The story of how Sylvester Stallone fought to get Rocky made is one of the most fascinating in film history.
Given how many sequels were pumped out (the most recent just a couple of years ago, it seems amazing that anyone could turn the combination of actor and material down. But that's exactly what happened when the scrappy young wannabe film star started shopping his idea around.
To understand why it was such a struggle, you need to go back and consider the fate of boxing movies in Hollywood. And why sometimes genres are ready for a comeback…
1. Boxing Films Punch Back
A long time ago, boxing films were huge across the pond. William Holden was a man torn between a love of music and a talent for the ring in Golden Boy in 1939.
James Cagney had punched above his weight in 1940's City For Conquest as a truck driver who tries his hand - well, his fist - at the "fight game", with tragic consequences.
And in 1947, John Garfield was Charley Davis, an amateur fighter with a bright career and family trouble, who fell in with a dodgy promoter and made some tough choices.
But in the years immediately preceding Rocky, the fight film had fallen out of favour with audiences, who seemingly preferred the likes of The Exorcist and Jaws and The Godfather.
That was about to change, thanks to one man with a dream. His name? No, not Sylvester Stallone… Chuck Wepner.
2. A Fight, A Dream, A Script…
The main inspiration for Stallone? Chuck Wepner taking on the legendary Muhammad Ali on March 24, 1975 at the Richfield Coliseum outside of Cleveland in Richfield, Ohio.
Thirty-six year old Wepner was considered a moderate talent, but no one thought he had a hope against Ali. Indeed, no one expected Wepner to last more than three rounds.
As such, the longer the fight went on past the opening three rounds, the more shocked people became; Wepner even managed to knock Ali down in the ninth round (although Ali has always maintained that Wepner was standing on his foot when he fell).
Ali immediately opened a blistering offensive in an attempt to drop Wepner and for the next six rounds, he pummeled Wepner mercilessly, breaking his nose and opening large gashes above both his eyes.
No matter how hard Ali hit him however, Wepner kept moving forward and continuing to fight (it was this specific aspect of the fight which inspired Stallone).
Eventually, with 19 seconds left in the fifteenth and final round, Ali scored a TKO.
The underdog in that case might have lost the fight, but he got some good, solid punches in when he was never expected to last more than a round or two.
Wepner's accomplishment was a massive encouragement to a struggling young talent named Sly Stallone.
Stallone had had a few small roles in the likes of The Party At Kitty And Stud's, Klute, Bananas, Death Race 2000 and The Lords Of Flatbush (to which he also contributed some of the dialogue).
Mostly, however, he was either uncredited, or saw his scenes deleted and he was most definitely underpaid and under appreciated.
He quickly came to a conclusion: "Early in my acting career I realized the only way I would ever prove myself was to create my own role in my own script," he recalls.
"On my 29th birthday I had $106 in the bank. My best birthday present was a sudden revelation that I had to write the kind of screenplay that I personally enjoyed seeing.
"I relished stories of heroism, great love, dignity, and courage, dramas of people rising above their stations, taking life by the throat and not letting go until they succeeded.
"But I had so many ideas in my head I couldn't focus on any one. To cheer myself up, I took the last of my entertainment money and went to see the Ali-Wepner fight on closed circuit TV.
"That night, Rocky Balboa was born. He is a man of the streets. People looked on him as the all-American tragedy, a man without much mentality and few social graces.
"But he has deep emotion and spirituality and good patriotism. And he has a good nature, although nature has not been particularly good to him.
"I have always seen him as a 20th Century gladiator in a pair of sneakers. Like so many of us, he is out of sync with the times. To all this, I injected doses of my own personal life, of my frustration at not getting anywhere."
Next: Rocky Takes Shape
3. Rocky Takes Shape
Despite limited writing experience, Stallone's idea for Rocky fueled his imagination and got him through some truly tough times.
"I used to sit in this little apartment - well, it was a room, so small that I was able to open up the door and close the window at the same time while sitting on the bed. It was eight feet by nine feet!
"But the great thing about that room was that there was really very little distraction, so I would sit there, propped up on the bed and go out with my pen and big legal pad and just start writing these stories.
"Most of them were really very trivial, but there was something about the process of unrealized dreams, because it's one of the most enduring stories.
"The more I thought about this kind of street-like character who is totally misrepresented by the way he looks, the way he walks down the street is enough for people to dismiss him as a bully or a dark kind of character and I thought that was interesting.
"That festered in my mind for quite a while until I decided to come to California and I moved to the Valley and things weren't going well - as a matter of fact I had to go out and try to sell my dog, Butkus, since it was either that or he wouldn't be fed around the house.
"After I saw the Wepner fight, I said, 'that is what I needed as a catalyst for a story about a man who will take one shot.
"It was one of those writing frenzies and three days later, I came up with the script of Rocky. It was by no means a finished piece of material - it was probably about 90 pages and maybe 10% of it remained in the final draft, but it was done.
"Originally, Rocky the film was very dark, because in films at that time, the antihero was the favoured kind of character. I wrote him to be like that, very dark and he throws the fight at the end, plus Mickey turns out to be this very angry, racist man and Rocky didn't want to be involved in that world."
Stallone had one critic early on who would help shape what Balboa would eventually become - someone close.
"I remember showing it to my wife and she said, 'Oh, I don't like it, Rocky seems so nasty, he does this and that.' I'm made him unrepentant.
So I went back and re-wrote and re-wrote."
But it would take a little luck to get things moving…
Next: First Break
4. First Break
Though there is some dispute as to whether it all truly transpired the way those involved have said it did, the story of Rocky is not just the story of Stallone. But while he was the driving force and passion behind the movie, a couple of others were directly involved in getting it to the screen.
"I first met Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler when I was on a casting call. We're talking a little bit and I guess I wasn't right for the acting part they were auditioning.
But on the way out I told them that I did a little bit of writing and that had this story about boxing and they said, 'well, bring it around' and if they didn't tell me that, I wouldn't be where I am, so I have to give incredible credit to their insight and their patience and their willingness to take a chance, which doesn't happen as much these days."
Though the producers seemed intrigued by the idea of Rocky, there was one big sticking point: the right man for the lead role.
"When I brought them the script, they were fairly enthusiastic about it," laughs Stallone. "The one the thing they were not enthusiastic about was me playing the part.
"And I really can't blame them - at the time, Ryan O'Neal was a candidate, Burt Reynolds, Jimmy Caan, Robert Redford, and they all were at the top of their game. I could see it, but there was something inside of me that said this opportunity's never going to come around again."
The producers definitely wanted the script, but they wanted the rights to make it and not Stallone as their lead. The offers began to come in.
"I really wasn't used to money and I had no idea of what I would be missing, but the temptations started to come in. $25,000, then $100,000 and I'd never even heard of that before. My $40 car had just blown up, so I was taking the bus to work!"
"Still the offers went up - $150,000, $175,000, $250,000. My head was starting to spin. It went up to $333,000 and I thought, 'you've really managed poverty well, you don't really need much to live on', so I was not in any way used to the good life.
"I went, 'I know if I sell this script and it does very, very well and I'm not in it, I'm going to jump off a building. I'm going to be very upset." So I decided that I was just going to do it myself, and maybe I'll be totally wrong and take lots of people down with me…"
Chartoff and Winkler eventually agreed to Stallone's term that he would only sell them the script if the contract included a chance for him to star.
For their part, the producers demanded that he produce additional drafts for free and that any studio would only pay him scale for his role in the final film.
United Artists had offered to produce the script, offering a $2 million budget. But when the producers and their writer held firm to the idea of a largely unknown actor anchoring the movie, the studio slashed the budget to $1 million and told them they'd be personally liable if it went over that cost.
The final cost? $1.1 million, with that extra money coming from Winkler and Chartoff mortgaging their houses to stump up the cash.
With Jon Avildsen attached to direct, the thing could finally shoot. But with that lower budget, Rocky would be filmed guerrilla style…
Next: Getting It Made
5. Getting It Made
"We didn't have the money to shoot a normal film," says Stallone. So we would travel in a van and I would jump out of the van and just shoot stuff.
"We were working with Garrett Brown, who had invented the Steadicam and it was still somewhat experimental. He and Jon would film me running all over the city until my legs gave out and I was writhing on the ground, saying, 'Jon, I'm dying here!' And he'd say, 'Use the pain!' 'For WHAT?' ' It's giving your character some depth.' 'It's giving me bruises and I can't sleep at night!'
"Jon would use the environment - like the scene where I'm running beside the ship along the dock was just literally something he spotted and had be run alongside. I was so tired, I was about ready to collapse and I feared my face would hit the ground!
"People had no idea who I was. I was this strange alien invader running in a tattered, incredibly ugly grey sweat suit. I thought people were trying to hit me with stuff!"
Committed to living his dream role, however, Stallone endured.
"There were so many injuries. Running up and down the steps gave me a wicked case of shin splints, which was an old football injury from high school.
"As for hitting the meat, which we thought would be an interesting image, it's not easy. My knuckles were flattened out and became like a table leg. They rarely function as a hand anymore! I had to take all the injuries and use them for the character."
Another feature of the stripped-down budget was the lack of money to fund a big supporting cast. "I tried to get as much help as possible from friends, my brother is a street-corner singer, my dad is a bell ringer, even my dog is in it.
"Even my first wife was set photographer and though she only had the budget for about 100 pictures, they're some of the best set photographs I've ever had, because they were all great."
Above all, Rocky needed an Adrian. The love of his life, the woman whose love helps keep him going. And even that casting choice was a tough, last-minute affair.
"Talia Shire was a late choice because we just couldn't find the right person and then she came in and it was the same night as Carl Weathers.
"We just read and I felt the Earth move and I felt a tremendous kinship and vitality. I loved her - the way she looked, the way her hair fell, this timid, fragile character with the perfect voice.
"My favorite scene to shoot with her was the ice-skating moment, because that has a story behind it. Originally, it was planned as this big scene with 300 extras.
"When I turned up, they said, 'We have a slight change in plans. We have one extra.' 'I said, well, I have an interesting thing to tell you: I don't ice skate. I don't know why I wrote that scene!'
"So there we are in an empty arena and I'm running alongside her because I can't skate at all and she said she did, but if you look at it, she's only just holding on. And Rocky looks like such a fool and she doesn't care. These two people are two halves that really need to fit together.
"I started to realise that this is the key to the film. The heartbeat."
For the moment where the two first kiss, reality initially got in the way of romance, but actually helped make it work better. Shire had contracted the flu and was worried about getting Sly sick, so she was very hesitant to kiss him.
Her hesitation and behavior was actually such an improvement over the scripted scene that they decided to keep it. Indeed, this scene has become Stallone's favorite scene in the entire Rocky saga, and both he and Shire see the scene as a 'birth-scene' for Adrian, where she is awakened to a new life.
Next: A Worthy Opponent
6. A Worthy Opponent
While Rocky had love, he also had an opponent, in the shape of Apollo Creed.
"I couldn't have come up with a better Apollo than Carl Weathers," admits Stallone.
"He was magnificent on his feet, an amazing body, this perfect voice and this incredible bearing.
"We'd cast Ken Norton, but he'd dropped out two nights before to do something else, and Carl walked in and starts his audition.
"He gets up, and he starts to box with me, landing a couple of my head, and I thought, 'gee, this guy doesn't care if he gets the part, does he?' He sits back down and says, 'Mr Avildsen, I could have done much better if you had a real actor reading with me.' And Jon says, 'You know Carl, that's Rocky, he wrote the script.'
"And he just sits back and says, 'Well, maybe he'll get better!' And I said, 'hire him! That's exactly what we need!'"
Prior to shooting the fight between the pair, Avildsen decided that the scenes needed to be shot in a unique way so as to make the boxing more realistic than in other boxing movies of the period.
He, Weathers and Stallone all went to a ring and began to block out the moves, but it wasn't working, and the fight was coming across as staged and not very energetic.
Avildsen then told Stallone to go home and literally write out the fight: "Rocky throws a left, Creed moves back, Creed goes right, Rocky goes right Creed jabs low…" The next day, Stallone returned with 32 pages of specific directions for the fight, which he and Weathers learned off like a ballet over a period of weeks. In total, Stallone and Weathers rehearsed for over 35 hours.
Every fight in the film was actually shot twice to give it that feeling of realism - once with Garrett Brown and his steadicam in the ring, another with him in the audience.
The movie itself was shot in a swift 28 days, with one extra shoot - to change the ending. While the original finale features Rocky and Adrian walking quietly off together, hand in hand (as in the original poster), Avildsen and Stallone agreed that the best way to finish was a freeze frame of Rocky at his most triumphant.
But triumph for its writer/star would have to wait a little while…
Next: Knockout Success
7. Knockout Success
Given all the challenges that had been shoved in the film's way so far, even Stallone, the one who had believed in in all the way through, couldn't have predicted what it would become.
"I had no idea it was ever going to have this sort of response. I just thought it was some nice footage. So when the screenings around Hollywood were getting this incredible response, with people responding to the fights as though they were happening at the time, I realised people were invested in this character.
"I began to get phone calls from powerful people around town and I thought, 'wow, this could actually be a hit. This could actually work.' I had no true confidence in it, because I had no film history, no film knowledge, I was working from instinct.
"Finally, it was being shown at the Director's Guild, and that was going to be the big test. 900 people or so had been invited, it was a packed crowd. And the movie was playing terribly.
"My mother was sitting next to me and the laughs weren't coming where they were supposed to be and the fights seemed listless. I sat there as everyone filed out of the theatre and I couldn't believe it.
"I said, 'Ma, it was nice while it lasted, but I guess when you show it to the big boys, they just don't buy it.' There was no one left in the cinema and even when I walked out and was going down the steps. By the time I got to the third flight, the entire audience was down there.
"They started to applaud. Really applaud. And I turned to my mother and said, 'How could you doubt me, mom? I'm shocked!' I just completely came apart. There will never be a moment like that again. I figured I'd go home, take my dog and try to eke out a living.
"It's been all downhill since!"
Not quite… The movie would go on to become the first sports-themed film to scoop Best Picture, with Avildsen winning Best Director and Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad taking Best Film Editing.
And that wasn't all - Rocky also got nominated for a couple of Best Supporting Actor gongs (Burgess Meredith and Burt Young), Best Actor/Best Screenplay for Stallone and Best Actress for Talia Shire.
Box office-wise, the film was a huge hit, earning more than $220 million around the world and more now that it has been on video and DVD for years.
Success spawns one thing in Hollywood, of course… Sequels.
Next: Rocky's Next Bouts
8. Rocky's Next Bouts
Rocky would prove to be a tough act to follow. After the film, Stallone would go on to work on the likes of F.I.S.T. and his own Paradise Alley, but the lure of the ring eventually proved too great.
"You're talking about making a film that will be compared to one which won an Academy Award," he said. "I didn’t want a Planet Of The Apes series. Sequels are usually bad. But a miracle happened for us. All the people from the first Rocky came back."
Well, not quite everyone - Avildsen was AWOL. "He didn't like the script," said Stallone at the time. "He suggested I do my own directing, so I did."
Focusing on the man's rising fame, the second film, released in 1979, features a big scene where kids run alongside him on one of his recognizable training sprints.
"We advertised for any child who wanted to run with Rocky to come down," laughs the actor. "Well, about four kids and 99,000 adults showed up. You know, guys from the Philadelphia Striders track club).
"They were beating me. So we said, 'OK, you beat Rocky.’ Now will you please bring your kids down?' When the 13-year-olds showed up, they were beating me, too. Finally we got some nine- year-olds and Rocky beat them."
Rocky II would enjoy some of the success of the first film, earning a healthy return on its investment, but no Oscars this time around.
Rocky III (1982), on the other hand, is better known for introducing Mr T's Clubber Lang and Hulk Hogan's Thunderlips to the franchise, and for the now iconic 'Eye Of The Tiger' used as the theme (though Stallone initially wanted Queen's 'Another One Bites The Dust'.
Another writing and directing job by Stallone himself, the film was successful enough to keep the character popular, though by this time Rocky was being viewed as a patch on Stallone's career - something to bring out every time it began to fade.
But immediately following the third film, he scored his other signature role - that of John Rambo, and it was largely expected that Rocky would be allowed to retire with his trilogy complete.
Nope… Along came Rocky IV in 1985, with Stallone once more in charge. This time, Rocky squares off against Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago, a Russian-sponsored, hulking killing machine of a boxer who nearly finished off our hero.
And though it was seen as something of a desperate act, it went on to become the top-grossing film in the series, with $300 million in the bank worldwide.
By the time Rocky V (1990) rolled around, even Stallone was seemingly done with the story since, in the first draft, the Italian Stallion was set to die fighting.
But he eventually changed his mind, agreeing to make Rocky Balboa, which sees the fighter as a much older man, dealing with the loss of his true love and the way his life has turned out….
Next: Balboa And The Future…
9. Balboa And The Future…
"I felt obligated to try and end the series the way it should have ended. I was very negligent with 1990's Rocky V. It just didn't leave anyone with any sense of hope," Stallone told Entertainment Weekly.
"It was very reflective of where I was at the time. So, it bothered me. And then around '96, I thought, Oh, I want to approach Hollywood with the idea.
"And they said, basically, never. I kept going back and visiting and there was a certain studio head that wanted no part of it. So, at that time MGM was just not interested and I thought, This is never going to happen. Then, as fate would have it, MGM was sold to Sony, new people in, and that was it."
For Stallone, it was a chance to clear the air finally. "I think a lot of people got stuff in the basement and they never get to vocalize it. And when you get older, you get less of a forum to speak. It's like, oh you had your moment, time to move on. I thought, now it's really starting to be an interesting premise.
"Taking that personal journey, dealing with grief. I thought we had a weighty story."
Shortly after he made Rocky Balboa, Stallone was approached by the National Museum of American History to enshrine Rocky in their archives.
The scrappy fighter truly had become part of the culture. "Rocky, of course, is part of everybody. I don't claim ownership anymore," Stallone told a press conference in Washington. "The reason the story worked is because all of us have a need to feel fulfillment in their life. That battle never ends. And that's why I put him in the body of a boxer."
But he'll never forget his early days with him… "Every day, I truly miss that character so much, some times I could just cry. Because I'll never have a character like that again, where I could just speak whatever I feel in my heart.
"That's the one thing I'll always cherish about that character, because if I say it, you won't believe it, but when Rocky says it was the truth…"
Rocky: The Undisputed Collection is out now on Blu-ray.
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