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

By | November 19, 2020

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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

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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.