Sylvester Stallone is easily one of the most recognizable names and faces in Hollywood. His popularity has only soared since 1974s The Lords of Flatbush and while that movie was a good start for the young Stallone, it was 1976s Rocky that shot him to early and long-lasting fame. 45 years after its debut, Rocky is still immensely popular and can still throw a mean left hook as evidenced by its current #2 ranking on HBO Max.
Sylvester Stallone was nothing close to a well-known commodity in Hollywood’s early-to-mid-’70s. Flatbush aside, he was barely making ends meet from the little work he had been getting. But one night (as the story goes) after watching the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone had an idea for a script. Three and a half days later, Stallone gave birth to Rocky.
Everyone knows the story. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky is a bum. He is a boxer with little talent, fighting in small gyms against other bums while also making a living as a collector for a loan shark. Rocky has no trouble with the rough stuff. But Rocky’s life is about change drastically.
Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is the heavyweight boxing champ of the world. He is scheduled to fight on New Years Day for America’s Bicentennial. But five weeks before the bout, he is informed that his opponent has to back out of the fight due to an injury. Apollo does not want to cancel the bout, so he goes in search of a new fighter. As he is looking through the names of potential opponents, he comes across one – the Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone. Perfect.
Rocky meets with the fight promoter at first thinking he is being asked to be a sparring partner for Creed. But when Rocky is presented with an opportunity to fight for the title, he is hesitant. He feels he has no business stepping into the ring with the Champ. Eventually, though, Rocky takes the bout and begins some very unusual training tactics.
This is where Burgess Meredith comes into play. Introduced earlier in the film as the owner of a gym and a cantankerous sort, he has little to no respect for Rocky. Meredith plays Mickey Goldmill (who knew Mickey had a last name?) to perfection. Grumpy, old-fashioned, expecting hard work from his fighters, he tries to get on Rocky’s good side after he showed Rocky the door, kicking him out of his gym. Rocky is on to Mickey’s game, only showing interest in Rocky after the big fight was announced. Rocky isn’t having any of it and returns the favor by kicking Mickey out of his crappy apartment. But Rocky then has a change of heart.
All the while Sylvester Stallone begins a one-sided romance with Adrian (Talia Shire), the young woman who works at the neighborhood pet store. He tries everything he can to gain her attention, but she is shy and in her own eyes, quite homely. Rocky sees her differently, finally winning her over. It’s a slow romance only to get much slower because of Paulie (Burt Young), Adrian’s older alcoholic brother.
When Rocky finally enters the ring to the spectacle that is Apollo Creed, he appears to be ready to box. But he could never anticipate the speed and power that Creed possessed. Rocky’s only goal, to go the distance regardless of the outcome, looked to be doomed from the start as he hit the canvass early and often. But Rocky’s perseverance and sheer willpower got him to the 15th. We all know how his story ends, with Sylvester Stallone becoming a name in Hollywood of course.
Rocky was an immediate crowd pleaser and hit for United Artists, in the long run making UA look positively brilliant by allowing Sylvester Stallone to play the part of Rocky. It wasn’t easy though, as UA at first had other ideas. They loved the script, but they wanted a known actor to wear Rocky’s boxing gloves. They were looking at major stars such as Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Ryan O’Neal, and Robert Redford. But Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t budge. It was him or no one. He was prepared to walk away and just about did but eventually, he, along with producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff was able to convince the studio to cast Stallone. It also helped that they kept the budget so low.
In order to keep the budget around $1.1 million (which in today’s dollars would equal $4.3 million), they used a lot of friends and family. You can see Sylvester Stallone’s father and brother in the movie. You can also see Stallone’s first wife Sasha in it. So, on that minimal budget, Rocky’s success brought in over $225 million worldwide, which would roughly translate to a tad over $1 billion in today’s market.
The rest, for Sylvester Stallone, is history. Rocky Balboa has become one of the most well-known and popular characters in the history of film. The 1976 movie was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning three of them including Best Picture. The ’76 film also spawned eight sequels (which include the Creed movies), six of which Sylvester Stallone wrote, two of which he co-wrote, and in four of his Rocky movies Stallone was the director.
Sylvester Stallone would go on to create a number of memorable characters on top of Rocky. John Rambo, Ray Tango, John Spartan, and Barney Ross are but a few. In fact, because of his start as Rocky Balboa and the famous characters he followed that up with, Stallone is the only actor in the history of U.S. cinema, to have starred in a number one film at the box office across five consecutive decades. That’s legacy right there.
Who is up for one more Rocky story? Apparently, Stallone is. More on that if and when it becomes a reality. Until then, head on over to HBO Max and check out Rocky.