Hard to imagine that November 21, 1976 wasn’t a cold blustery day much like the current weather conditions. Actually, it was unseasonably warm – in Philadelphia alone, it was in the low 60’s. A movie that starred and written a nobody was set to bow in theaters, about a circuit boxer given the chance by the world champion to become a somebody and hope to beat insurmountable odds. Could anyone foresee back then, in much simpler times without smartphones and Hollywood news sites, that Rocky would be a hit and leave its mark upon popular culture for decades to come?
Probably not. On this day Fan Fest proudly wishes a happy 40th anniversary to the movie that launched not just a franchise but a career for a future mega-star – Rocky!
The story about Rocky is the type of feel-good story of someone who was so hungry, that he clutched to his dream and wouldn’t allow anyone to rip it from his head. Sylvester Stallone drew inspiration to pen the script after watching the Chuck Wepner/Muhammad Ali bout on March 24, 1975. Wepner was 36 years old and considered a moderate talent but no one in the world thought the boxer could go toe-to-toe with a phenom like Ali. Most even doubted Wepner could last three rounds. Instead, Wepner took to the ring and kept Ali, the best professional boxer on Earth at that time, on his heels for fifteen rounds. The only way Ali could end the fight? A TKO. Though Wepner lost the match, he scored a deeper victory with those who doubted him, a nobody that couldn’t do a thing. Yet, Wepner was determined. That drew Stallone to create Rocky Balboa.
Though he had some appearances in smaller television projects, Stallone at the time had failed to break into the industry. Like Wepner, Stallone was viewed as a underdog who may never be able to hack the Hollywood scene. Following completion of the script, Stallone circulated his project around to various producers, his life literally riding on the pages. Stallone had a measly $106 in his savings account. He lacked a personal vehicle. He was on the verge of selling his own dog because Stallone couldn’t afford food for his pet. Producers Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff caught wind of the script and loved what they read, a story ripe with a luscious heart and a fiery soul. The duo wanted the script rights so bad, they offered Stallone an unprecedented $350,000 for the rights. Stallone relented, refusing to sell unless he was able to star as the lovable loser.
In today’s market, a producer would pass and move along to a different project. Winkler and Chartoff? They agreed to his terms. However, to counter his proposal, the two insisted that Stallone continue to contribute as a writer without additional monies and work as an actor for scale. The actor, with nothing to lose, accepted.
Winkler and Chartoff took Stallone’s script and went to the offices of United Artists (now part of MGM). The studio, too charmed by Stallone’s script, offered a $2 million budget but with the understanding an established actor would be front and center. (At the time the biggest actors were Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, and James Caan, among others.) Upon learning of Stallone’s terms to sell his script, United Artists suddenly got cold feet. Rather than issue a moderate budget, the studio instead slashed the budget clean in half and forced the producing team to sign agreements that, should the movie run over budget, both Winkler and Chartoff would be liable to pay any overages.
The film’s budget? $1 million. The actual budget from shooting Rocky? $1.1 million. To cover the overrun, both Winkler and Chartoff mortgaged their own homes to complete Stallone’s pet project.
The production wasn’t the easiest either. Stallone’s influence was felt during each filming segment, at times with the actor insisting scenes be shot on the cuff to show off more raw emotion without feeling like actors reading rehearsed lines. To shoot most of the scenes during the iconic jog through south Philadelphia, the production shot Sylvester Stallone (a huge unknown at the time) guerilla style, lacking the proper shooting permits and with no extras nor equipment. (Pay attention to the scene and you’ll see real Philadelphians looking puzzled at a lone cameraman filming a regular Joe jogging down the street.) The scene that highlighted Rocky romancing Adrian at the ice rink was originally set to featured 300 extras but, with funding tight, both Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone shot their encounter solo, creating a more intimate setting for the lovebirds. Hell, the iconic shot of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was achieved thanks to the creator of the Steadicam, a Philadelphia native who months earlier tested the camera on his girlfriend yet was hired to use his camera specifically for Rocky. Through innovation and creativity, the film was completed and ready to be shone to audiences around the globe.
The result? Three Oscars in 1977 – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing. $225 million in total box office sales (not adjusted for inflation) and the highest grossing film of 1976. Five direct sequels and a recently launched new franchise in Creed. Oh, and the career of Sylvester Stallone.
The story of Rocky shines on the underdog, the tale of an individual who is continually told that he can’t do what he envisions – yet, he pushes forward, he doesn’t bend or break, and he doesn’t relent. Sure, the series got a tad formulaic in the middle. The less we speak of Rocky V, the better. To me, growing up around Philadelphia and becoming enamored with the message that Stallone pursued with some of the sequels, helped to keep me motivated. No one had the right to stop what I wanted to do. People could have told me that I couldn’t do some of the things that I wanted to growing up. Yet, I didn’t stop and, to this day, I still don’t. And the message rings clear not just to me, but to millions more who’ve seen at one one of the Rocky installments.
If you’ve never given the movie or, really, the franchise a fair shot, in today’s world where some movies seem to always feel the same, take a seat and immerse yourself in a franchise that is something totally different. Rocky holds up very well for being a robust forty years old today. I for one opted to watch Rocky Balboa, the sixth entry in the series, this evening. Who knows? Even though the series is circled around the world of boxing, the tales that Sylvester Stallone has written over the years highlight a man whose determination was unwavering and continues to inspire hope in many around the world.
Though the below clip is from the 2006 sequel, which actually ushered in the second-coming of Sylvester Stallone’s career, the words of Rocky Balboa are what truly count. Words that Stallone sharply wrote over the years throughout the series but culminated in the most inspirational set piece that Stallone has ever put onto screen.
So – how about you? What is your favorite movie about Rocky Balboa? Your favorite moment? Shout out and let us know. Oh, and happy 40th anniversary to Rocky!