. But as Conti’s music started came in, they elongated the montages in order to give “Gonna Fly Now” time to play. They wound up becoming many people’s favorite scenes in the film, and arguably the most memorable.
There was one other major hurdle facing the production. Neither Stallone nor Weathers could box.
They trained together, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, on a daily basis. Injuries were commonplace. But the two knew that the fight scenes would be the crux of the film, and wanted them to look as believable as possible.
In that pursuit, “Rocky” experienced another difficulty. Initially, the film had a veteran hollywood stunt coordinator who had choreographed several well-known boxing movies. But when Stallone requested Apollo open with four rights in succession, as if he were arrogant and dismissive of Rocky, he refused to do it. He quit the production.
Left to his own devices, Stallone envisioned “Rocky” having fight scenes that were much more authentic than those of prior boxing films. He also wanted them to tell a story as the fight progressed. So he came up with the idea of scripting the scenes…. they choreographed entire fight. The technique would pay off, “Rocky” looked much different from prior films about the sweet science and the storyline that the movie had been developing didn’t stop once the fight began.
Perhaps due to the oversized characters and emphasis on action in its sequels, “Rocky” is often misremembered. People dismiss it at times for being simply a “feel good story” or “sports movie”. But it’s very much an example of the character driven “70s filmmaking” that was en vogue at the time, and has a very tender romance at its core.
The characters of “Rocky” are fully fleshed out and brilliantly portrayed.
Rocky himself is a down and out fighter and mob goon. He makes money working collections for a local wise-guy and gets fights as he can. He fights in low-end dives for short money against bums. He’s lonely. Talks to his pet… turtles. He practices talking to Adrian in the mirror and then brings her bad jokes, even though she’s too shy to respond. He’s been tossed from his locker by the local gym owner, Mickey Goldmill, because he hasn’t been able to pay.
Adrain is painfully shy. She’s not used to anyone paying attention to her. One gets the feeling she’d rather hide. Perhaps she has been hiding. You can tell that the people in her life have always talked down to her. In fact, she says at much at one point. Not that she needs to… her alcoholic, verbally abusive brother Paulie illustrates the world she’s been brought up in perfectly. Just as Rocky has, she’s been told that she’s no good. A loser. Yet over the course of the film, she’s able to find love.
Paulie fleshes out the world and the neighborhood as well. His job at the meat-packing plant, the dive bar he frequents, his outlook on life; they all give us a view of the type of people in Rocky’s world. He’s angry, drinks too much, he’s poor. He’s mean to Adrian. Even though he sets Rocky up with her, when he sees the relationship forming, his jealousy gets in the way. His bitterness makes him lash out. He’s a “Low-life”, but he’s not single note. He’s a well-developed character.
Finally, there’s Mickey. The scene where he goes to Rocky to beg him to let him be his manager is a heartbreaking moment. It’s so sad to watch him supplicate. The roles are reversed, Rocky has the upper hand, and we see Mickey isn’t just the tough, hard-driving gym owner, he’s actually a broken old man. He didn’t have that much of a prime to be “past”. He wants his shot too, and he’s willing to swallow his pride and humble himself in order to ask for it.
All four performers would be nominated for Academy Awards. They brought to life incredible characters that function so well within the context of the film. Adrian is Rocky’s female counterpoint. Instead of physicality we get shyness. Paulie gives context, paints a picture of the class of people Rocky is in. Mickey foreshadows the man that Rocky may one day become. Together they combine to create a believable life for Rocky. An entire film neighborhood.
It’s these characters that provide the heart of the film. They’re the reason it’s not simply a sports movie, or an underdog story. It’s about the potential for anyone to find love, and for anyone to achieve something incredible in their life.
When World Champion Apollo Creed has the idea of a “novelty” fight on the Fourth of July, he views it as a publicity stunt. He wants to play up the fact he’s handing out an incredible opportunity, he’s offering the chance to fight the champ for the world heavyweight title. In light of this incredible good fortune… Rocky says “No.” Rocky has been told so often that he’s a loser that it takes him time to even accept the fact that he’s worthy of stepping into the ring. He eventually comes around, but he never deludes himself. He gives it his all (they set up his eventual, triumphant run up the Art Museum steps by showing him limp up the first time) but when all is said and done, he just wants to acquit himself. He just wants to prove to the world he’s worthy, that he’s not a loser.
He gives everything he has to prove it. The fight is a brutal pummeling. By the end, he gives as good as he receives, but there’s no question that Rocky takes a beating that would kill most men. He tastes canvas several times. His eye needs to be cut. His corner encourages him to stay down at one point. Apollo Creed can’t believe it.
But in the end, the triumph comes from Rocky achieving what he set out to achieve. He’s given the heavyweight champion of the world the fight of his life. It wasn’t about winning, it was about proving himself worthy and proving the world wrong.
The focus shifts away from the announcement of the judges’ decision. Apollo being declared champ is background noise to Rocky and Adrian saying I love you.
Once the film was finished, there was one final obstacle to overcome: UA didn’t want to release the film that year, because they had already had “Network” and “Bound for Glory”. They even went so far as to remind the producers that they had the possibility of selling the movie directly to television. They relented, but didn’t initially put the film into wide release. Everyone involved had limited expectations. But audiences were so enthusiastic that UA was quickly forced to roll it out wide.
“Rocky” went on to become the highest grossing movie of 1976, with a $117 million theatrical run domestically. A sequel went into production immediately, and eventually four others followed as well, for a total of six films that have accounted for over $1.2 billion in revenue worldwide.
It received ten Academy Award nominations. Best Picture, Best Director (John G. Avildsen), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Music – Original Song (Gonna Fly Now), Best Sound Mixing and nominations for the performers who played all four major characters. Best Actor for Sylvester Stallone, Best Actress for Talia Shire, and Best Supporting Actor for both Burgess Meredith and Burt Young. It would win for Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Picture, becoming the first Sports Film ever to win the honor. “Rocky” famously won Best Picture amongst one of the most legendary Oscar classes of all time: “All the President’s Men“, “Bound for Glory”, “Network“, and “Taxi Driver“.
It also won The Directors Guild of America award and the Golden Globe for Best picture that year, as well.
When AFI initially released their 100 Years… 100 Movies in 1998, “Rocky” came in at #78. Ten years later, with the release of 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) it rose over 20 spots, to #57. But it also appears all over their other rankings, in many spots near the top of the lists. It ranks as #52 on 100 Years… 100 Thrills. “Gonna Fly Now” charts at #58 on their 100 Years…100 Songs. “Yo, Adrian!” is #80 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes. “Rocky” is #4 on their list of 100 Years… 100 Cheers, and their #2 Sports film of all time, ranking behind only “Raging Bull”.
They also selected Rocky Balboa as one of the ten greatest movie heroes of all time. Putting him at #7 on their 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains list.
The Writers Guild of America chose the screenplay for “Rocky” as one of the best screenplays of all time, placing it at #78, and in 2006, the Library of Congress placed it in the National Film Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and preserving it for future generations.
Though not actually a boxer, Sylvester Stallone was voted into boxing’s Hall of Fame December 7, 2010.
To call it a widely acclaimed film would be a gross understatement. It is one of the most decorated films of all time. But it’s certainly not just critics that love it. Rocky Balboa is one of the true, pop culture icons of our time. The movie, and franchise, are cultural touchstones. This film anchors one of the greatest movie series ever created. It’s the “Genuinely Excellent” film that elevates its successors (which wildly vary in quality).
Sylvester Stallone used the movie as a launching pad to become one of the biggest movie stars of all time. After the release of Rocky, he became a household name overnight, and practically owned the silver screen in the following decade of the 1980s.
This movie is a timeless film. One of the most inspirational, triumphant movies of all time. It’s a movie that I have a deep, deep affection for… it’s inarguably one of the greatest movies released in my lifetime, and I can’t express my respect for it enough.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.