THE ROCKY BATTLES
“You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you're gonna crap thunder!”
Directed by John G Avildsen . 1976
Almost everything was hype -with the exception of the much loved movie.
United Artists put out a release about how an unknown actor called Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone had approached the company with a boxing script. However, he insisted he would only sell if he played the titular role. The studios refused. But once he threatened to take his script elsewhere, UA offered him $18,000 and the lead...
That helped make good headlines, underpinning the whole underdog concept”of the movie. Except that’s not how it happened.
Not at all…
Muhammad Ali's 1975 fight against no-hoper Chuck Wepne r(who lasted until the 15th round )inspired the unknown, jobbing actor to create Robert “Rocky” Balboa. An Italian-American bum like himself.
And for himself.
Sly had started writing in 1969 when the acting thimg was not working for him. His first script was in the knowwhat-I-did-last summer kinds story. Followed by something more i mportant in 1971 - a film about Edgar Allan Poe! “That got me writing about people other than myself.” Next came Paradise Alley. He managed to sell that. For $100..
“I went up to an audition… actually someone was doing me a favor and I went in to meet (producers) Irwin Winkler and Bob Chartoff, and they really had nothing for me to do. I’m there, they’re being courteous but I had the feeling they were looking at their watch and saying, ‘Thank you for coming by. We’ll keep you in mind.’ And I said, ‘By the way, I write a little bit.’ They go, ‘Sure, okay. If you ever find anything…’ Well, I didn’t have anything that was really applicable. He started thinking about he screen roels he did win. Always the street guy. the thug, the mugger. He did that with Woody Allen in Banasa, , with Jack Lemmon in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Then, Lords of Flatbush.
“I thought, why don’t I just write a story about a guy like that, but he has a good heart. And then this Chuck Wepner fight came on, and I thought of Rocky Marciano and how he was physically in the same ballpark as me. This character wasn’t that smart, but he had heart. A lot of heart.
“I was sitting at a small plywood table chain-smoking cancer sticks. I pretty much barricaded myself in the room and started to pound away, thinking: What would be an interesting vehicle if I had one shot to perform? I was influenced by Mean Streets. Marty [Scorsese] and I always had an affection for sports. Three and a half days later I had a shabby 89 pages of a script called Rocky.
John Avildsen wanted to rename it
Rocky Ain’t No Marshmallow
“Of this hand-written script, maybe only 10% was usable, but what worked for me was to write fast, even though I know it’s flawed and scenes are half-baked. I will slowly try to correct them in the rewrites. I enjoy rewriting.”
“Man, I just started writing and writing and writing and writing, and I came up with this idea in about three and a half days… at least it had a beginning and a middle. I had something to work on. I brought that back to show them. I don’t know if they were just being polite, but they said, ‘Oh yeah, keep working on it.’ So I came back two weeks later with another draft. They said, ‘Well, let’s try this angle or that angle.’ After about 20 different incarnations, they said, ‘We’d like to make this movie.’ Which left me in complete shock, because I had nothing at this point.
Liker Wepner, this was Sly’s one shot at the title.
Unlike Wepner, Sly won…
Just. Not. Immediately.
Sly’s influences were Kirk Douglas’s intensity, Steve Reeves’ fantasy (“I saw Hercules and my mind just exploded”) and “in the bar scene, that kind of body language was very reminiscent of De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, yeah. Regular artists borrow, geniuses steal.”
Hollywood was also thinking big...
“The fancy pants Hollywood suits wanted to cast others than me
- it was Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds. James Caan
- even Robert Redford!”
There is a legend that apart from these names the role almost went to TV actor Perry King. Wrong again. A misreading of the situation. No one knew who this Stallone guy was. The producers got a still of The Lord's of Flatbush... and could not fathom why a Stallone was a blond WASP. The blond in the group was Perry King... When the real Stallone was pointed out to them, executive minds almost literally passed on the movie.
Winkler and Chartoff were constantly told: “Nobody'll go to a little fight film in which two unattractive people fall in love - especially it has an unknown lead.” Well, they did for the lope story in UA's Marty. But that was 21 years ago...
“Those guys actually mortgaged their homes, I don’t know if people knew that. They put up their own personal savings, and they weren’t incredibly rich at that time. It was a big leap of faith. So it was a Rocky story on all different levels. I have to give them credit because I certainly couldn’t have ever done it alone, and maybe I realise this more at age 69, but we really did it as a team. You can’t do these things, alone.”
Sly was offered $150,000 to take a hike and let Ryan O'Neal become Rocky Balboa. (He became a “boxer” three years later in Barbra Streisand's The Main Event frolic. Not to mention at home…). Sly said the figure was $300,000 - “$1m today.” He stayed in his corner.
“Burt Reynolds would have done well with it, but you know… I just…couldn’t.
You had Ryan O’Neal, who loved boxing. I saw him spar with Joe Frazier once when I was doing extra work in 1971. I said, “Wow, look at that.” Another tough guy, Jimmy Caan, liked it and you had Nick Nolte. All these guys were the prime suspects to play the character, and they’d all probably have done it very well. It was a miracle that it happened the way it did.
“I was pretty flat broke at that time, and really, I had nothing left. I had to sell my dog because I couldn’t afford the dog food. Yeah, I had to sell my dog. At a 7-11. For 50 bucks. Then, when the movie happened, I tried to buy him back. The guy goes, ‘Well, I want $1,500.’ I went, ‘Oh my God.’ He ended up being in the movie, Butkus. I figured, that poor dog had suffered with me in New York for five years. He deserved to be in the movie.
“I didn’t hold out for less money, I held out for no money and it certainly wasn’t a publicity story, it was just a matter of a nobody actor wanting to get an opportunity that would never come again. So we were paid Screen Actors Guild minimum - $360 a week - and believe me, coming from where I was coming from I felt like I had hit the motherlode... They immediately cut their budget and made it a 25 day shoot. I knew if they didn’t like the first week, it would be sayonara. I even had to go by train, they didn’t give me a plane ticket. I thought I was making a film for drive-ins. I approached it as a coming-of-age story about the frustration I felt. I thought a regular character wouldn’t work, so I put it in the body of a boxer. I don’t look at Rocky as a boxing movie. It was a love story. That’s why I think it worked.”
A tough love story…
“Carl Weathers really hit hard, and the gloves we were using were small. They said they were eight ounces, but they were more like six ounce gloves. I look at them today, and I go, ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’ He cracked my rib, but luckily, that was at the end of the movie when we were doing body shots.”
Adrian Balboa . Sly's first choice was Carrie Snodgress, “who I wanted badly because, at the time, I wanted Adrian's family to be Irish and Harvey Keitel would be the brother (Burt Young in the series].She said there wasn't enough money in it (we were getting paid $360 before taxes), so I said: ‘I'll give you my share, I truly want you.' She passed to do a part in Buffalo Bill And The Indians, which never happened for her.
“Next choice was Susan Sarandon, but she was definitely too attractive.
“Then, we went after Cher... She wanted $1m
- that's more than the film cost.”
“And lastly, I had to arm-wrestle Bette Midler’s manager, Aaron Russo, to get an interview with her… which, by the way, never happened. I had rewritten the Adrian part as Jewish, and, besides Paulie, she had a Jewish mother who truly despised Rocky.Obviously, all this was relegated to the drama shit-can when Talia Shire walked into the office and bells went off in my head. She secured the part, which in my mind was the most important casting in the film. So sometimes initial failure is good and leads to an unexpected outcome.”
Yo, Adrian, indeed! It didn’t hurt that Talia was Francis Coppola’s sister. And the Balboas conquered da woild...
“I never thought Rocky was going to be such a success,” said Stallone. “I never dreamed I would be a so-called movie star. I only knew I was different and realised that if I didn’t write something for myself I would never find a perfect character to really reveal what I was or the feelings I share with the audience. So I had no choice, it was sink or swim.”
“Condominiums? I never use ’em.”
Directed by Sylvester Stallone . 1978
They all came back. Rocky. Yo-Adrien! Mickey. Apollo Creed… The only change was the director. John G Avildsen and his Oscar were out. A certain Sy Stallone and his Oscar were in
Rocky’s global success had made him insufferable and a sudden authority on everything cinematic, Stallone admitted in London (indeed in a London Palladium celebrity interview) in January 2013, “I abused power badly,” he told Jonathan Ross on stage. “I read some of the interviews I gave… and wish I could go back and punch myself in the face.”
He was brought back to earth with a helluva bump on the day he left the sequel’s set to check out an opening day screening of his 1977 directing debut, Paradise Alley… He found just two people in the audience. “And one of them was asleep,” he sighed, admitting it had been a humbling experience - but a good thing for him in the long run.
“I had to go back to the set. It didn’t work out that badly for Paradise Alley, but my confidence was at an all-time low that day, and I had to tell myself, just keep punching.”
Talking of which… He had been hurt by Carl Weathers in Rocky, “but the hardest I was ever hit was with Dolph Lundgren, who was immense and had been the World Kickboxing Champion. He was tall and had tremendous leverage.
“I’d just seen this real fight between Hagler and Hearns, which is just a classic all-out battle, and I thought, ‘God, why don’t we try to re-enact that?’ No way you can choreograph that. You just have to go for it because it’s so frenzied that there’s no way you can just learn that punch pattern. It’s just impossible. I needed that kind of uninhibited violence which these two fighters had for each other.
“So I tell Dolph, “For the first 30 seconds, just come at me with everything you got, and I’ll just try to duck and dodge and do the best I can... Then bang, bang, bang, three times in the body, and I managed enough oxygen to say, Cut ! Next thing I know I was in intensive care for four days. They said, ‘It’s like a car accident.’ I said, ‘Well, I think I was hit by a truck.’ After that, I said, ‘Dolph, be careful, will ya?’ ”
[For my Rocky I and II pieces, I am enormously indebted to LA’s ultimate interviewer, Mike Fleming Jr - and his superb Sly interview at Deadline Hollywood, January 2, 2016. Nobody does t better… ].
“You gotta get that look back, Rock. Eye of the tiger, man!”
Directed by Sylvester Stallone . 1981
Apparently learningnothing from training sceneswith Roberto Durán (ex-world middleweight champ) inthe first sequel, Stallone decidedthatthird time around, he would test real heavyweights for the role of Clubber Lang.To see if they could fake their punch power.
First choice was the 1970-73 heavyweight champ, Smokin’ Joe Frazier - the only ex-world champ to accept the inviteto attend the fight between Rocky and Apollo Crreed in the first film. His visit was wholly credible as Joe lived in Rocky’s hometown: Philadelphia
Meeting him in the ring, even for a test, was a disaster…“Joe gave me a four-stitch gash over my right eye within the first five seconds of the first round. And he taught me something. Like play safe, get an actor! I hadn’t developed a death wish that early on in my life.”
Yet, he tried again with Earnie Shavers, who KOed ex-champs Jimmy Ellis and Ken Norton. Try as he might, Shavers could not win the title from his idol, Muhammad Ali - who said: “Earnie hit me so hard he shook my brothers back in Africa!”Stallone had to agree…
“He made me realise
I can’t function on this earth without lungs.
He nearly knocked mine out of my mouth.”
“After a lot of reflection,” said Stallone, “I remembered that strange-looking man… I laid eyes on, 1977 or ’78, at a fight in New Orleans with Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks. Mr T was Spinks’ bodyguard. Here was this hulking man with a Mohawk, a trillion feathers and chains hanging from his ears and neck, while garbed in a high-collared, long-tailed tuxedo. That image was burned into my brain. Why not?’ Neither
Rocky, nor America, had seen anything that unique before, and that was the beginning of Mr. T’s career.”
Sly footnote: “Rambo is me before coffee in the morning. Rocky is me after coffee.”