“Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.”
FIRST BLOOD aka RAMBO
Ted Kotcheff . 1981
Three studios, seven directors, ten writers, 18 scripts
and 18 stars gave prolonged birth to
Rambo, John J, born 7/6/47, Bowie, Arizona.
“There’s hardly anyone in town who wasn’t involved,”said writer David Giler about the Vietnam veteran. Indian-German descent. Joined army 8/6/64. Accepted, Special Forces specialization, light weapons, cross-trained as medic. Helicopter and language qualified, 59 confirmed kills, two Silver Stars, four Bronze, four Purple Hearts, Distinguished Service Cross, Congressional Medal of Honor… and Box-Office King.
Or, just plain Rambo in Canadian David Morell’s novel – “so hard, so terrifying every step of the way,” said Stallone, “that’s one reason it took so long to get done.”
Columbia Pictures first bought the book in 1972 for $75,000 – targeted at Richard Brooks. Less concerned with Rambo, he pumped up the sheriff for Lee Marvin or Burt Lancaster, with Bette Davis as Rambo’s shrink. The following year, Warners paid $125,000 for the rights – for De Niro or Eastwood. Next? Well, Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen just fled. OK, how about Kris Kristofferson with Sheriff Gene Hackman as Sheriff Teasle and Lee Marvin for Colonel Trautman. (No, thundered Marvin, I don’t wanna play a colonel!).
Martin Ritt worked on three scripts with Walter Newman, making Trautman the real villain, with Paul Newman’s Rambo (Hud back from, ‘Nam!) hunted by Sheriff Robert Mitchum. Then, for six months in 1975…
Sydney Pollock thought of
Steve McQueen vs Sheriff Burt Lancaster
“But McQueen was 45,” said Morrell, “and Rambo was in his early 20s. The script couldn’t account for the difference in age… despite his eagerness to be in the police car-motor-cycle chase.”
Next, producer Martin Bregman tarted developing it for his usual star… But Al Pacino (who shied off all Vietnam related projects) found ‘Nam veteran David Rabe’s script “too extreme.” (Yes, Tony Scarface Montana said that!).
Mike Nichols liked it for Dustin Hoffman
– although not enough to make it.
And after talking to Ted Kotcheff in 1975, Warners pulled the plug.
By 1977, producer William Sackheim set his version in motion with future Hill Street Blues creator Michael Kozoll, as a Saturday Night Rambo – John Badham helming John Travolta. Plus George C Scott as Trautman, Gene Hackman or Charles Durning for Teasle. (Stallone directed Travolta in the Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive , 1983).
Carter De Haven next optioned their script and John Frankenheimer came closest to shooting it. After talking to Powers Boothe, Michael Douglas, Nick Nolte’s agents.
During these mid-70s, Italian superestar Terence Hill started chancing his arm in Hollywood. His offers, or so he claimed on a Rai TV show in 2009, included the Rambo role. He refused because he found it troppo violento. (Like Dustin Hoffman). Frankly, it is hardly likley that an Italian spaghetti Western cowpoke (and co-star with Bud Spencer in some 18 thud and blunder comic actioners) would have made the same wish-list as the mighty De Niro, Hoffman, McQueen, Pacino, etc. And the total flop of the two LA productions he did make – Mr Billion and March or Die (ironically opposite a potential Sheriff Teasle, Gene Hackman) – buried his Hollywood hopes.
Ryan O’Neal entered the lists at some, long forgotten point. As did, rather surprisingly – given his age of 54 – James Garner. “No way,” he snapped, having no wish to sully his two Purple Hearts from the Korean War.
As for poor Harry Hamlin, he was losing roles all over town after daring to play playing a gay writer in Making Love in 1981. “.It was ten years too early, I guess, and it completely ended my career. That was the last studio picture I ever did. The door shut with a resounding smash.”
…. Brad Davis
for a Rambo who now survived all his carnage. Filmways passed. Orion showed interest – briefly. Looking for material, the new Carolco company bought it off the Warners shelf: $375,000, plus $150,000 for the Sackheim-Kazoll script. And gave it to Sylvester Stallone to work on. He went through seven versions:
“Making him a little more sympathetic,
softening it a bit. Ya know…
another Stallone whitewash job.”
Ted Kotcheff came back into the picture and while shooting Split Image, 1982, he showed a script to his star James Woods. “Read this, Jimmy, tell me what you think. And I said: ‘If you’re going to do it, I’d be pretty interested.’ At first, we were talking about it and then to get the money, they had to use Stallone and the rest is history He had to get a financeable star because the movie was not easy to make.” Kotcheff made it up with Woods with Joshua Then And Now , 1985
So, Ted directed First Blood , after all. Except as Kirk Douglas discovered: “Kotcheff didn’t have artistic control: Stallone did.”
There was no hope, therefore, in Hope, Vancouver, for Douglas’ suggestion that his Trautman should recognise the Frankenstein monster Rambo had become – and kill him. (And all the sequels!)
Said Kirk: “Stallone made the movie he wanted and I didn’t have to be in it.” Douglas walked out, Richard Crenna walked in. (Sly and Douglas were later father and son in Oscar , 1991. “Kirk had to hit me and it wasn’t working. ‘Hit me for real,” I said. He did. Wow! Then I learned: You don’t spar with Spartacus!”) .
Apparently, Burt Reynolds a role. In his tribute to The Bandit on his 2018 death, Stallone revealed: “Back in 1979, he always reminded me that I should’ve cast him as Colonel Trautman… . I said: That’s impossible, because you’re too expensive and too famous, and probably tougher than Rambo! He laughed. He had a great sense of humor and I enjoyed his company so much.”
Gene Hackman and Robert Duvalll refused to be Teasle and so Brian Dennehy became the luckless sheriff).
Even with all his input, Stallone hated the nearly four-hour rough cut. He wanted to buy the movie and destroy it. He saw it as a career killer. Instead, it saved him – his first non-Rocky hit.
As the sequel(s) went through the roof (he was still making them in 2019), a Canadian TV company made a documentary about… a real John Rambo, one of the 58,249.names on the Washington memorial.