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Rocky (1976) may not be the best sports film ever made, but for many it is the best loved. As much love story as boxing movie, this feel-good box-office smash launched Sylvester Stallone's career into the stratosphere, inspired countless imitations (some of which were the Rocky sequels), and provided America with a simple blue-collar hero at a time when nonheroes and antiheroes—in movies like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Dog Day Afternoon —predominated on American movie screens. As Stallone told the New York Times at the time the film came out, "I've really had it with anti-this and anti-that. Where are all the heroes? I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream."

Much of the film's enjoyment stems from the fact that Rocky Balboa's succeeding-against-all-odds story is neatly paralleled by the succeeding-against-all-odds story of Stallone himself. The actor had been living in a seedy Hollywood apartment with his wife, his savings having dwindled to $106, when he wrote his script about the Italian Stallion. Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff showed the script to United Artists, and the studio was sufficiently impressed to offer Stallone $75,000 for the script—then $125,000, then $350,000—so they could make the film starring Ryan O'Neal, Robert Redford, James Caan, or one of the other superstars of the day. But Stallone wanted the role for himself and, realizing that the story was about having faith in yourself and going the distance, he declined the offers, even though he was about to be evicted from his apartment and his wife was pregnant with their first child. When he finally got the chance to star in the film, it launched his career and went on to win the Academy Award for best picture of 1976, beating out such box-office and critical champs as Network and All the President's Men.

Early in 1975, before Rocky Balboa existed in anyone's imagination, Chuck Wepner was, to many boxing fans, a joke. Living in Bayonne, New Jersey, he sold liquor by day and boxed at night. The 35-year-old Wepner, who was ranked eighth by Ring magazine, had been nicknamed "the Bayonne Bleeder" because of the 300-plus stitches he had accumulated on his face, mostly around his eyes. He was an unlikely boxer to be facing "the Greatest," Muhammad Ali, in the ring, but Ali was just looking for an easy fight as a warm-up for his next major heavyweight title bout. The fight was such a joke that oddsmakers did not even put out a betting line. The week before the fight, a reporter asked Ali if he thought of Wepner as representing white America in their upcoming bout. Ali rolled his eyes and said, "White America wouldn't pick him! " Ali called Wepner a "cinch," and someone else suggested that if Wepner was ranked eighth, then a punching bag must have been seventh.

This champ-vs.-chump fight was a joke to everyone—except, of course, to Wepner himself, who spent the two months leading up to the fight in the Catskill Mountains with his trainer and manager, training constantly. On March 15, 1975, the spectators who gathered in the Coliseum outside Cleveland were expecting Wepner to last three rounds at most but, to everyone's amazement, Wepner hung in there round after round after round. At one point Ali's fist broke Wepner's nose. In Round 7, Ali opened a cut over Wepner's left eye, and reopened it in every round thereafter. Wepner's eye swelled shut to the point where he could no longer see Ali's powerful right jabs coming. But in Round 9, Wepner brought the crowd to its feet when he knocked Ali down with a roundabout right—only the fourth time in Ali's long illustrious career that he had been knocked down. When Wepner answered the bell beginning the 15th and final round, he became only the sixth Ali opponent to make it so far. Ali then slammed a powerful right into Wepner's bloody face, the barely conscious Wepner slumped against the ropes and, with 19 seconds remaining in the fight, the referee stopped the bout and awarded Ali a TKO (technical knock-out). Ali later said, "None of my fights was tougher than this one. There's not another human being in the world that can go 15 rounds like that." The spectators had been galvanized, not just in Cleveland but at pay-per-view venues across the country where the fight was carried on closed-circuit television. One of those spectators was Stallone, who had dipped into his $106 in savings to watch the fight at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. Stallone had gone because "there's something about sweating that inspires me to write," and he certainly got his money's worth. According to Stallone, "That night, Rocky Balboa was born."

Stallone nurtured the idea for three months before churning out the script in three and a half days. When he first brought up the script to possible investors, he was reluctant to do so because he considered it a rough draft with a number of problems. In this early version, Rocky's trainer, Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith in the film), was a racist, and opponent Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) was much older. At the climax, when Rocky has Apollo on the ropes, Mickey's racism comes out in full force, and he screams at Rocky to kill his opponent. This angers Rocky, who then allows Apollo to land a punch so Rocky can take a dive, and Apollo wins. Rocky retires from fighting and uses his earnings from the fight to buy girlfriend Adrian (played by Talia Shire) a pet shop. During Stallone's next two drafts, he considered having Rocky win, but realized, not only would this be unbelievable, it would turn Rocky from a common man into a superhero. Cannily, Stallone opted for the ending that was eventually filmed, with Rocky losing the fight but "going the distance." For Stallone, the film was not about winning, it was about courage; the opponent was not Apollo Creed, it was unrealized dreams and fear of failure.

Even though Stallone had refused United Artists' offer of $350,000, Winkler and Chartoff still thought the film might get backing with Stallone as the star if they could come up with a low-enough budget. They finally trimmed the budget to an extremely modest $1,750,000. United Artists executives felt even this was too high, considering the fact they were not sure if Stallone had sufficient charisma to be a leading man, or could be convincing as a boxer. They finally agreed to back the film if the budget were trimmed to an even million, with Chartoff and Winkler paying for any budget overruns. The producers then proceeded to slash salaries in exchange for a percentage of the profits, agreed to take nothing up front, told Stallone he would get only $20,000 for his script and would have to act for union scale, found file footage of crowd scenes from actual fights to save having to hire extras, and scouted real locations to reduce the number of sets that had to be built. Stallone rewrote the scene where Rocky takes Adrian to a crowded skating rink for their first date, substituting a rink that is closed for Thanksgiving in order to save the cost of all those extras on skates. Director John G. Avildsen agreed to direct for half his usual $100,000 fee in exchange for a percentage of the film. For the five months before the cameras rolled, Stallone and Weathers trained together, and Stallone spent every spare moment jogging on the beach, doing pushups, studying fight films, and working out at a gym with a former fight trainer. The film was shot in 28 days, and came in $40,000 under budget.

The movie was a box-office and critical smash, with the public taking to heart this story of a Philadelphia lug who supplements his income as an enforcer for a loan shark but refuses to break thumbs, talks to his pet turtles Cuff and Link, trains at a slaughterhouse by pummeling sides of beef, and makes that triumphant run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Rocky received ten Academy Award nominations, and Stallone's nominations for both best actor and best screenplay marked only the third time in Oscar history that someone had received both nominations for the same film, previuos nominees being Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. The film won for best picture, best director, and best film editing. Following the movie, men flocked to gyms in order to bulk up, drinking raw eggs became a passing fad, and a wave of films flooded out of Hollywood copying the Rocky formula, notably The Karate Kid films directed by Avildsen, and the Rocky sequels. When the first Rocky premiered, Stallone said he was planning two sequels: in the first, Rocky would attend night school, enter politics and get elected mayor of Philadelphia; and in the second he would get framed by the political machine because of his honesty, get impeached, and return to the ring. But after the phenomenal success of Rocky, Stallone and the producers realized that a fortune could be made by, in effect, remaking the first film, but climaxing it with a Rocky-Apollo Creed championship fight with Rocky winning this time. Stallone directed Rocky II (1979) and all involved made fortunes, but the film was a far cry from the original. Stallone then directed Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), and Avildsen returned to direct Rocky V (1990), with each generally worse than the one before. This sequel overkill may have tarnished the reputation of the original, though the original still holds up, retaining enough of a reputation to have been selected by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest films of the last 100 years.

—Bob Sullivan

Further Reading:

Daly, Marsha. Sylvester Stallone. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Rovin, Jeff. Stallone! A Hero's Story. New York, Pocket Books, 1985.

Stallone, Sylvester. Official Rocky Scrapbook. New York, Grosset &Dunlap, 1977.

Wright, Adrian. Sylvester Stallone: A Life in Film. London, Robert Hale Limited, 1991.

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