Rocky: How A Down-On-His-Luck Stallone Became A Movie Heavyweight

Entertainment | November 21, 2020

Sylvester Stallone strikes at a punching bag while his coach, Burgess Meredith (1908 - 1997), watches in a still from the film, 'Rocky,' directed by John G. Avildsen, 1976. (Photo by United Artists/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Before Rocky, Sylvester Stallone was at a professional rock bottom. By the mid '70s, after bit parts in forgotten films, he was told that there were no parts for him. He wasn't a has-been, he was a never-was. Rather than accept what he was told, Stallone spent three feverish days writing the script for Rocky, a film about the pain of losing and the joy of acceptance.

The journey from script to screen wasn't an easy one. Even though Stallone's script was a knockout, that didn't mean that Hollywood was ready to give the untested actor everything he wanted. To actually get his movie made, Stallone had to beg, borrow, and steal to make sure that his co-stars Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, and Carl Weathers were taken care of while he finished the movie. Released in 1976, the basic underdog-story boxing movie became a huge success. It made a ridiculous amount of money at the box office, and earned two Oscars while giving Stallone exactly what he wanted -- a foot in the door.

Down and out in New York City

source: United Artists

Sylvester Stallone's early career is littered with roles like "Subway Thug No. 1." His droopy face, hangdog eyes, and beefy physique makes him the perfect heavy, but after studying acting in his early 20s he knew that he had talent. When he wasn't filming bit parts in New York City he was cleaning lion cages and tearing tickets at movie theaters. When he had to, he slept in bus stations and even appeared in an adult film, all while trying to live the dream.

In 1975, Stallone had a meeting with Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, two producers who had a standing deal with United Artists, and while they didn't see him on the big screen he did sell them on the fact that he could write. They were interested in his work, so in a frenzied three-day cram session Stallone wrote the earliest drafts of Rocky.

Taking inspiration from a Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali fight from earlier in the year, Stallone crafted the story of an underdog boxer whose given the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. Centered around Rocky Balboa, a nobody from Philadelphia who's plucked from obscurity to fight the trash talking champion (and Ali clone) Apollo Creed. Along the way he tests the resolve of his cynical trainer, Mickey, and finds love with Adrian, a shy pet store employee. By the end of the script Rocky is changed from a grimy thug to a gentle and wise man whom Stallone describes as "good-natured, even though nature had never been good to him.”

The legend states that Stallone was offered ungodly sums of money if he would just sell the script and leave it be, that he sold his dog to stay afloat in these lean times while trying to get Rocky funded, but that's just good storytelling. In 2006, it was revealed that United Artists’ marketing strategist, Gabe Sumner, made up the bidding war to give Stallone and his film the intrigue needed to interest the public. Is it underhanded? Sure. But just like Rocky, and just like Stallone, United Artists was doing whatever it took to get by.

You can't make a boxing movie for less than a million dollars

source: United Artists

Winkler and Chartoff were impressed by the soulful script and agreed to produce the film with United Artists, who at the time had a rule of allowing any film produced for less than $1.5 million to have full creative freedom. However, UA didn't think that a boxing movie could be made for such a small amount of money -- they needed sets, extras, and an arena. There's no way that a movie with a no name actor in the lead role would be worth shelling out the money that the script needed so they passed.

Undeterred, Winkler and Chartoff countered with an offer to pay any expenses that went over a million dollars out of their own pockets. United Artists said sure, why not. Even if they lost a million bucks they figured that the new Martin Scorsese movie New York, New York would recoup big for them.

With a minuscule budget and 28 days to shoot, the production had to get crafty. Director John Avildsen opted to shoot the interiors in Los Angeles before traveling to Philadelphia to shoot for a week. Rather than put a shot and location list together, Avildsen and Stallone drove around in an unmarked van with their non-union crew until they found a location that they liked. Then they'd pop out of the van and film Stallone jogging. Stallone said of this style of filming:

John has me going up and down steps, through these curved corridors along the river. One thing about John is that he would use the environment. We’d see a ship along the river and he’d tell me to ‘jump out and run as fast as you can.' He would have me. . .running down the street and people are throwing things at me. I had the orange thrown at me and people had no idea who I was. I was just some strange alien invader in a well-worn, tattered, baggy, incredibly ugly sweat suit running through their neighborhood, and they’re throwing things at me.

Rocky and Adrian's date almost didn't happen

source: United Artists

One scene that almost never made it to film was Rocky's date with Adrian at the ice skating rink. The producers said there was no way they could secure the ice rink, all of the extras necessary for the scene, and get all of the takes they needed in their budget. Rather than cut it, Stallone and Avildsen wrote around the issue. They changed the scene so Rocky pays off the skating rink's manager so the couple can skate alone the middle of the night. This nearly-cut scene is now the emotional core of the film. It shows the gentle nature of two down-on-their-luck regular people who take care of one another whenever they fall.

Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers spent a week beating on each other

source: United Artists

The production may have been flying by the seat of its pants for dialogue scenes, but when it came time to film the impressive battle between Rocky and Apollo everything came down to precision. Stallone and Carl Weathers rehearsed the scene for five hours a day for a week, but their earliest efforts were hardly a heavyweight effort. Avildsen had Stallone go home and write down the fight scene beat for beat and punch for punch so the actors knew exactly how to carry themselves.

Stallone wrote our 14 pages of notes for the fight scene. Every jab, hook and uppercut was accounted for, then he and Weathers practiced the fight while Avildsen filmed them on a Super 8 camera. He filmed their mistakes and made sure to get close ups on their bodies to show the men that they needed to work out if they wanted to look like prize fighters.

The week of rehearsals and pages of notes were a godsend. When the actors stood in front of 4,000 extras, drawn to the set with the promise of a chicken dinner, they fought like pros, giving audiences around the world one of the most intense fight scenes of the '70s.

 Rocky's original ending was lost in a fire

source: United Artists

The promotional poster for Rocky shows Balboa walking hand in hand with Adrian through the dimly lit, empty hallways of a stadium after his battle with Apollo Creed. The shot doesn't appear in the movie because it's a still from the film's original ending, one that was completely destroyed in a fire. Because of this tragic accident, a whole new ending had to be shot and it's honestly for the best. The new, and now iconic ending features Rocky shouting "Adrian!" in front of a mob as they crowd the ring. There were so few people left on the shoot at that point that everyone you see on camera is a member of the crew walking back and forth in front of the camera.

Rocky is nothing without its score

source: United Artists

Forget the fight scenes, the 30 plus miles of Philadelphia that Balboa somehow covers in a few minutes of light jogging, and the underdog story that everyone connects to, Rocky is nothing without its score. The music of Bill Conti has transcended the film and become shorthand for success and overcoming the odds, but we almost didn't have this glorious score.

Avildsen initially offered to scoring gig to David Shire, the then-husband of Talia Shire, but he had other commitments and the budget was so low that he had to pass. With only $25,000 allotted for the film's music, Avildsen offered the gig to his old pal Bill Conti without even going through United Artists. He later said:

The budget for the music was 25 grand. And that was for everything: The composer's fee, that was to pay the musicians, that was to rent the studio, that was to buy the tape that it was going to be recorded on.

The film's theme, "Gonna Fly Now" may have been recorded under duress, but it's become immensely popular. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on the week of July 2, 1977 (seven months after the film was released), and AFI listed it as number 58 on its "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs" list.

Total Knock Out

source: United Artists

Rocky, the film that was shot from the back of a moving van, starring a no name talent whose biggest claim to fame was a Roger Corman movie, went on to become a classic immediately upon its release. The film made $225 million at the box office (that's more than a billion in today's currency), and it received ten Oscar nominations at the 49th Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Picture.

Stallone found himself with everything he wanted. He was at the center of one of the biggest movies of the year (and now all time), people like Charlie Chaplin were reaching out to him to offer their congratulations, and he could write his own ticket from there on out, but he knew that Rocky was a once in a lifetime thing, and it was the last time he could a tell a personal story that was real and that connected to everyone in the audience. He said:

I know I’ll never have a voice like that again, where I can just speak whatever I feel in my heart. That’s one thing I’ll always cherish about that character, because if I say it you won’t believe it, but when Rocky says it, you know it’s the truth.

Tags: Rocky | Sylvester Stallone

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.