Over 44 years ago, Sylvester Stallone walked into a casting call for a movie. A simple audition came and went but before he left, Stallone told the producers he had something else: a script.
The screenplay was called, “Rocky,” about a down and out boxer working the docks in Philly trying to find his way. Stallone thought they would be interested and perhaps, didn’t harbor much faith in the role he was there to secure. Like the main character of that script, he put all of his gold on the table.
While they liked the script, Stallone wasn’t who they had in mind to play the pugilist. Maybe it was the lack of leading man work in his career at that point or a plain old “I can’t see it or trust it enough” mentality. They wanted his words but not his face. Stallone said no. This was his script and he wanted to play the role.
Eventually, the young actor (then in his 30’s) got his way, got the starring role of Rocky Balboa, and the rest as they say is history. “Rocky” played in theaters for over a year and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Editing. Stallone was nominated for Best Actor but lost. It became a cemented sports classic and true underdog story, inspiring millions to run up the same stairs next to that famous Philadelphia library as Balboa did in the film.
This past week, Stallone revisited the film with fans on MGM’s Facebook page. Fight fans were able to watch the film with Stallone, as he served up juicy tidbits like the story above. The experience showed just how much the film has endured over the years and what it means to so many people, a large amount who happen to be strangers.
On the following films, Stallone not only took on directing duties but fight choreography as well, steering the film away from the robotic boxing scenes overcooked in previous films to innovative cinematic action. He got an unknown Dolph Lundgren to star as a Russian killing machine, after Mr. T played his adversary in “Rocky III.” Stallone shined the spotlight on the highly athletic and showman, Carl Weathers, as Stallone’s boxing rival turned friend.
The series lost steam in the 1990’s with “Rocky V,” but rebounded in 2006 with “Rocky Balboa,” which saw an older Rocky climb back into the ring for an exhibition bout with a younger prizefighter (Antonio Tarver). Rocky’s tale was given a fresh coat of pain by Ryan Coogler in 2015 when the aging champ was paired up with Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, son of Apollo. The film scored Stallone another Oscar nomination and Golden Globe award. There was a sequel a few years later, with Lundgren returning as a wearier Ivan Drago.
There is more talk of Rocky stories and I’ll be honest and say that I am excited for what could come. Eight films in and the character isn’t losing steam. There’s still juice in those legs and pathos in his tales. Like a fine wine, Stallone’s Rocky has aged well, gaining poignancy and grace as the actor glides through his 70’s. It’s a rare thing for a film series to still hold steam after eight entries, but that’s the fighting spirit of Rocky. You can’t get enough.
Who can forget the legendary countdown of “Rocky II,” or the raucous anthems in the third and fourth chapter. How about the scenes between Stallone and Burgess Meredith, played the boxer’s crotchety yet loyal trainer, Mickey? Talia Shire and Stallone formed magnetic heartfelt chemistry as lovers at first sight. Burt Young added comic and sometimes tragic relief as Paulie, the overbearing brother of Shire’s Adrian. Every actor fit into their role just right … well maybe except for Tommy Morrison, but that wasn’t really his fault.
Here’s the thing. Stallone was Rocky. Like the poster on the first film said back in 1976, he was a million to one shot. Before this movie came along, Stallone was living in a car with his dog, Buttkiss, the same dog who starred in the “Rocky” movies. He wasn’t down and out, but one could say he was struggling. Stallone needed Rocky more than anyone. While the story was inspired by Chuck Wepner’s inglorious tale from the Bleeder of Bayonne to a fight with Muhammad Ali, Stallone put plenty of himself in the character and the movie. It was his go for broke ticket to the big time. Without it, he doesn’t have a career.
There’s another thing. Rocky was inside all of us in some shape or form. We all have been knocked down in life and pushed to the side. Bad times taken over our life and nearly broke us. He was a symbol not only for struggling athletes and actors, but any soul with a pulse who had a dream in life to make it. It may have started as a botched audition and Hail Mary attempt at getting a role, but it turned into so much more.
“Rocky” was made for a million dollars, and it ended up making $225 million. Back in the 1970’s, that was a Marvel type hit for a film. It happened because Stallone refused to take no and bet on himself.
A long shot who struck gold and created a career that is still producing action and flashes of the past. As the film played out last week with Stallone and fans watching, you got the feeling that a new generation could see it and take all new meaning from it.
Some films endure. Some actors have to fight.
Over 44 years ago, Sylvester Stallone fought for “Rocky,” creating a legend in the process.