Sylvester Stallone wasn’t born to be a star, which made him the perfect choice to play the titular Rocky Balboa in his groundbreaking 1976 film Rocky.
Before making his Oscar-winning blockbuster, Stallone spent years as an unnamed actor in New York, appearing in a handful of low-key films in the early 1970s (including the 1970 softcore pornographic film ‘The Party at Kitty and Stud’s “, which he later called” horrendous “). He first garnered critical acclaim for starring opposite Perry King and Henry Winkler in 1974’s “The Lords of Flatbush,” a low-budget drama that follows four wicked teenagers in leather jackets through the streets of Brooklyn.
Stallone also moved to Hollywood in 1974, where he continued to seek acting work with little success. His life changed on March 24, 1975, when he saw boxer Chuck Wepner, also known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” fight world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Wepner was almost guaranteed to lose the match, but he held firm against Ali and made it to the 15th and final round, when Ali knocked him out. At one point, Wepner also dropped Ali, becoming one of only four fighters in history to leave the champion.
“I saw a man called ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’, who had no chance, against the biggest fighting machine, supposedly, that ever existed,” recalls Stallone in “The Rocky Story.” And for a brief moment, this supposed stumble turned out to be magnificent. And the fact that it lasted and brought down the champion, I said, ‘Wow, if this isn’t a metaphor for life.’
Ali’s fight against Wepner served as a catalyst for the script of “Rocky”, about a boxer with bad luck, past his prime being pulled out of the dark and given a shot at the heavyweight title against the reigning champion. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Along the way, Rocky falls in love with Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire), the sister of his best friend, Paulie (Burt Young), and fulfills his quest for self-fulfillment.
Stallone wrote the initial script in three days, although he estimated that “maybe 10%” of his first draft made it to the movies. To suit the cinematic trends of the time, he initially wrote Rocky as a fearless antihero, while his trainer, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), was a racist man with an even worse temperament than the one who later appeared on screen. Stallone originally planned for Rocky to pitch the fight against Apollo because he no longer wanted to be a part of the seedy underworld of professional boxing. But his then-wife, Sasha Czack, didn’t like the directing, and Stallone eventually rewrote the script to resemble the version that hit theaters.
In a casting call, Stallone nonchalantly mentioned his script to the producers, who told him to bring it up later. United Artists loved the script and wanted to fund “Rocky,” with one caveat: Stallone couldn’t play the lead. The company wanted a suitable movie star like Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds or James Caan to direct the film, and they offered Stallone, who at the time had $ 106 in his bank account, more than $ 300,000 for the script.
Still, the actor stood his ground. “I thought, ‘Okay, you’ve really handled poverty very well. You have this in a science. You really don’t need much to live, ‘”he said. “So I thought, ‘You know what? I know in the back of my mind that if I sell this script and it works really, really well, I’ll jump off a building if I’m not in it. ‘ No doubt about it. I’m going to jump in front of a train. I’m going to be very upset. So this is one of those things where you just roll the dice and fly across the proverbial seat of your pants and say, ‘Okay, I have to try. I have to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people with me, but I just believe in it. ‘
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff finally gave Rocky the green light with Stallone in the title role. With a meager budget of just over $ 1 million, Stallone and director John G. Avildsen hit the streets of Philadelphia in a pickup truck, using Garrett Brown’s newly invented Steadicam to get fluid shots of Rocky racing through town. “Eventually my legs basically gave out, and I’m squirming on the floor, and I want to get up and say, ‘John, I’m dying here,'” Stallone recalled. And he says, ‘Use it! Use the pain. ‘
Other training scenes were equally excruciating, including the famous scene of Rocky drilling into pieces of meat in the meat locker where Paulie works. “I don’t know if anyone has hit a bull lately. They’re tough, they’re really tough, ”Stallone said. «Then my knuckles are flattened… I don’t know what they are for anymore, I suppose they are now like a table leg. They’re pretty flat, they’re pretty even, they really don’t. “I function much more like a hand.”
Stallone cut costs by casting his father, Frank Stallone, as the ringer, and his brother, Frank Stallone Jr., as the corner singer. His wife, Sasha, also served as a photographer on set. Two other last-minute cast decisions would also shape Rocky: Shire as Adrian and Weathers as Apollo Creed.
“We just finished reading and I felt the earth move,” Stallone said of Shire’s audition. “I really felt tremendous vitality and kinship. I loved her”. As filming progressed, Stallone realized that Rocky’s relationship with Adrian would define the film. “These two people are two halves that absolutely need to fit together,” he continued. And I’m starting to realize that this is the key to the movie. This is the heartbeat. The whole film will be based on the discovery of these two people, love.
Weathers, meanwhile, brought the same swiftness and arrogance to the set that Apollo Creed brought to the ring. Stallone knew he was the right man for the job as soon as they started reading lines and boxing, and Weathers gave Stallone several hard blows during his audition. “Then he sits back down and says, ‘Mr. Avildsen, I could do so much better if I had a real actor reading with me, ‘”Stallone recalled. “He says, ‘Well, Carl, that’s Rocky. That’s the guy who wrote the script. ‘ He says, ‘Maybe I’ll get better.’
Stallone originally wrote a subdued and brooding ending for Rocky in which he wandered through the crowd after the fight looking for Adrian, and the pair walked silently into the locker room, “forever anonymous.” But it didn’t sit well with Stallone: ”We thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be interesting to capture a man’s life at the ultimate pivotal moment?'”
Stallone rewrote the final scene to show Adrian running into the ring, where she and Rocky exchange “I love you” and the movie goes black in a frozen image of the fighter’s bruised and exultant face. “We all reach this absolute maximum of jubilation and celebration that can only be sustained for an infinitesimal moment in time,” Stallone said. And that’s how we froze the original Rocky. He came up to the height. Your life will never be more rewarding, more important or more valid than that second.
That wasn’t entirely true, not for Rocky or for Stallone. “Rocky” became a success after its release on November 21, 1976, earning more than $ 225 million worldwide (more than $ 1 billion adjusted for inflation) and becoming the highest grossing film of the year. It received 10 Oscar nominations and won three, beating “Network,” “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men” and “Bound for Glory” for Best Picture. Rocky spawned multiple sequels and the hit spinoff series Creed, making Stallone a household name. He would go on to star in the Rambo franchise and several other lucrative (albeit critically beaten) action films, including “Cobra,” “Tango & Cash” and “Cliffhanger.”
Still, Stallone’s proudest moment came when “Rocky” appeared in the Director’s Guild of America. The jokes didn’t land on the crowd; the fight scenes elicited no response. Stallone thought his film had failed. But when he and his mother left the theater, hundreds of spectators huddled at the foot of the stairs erupted in applause.
‘I completely fell apart. So there will never be a moment like that, ”Stallone recalled. When you find the right components in your life, the right people who fit you, then you feel invincible. It may be a fallacy, but at least you feel like you can take everything life has to hand out.
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“Rocky”: how Sylvester Stallone overcame all obstacles