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Rocky: The king of the ring


‘Rocky’ (1976) is one of the iconic movies made in Hollywood which not only mesmerised audiences as well as the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when released, but also spawned seven sequels, from 1979 to 2018. It also made Sylvester Stallone a phenomenon overnight; Stallone literally fitting the title role of Rocky Balboa like a (boxer’s) glove.

‘Rocky’ which is considered one of the greatest sports films ever made and was ranked as the second-best in the genre, after ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) by the American Film Institute in 2008, germinated when Stallone wrote its screenplay in three-and-a-half days, shortly after watching the championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner that took place at Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio on March 24, 1975. Wepner was technically knocked out in the 15th round of the match by Ali, but nobody ever expected him to last as long as he did. Interestingly, Wepner filed a lawsuit against the film, which was eventually settled with Stallone for an undisclosed amount.

United Artists liked Stallone’s script, and viewed it as a possible vehicle for a well-established star such as Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds or James Caan.

Stallone sold the rights to make this film with the condition that he be cast in the title role. Producers offered him $150,000 to let Ryan O’Neal play the part. However, Stallone stuck upon portraying the title character himself, to the point of issuing an ultimatum. Stallone later said that he would never have forgiven himself, had the film become a success with somebody else in the lead. He also knew that producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff’s contract with the studio enabled them to ‘greenlight’ a project if the budget was kept low enough. The production budget of ‘Rocky’ ended up being $1,075,000, with a further $100,000 spent on producers’ fees and $4.2 million on advertising costs.

John G Avildsen who earlier directed the acclaimed film ‘Save the Tiger’ (1973) was signed to direct ‘Rocky’ as he was just who the producers were looking for: An experienced director, who could work quickly and efficiently but not demand a huge salary.

Although Winkler and Chartoff were enthusiastic about the idea of Stallone playing the lead character, they had trouble casting other major characters in the story, with the characters of Apollo Creed and Adrian being cast unusually late by the Hollywood production standards. Ultimately, casting for both characters happened on the same day. Real-life boxer, Ken Norton was initially sought for the role of Apollo Creed, but he pulled out and the role was ultimately given to Carl Weathers. Norton had had three fights with Muhammad Ali, upon whom Creed was loosely based.

Actress Carrie Snodgress was originally chosen to play Adrian, but a money dispute forced the producers to look elsewhere. Susan Sarandon auditioned for the role but was deemed too pretty for the character. After Talia Shire’s ensuing audition, Chartoff and Winkler, along with Avildsen, insisted that she play the part. Actor Burt Young was signed to play Adrian’s brother, Paulie, while actor Burgess Meredith was selected as Rocky’s trainer, Mickey Goldmill. Furthermore, due to the film’s comparatively low budget, members of Stallone’s family played minor roles. His father rings the bell to signal the start and end of a round, his brother Frank plays a street corner singer, and his first wife, Sasha was the still photographer for the film.

The principal photography for ‘Rocky’ began on January 9, 1976 and the film was shot in 28 days. Filming took place primarily throughout Philadelphia, with a few scenes being shot in Los Angeles. Certain elements of the story were altered during filming. The original script had a darker tone: the character of Mickey was portrayed as racist, and the script ended with Rocky throwing the fight after realising he did not want to be part of the professional boxing world after all. Both Stallone and Weathers suffered injuries during the shooting of the final fight; Stallone suffered bruised ribs and Weathers suffered a damaged nose, exactly the opposite injuries of what their characters had.

The musical score for ‘Rocky’ was composed by Bill Conti, after David Shire, then-husband of Talia turned down offer to compose for the film, due to prior commitments. The main theme song, “Gonna Fly Now” made it to number one on the Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 list for one week.

When released, ‘Rocky’ grossed $5 million during its opening weekend and consistently performed well for eight months, eventually reaching $117 million at the North American Box Office. Overseas it fared just as well, with worldwide Box Office accumulation of $225 million. It was the highest-grossing film released in 1976 in the United States and Canada. The film also received positive reviews at the time of its release. Four decades later, the film still enjoys a reputation as a classic.

‘Rocky’ received 10 Oscar nominations in nine categories at the 49th Academy Awards, winning three: in Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing categories.

Sylvester Stallone wanted to cast Wepner as a sparring partner in the sequel to ‘Rocky’ titled, ‘Rocky II (1979), but Wepner failed the audition due to his drug problems. Furthermore, it is speculated that the 1982 film, ‘Rocky III’ was influenced by Wepner’s 1976 fight against Andre the Giant, as the movie features a match versus wrestler Hulk Hogan as ‘Thunderlips’, who throws Rocky out of the ring.

Apart from these two sequels, the film saw more in the form of ‘Rocky IV’ (1985), ‘Rocky V’ (1990), ‘Rocky Balboa’ (2006) and ‘Creed’ (2015) all starring Stallone in the title role. The eighth film, seventh sequel and direct sequel to ‘Creed’, titled ‘Creed II’ is scheduled for release in 2018 with Steven Caple Jr directing and Stallone returning to star and write the script.

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