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The Untold Story: “Rocky” Underdog Origin a Studio Myth

December 20th, 2006 · 14 Comments

Accepted history of Stallone’s “Rocky” series in question as producers and studio honchos tell the true story By Alex Ben Block for Hollywood Today
stallone-in-rocky-balboa.jpg Stallone in ‘Rocky Balboa’
HOLLYWOOD — As the legend goes, “Rocky” originated when unemployed actor Sylvester Stallone walked into the United Artists movie studio to sell his brilliant screenplay about an underdog boxer; and then refused to make any deal unless he could also star. However, that tale is a near-total fabrication made up by the public relations department of UA, according to the producers and key studio executives, and dutifully sold to the eager media and public by Stallone himself. With MGM’s release of “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth in the series of hugely successful “Rocky” movies, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone will donate memorabilia to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In that spirit, it is an appropriate time to set the historical record straight on the real story behind the making and selling of the original “Rocky,” which won three Oscars including Best Picture in 1977. The fact is that there were never any direct talks between Stallone and UA. The studio never tried to buy the “Rocky” script from him, and there was never round after round of bidding to try and make him give up his dream of being the star. “That’s all bull. It was never true,” said Mike Medavoy, former chairman of TriStar Pictures and UA production chief when “Rocky” was made.
rocky_iv_17.jpg Rocky IV
Stallone toured the country, meeting with journalists and critics, and selling the UA-fabricated underdog story, weaving what would become an unstoppable myth that is still carried on to this day. “The story suited him,” said former UA president Eric Pleskow. “He eventually started to believe his own story.” Furthermore Arthur Krim, then chairman of United Artists (now owned by Tom Cruise and partner Paula Wagner) thought he was approving a completely different actor for the role. This is apparently the first and only time most of those who lived the “Rocky” saga told the unvarnished truth. “We came up with a tremendous publicity campaign,” recalled Gabe Sumner, then head of marketing at UA. “It was about how this unknown guy named Sylvester Stallone walked into our office with a script and the company was prepared to buy the script, but Stallone said, ‘I’m not going to sell it to you unless I star in the film.’ And we (supposedly) said, ‘No way.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t have the script.’ And we said, ‘We will give you $18,000.’ And that was the figure we used. And a deal was made and Stallone could star in this film which he wrote. And he got all of $18,000. Now is this true? It was horsesh*t! But it worked. It promoted the whole underdog concept and kept on going.”
rocky_b.jpg Rocky Balboa
“I don’t have to tell you how the press feeds on the underdog story,” said Sumner. “It filled up space on entertainment pages, and in columns looking for something for the next day. They ate up the idea that this actor loved his work so much, and was willing to sell it for a nickel and a dime in order to make it, blah, blah, blah. It all became part of the underdog fabric that brought people in. Period. They just totally bought into it.” Representatives for Stallone said on Wednesday, “We stand by Sylvester Stallone’s story as the accurate truth.” Stallone was the son of an Italian immigrant and a former chorus girl, who were living in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen when he was born July 6, 1946. Unfortunately, the doctors in the charity ward who delivered Stallone misused the forceps to bring him out, causing permanent nerve damage to the left side of his face, which would leave him with his signature crooked smile. His name and handicap caused endless childhood misery, and Stallone retreated into fantasy, comic books and especially movies. The Stallones divorced when Sylvester was nine, and the child lived in Philadelphia, where he would one day return to make “Rocky.” He pursued acting while at the University of Miami and then in New York City. He was a long shot, with his unconventional looks and a speech impediment. He did have an almost unlimited belief in himself, However, along with lots of ambition and a strong drive.
mike_medavoy.jpg Mike Medavoy
After appearing off-Broadway and doing odd jobs, Stallone landed a role in the 1974 independently produced movie “Lords of Flatbush.” When some critics singled Stallone out of the ensemble, he and his wife Sasha headed to Hollywood in their used Oldsmobile, along with a bull mastiff named Butkus. Later, on an audition in L.A., Stallone met Larry Kubik, who had a small talent agency called Film Artists Management. Based on “Lords of Flatbush,” Kubik became the then 29-year-old actor’s agent. Soon Stallone told Kubik he was also a writer and showed him two scripts (one of which later became “Paradise Alley”). Kubik had also represented Gene Kirkwood, who worked with prolific producing team of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Kirkwood read Stallone’s scripts and liked them. Kirkwood met with Stallone to kick around story ideas. Stallone had a notion to make his hero a taxi driver, who runs for Mayor of Philadelphia, but Kirkwood didn’t agree. Then Stallone told him the story of Chuck Wepner, a boxer who had gotten a title shot against Muhammad Ali and lost, but won respect for “going the distances.” Kirkwood was immediately excited. He had an image of Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” Less than a week later, Stallone returned to Kirkwood with an 80-page treatment for what would become “Rocky.” The script was corny and old-fashioned, but it was a real page turner of a story. “I gave it to the boys, Bob (Chartoff) and Irwin (Winkler) and they loved it,” recalled Kirkwood, who then spent the next six months working with Stallone and the producers reworking and rewriting the script. . Interviews for this article began five years ago and some elements appeared elsewhere in 2001. Chartoff-Winker had signed an unusual deal with United Artists on March 1, 1975 calling for the producers to supply half a dozen movies annually. On movies with budgets under $1 million, Chartoff-Winkler could give a green light and UA had only consultation rights. That was the clause under which “Rocky” was made.
rocky_is_back.jpg Rocky is Back
When UA was finally told about “Rocky,” they balked. Eric Pleskow, who was President of UA at the time, said it shocked them the first movie submitted under the new contract (other than the bigger budget “New York, New York”) was a low budget drama. “First, we weren’t using a name actor,” recalled Chartoff, “and second, there was an anathema to anything connected with boxing. Since John Garfield (in 1947′s “Body And Soul”) there hadn’t been a decent boxing picture made that made any money.” UA did exercise a clause in their contract to protect themselves, by which the cost of “Rocky” was cross-collateralized with anticipated profits from “New York, New York,” which later was a costly flop. “The truth is, nobody knew whether we wanted the guy or not,” recalled Medavoy. “However, since the number was small enough, and the ‘crossing’ provided security, (Chartoff and Winkler) could have cast you and I for that part and nobody would have said no. There was no pressure to cast a star. What we did say, which was natural, was ‘Why Stallone?’ Why not somebody else? And the answer was, ‘He’s got to do it.’ And that was the end of the discussion.” So “Rocky” went into production without anyone at the UA ever meeting Stallone. A confidential memo circulated among the top management at UA said that they were going ahead with “Rocky,” but that the investment was small enough that they could sell it directly to television and cover any losses. The budget for “Rocky” approved September 30, 1975 was $1,075,000, plus producer’s fees of about $100,000. When UA executives asked what else Stallone had done, Chartoff and Winkler sent over a print of “Lords of Flatbush.” UA’s top executives gathered to watch in the New York screening room early one morning. “They start watching and everybody is on ‘spilkes’ (a Yiddish word meaning ‘nerves),” recalled Chartoff, who heard the story later.
stallone-and-best-director-john-avildsen.jpg Stallone and Best Director John Avildsen
“Everybody has other appointments, but they want to see this guy who is going to star in one of their movies. They start watching, and it’s an ensemble cast. Chairman Arthur Krim asked, ‘Which one is Stallone?’ A voice in the back, never identified, said it must be that one, pointing to Perry King, the only tall, blond actor in the group of dark ethnic types. Krim says, ‘He’s interesting, but isn’t Stallone Italian?’ The voice in back answers, ‘You know, in northern Italy there’s lots of blonde, blue eyed Italians.’ Krim pondered that and said, “You are right. OK. He’s very good. Let’s use him.’ And that is how UA gave final approval for Stallone.” UA was so filmmaker friendly in those days, they didn’t even see the dailies. So Krim and the other UA Vice Chairman Robert Benjamin didn’t discover the mistake until the movie had finished production and they saw the first rough assemblage. “And the same group is there watching the movie,” added Chartoff, “and Krim says, ‘Where’s Stallone,’ as he is watching Stallone, thinking he is waiting for Perry King. And that same voice in the back says, ‘I’m sure he will be coming in the next scene.’” To the studios surprise, early test screenings of “Rocky” showed it was something special. However, there was still skepticism. “We showed the film on the East side of New York (to movie theater bookers, and others) and it was a smash hit,” recalled Eric Pleskow. “Yet outside (the theater) some of the exhibitors said, ‘Well, forget it! A picture about boxing. Women won’t go.’ However, our advertising guys, Fred Goldberg and Gabe Sumner, came up with a thought.” Stallone was summoned to New York to hear about that thought. The strategy was to sell the story behind the movie, as much as the movie itself. Pleskow recalled the UA marketing executives laid it out for Stallone: “They said you go take this picture under your arm and go to the editors of newspapers and magazines and say to them, ‘Listen,’ in that halting voice he had in those days, ‘You guys know about big studios. I need your help,’ and so forth. Then some of our people told him what to say.”
rocky_balboa.jpg Rocky Balboa
Sumner and others laid out the story that Stallone was to sell. “We decided right from the get-go to make a key part of our marketing, advertising and publicity campaign that this was an underdog picture, and that it was going to be an Academy Awards contender,” said Sumner. “We figured if we hammered away at that concept, and that concept was supported by the audience reaction similar to what we got (in test screenings), and if we got lucky with some reviews, then we could make it work.” This was before wide releases, and UA decided to do little paid advertising, preferring to develop the word-of-mouth. The movie opened slowly in a few theaters, so that there would be packed auditoriums caught up in the emotion. Lloyd Leipzig, who was the head of publicity at UA at the time, said they “wanted Sly (Stallone) to present this movie to the critics himself. It turned out to be a marvelous approach.” It wasn’t always easy. “It was really terribly difficult to get (Stallone) an interview, because nobody knew who he was,” recalled David Kramer, an independent publicist who worked on “Rocky.” “I got interviews for Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, even Carl Weathers, but it was hard with Sly. That all changed later.” Stallone even fought UA over the now legendary tag line. “The catch line on the ads was also mine: ‘His life was a million-to-one shot,’” said Sumner. “Again playing into the underdog theme. The ads were sent to (producers Chartoff and Winkler in L.A.) and all of a sudden one day I get a call (in the New York office) and my secretary says there’s a man named Sylvester Stallone outside and he wants to see you. In walks Stallone. Remember, at this point, before the picture opened, Stallone is a nobody. He comes in and after cursory pleasantries, he says, ‘I think your (ad) campaign is sh*t! I don’t want to use it. I don’t like the line that his life was a million-to-one shot. My line is, ‘It’s a story of love and courage.’ That’s the line I want you to use.
young_rocky.jpg Young Rocky
“So I looked at him,” recalled Sumner, “and said to myself very quickly, ‘This is not Sean Connery, or, in today’s terms, Tom Cruise. This is not even Kevin Costner. This isn’t even Burt Reynolds. This is nobody. So I said to him, ‘Thank you Mr. Stallone, but the answer is no. We are not going to change the campaign. And he got furious. And I did my best to calm him down and explain to him that all he had was the right of consultation. And that we were consulting. And that the final decision of what the campaign would be, and everything else to do with the distribution and marketing of this film, was the prerogative of UA I reminded him we financed the picture and it is our responsibility to get the money back, not his. I said, ‘You just be a good boy and do the talk shows and do the interviews and we will do the advertising.’ End of meeting.” “The press created that myth, because in those days there weren’t independent movies like there are today,” said Kirkwood. “We didn’t have to do a lot of ads because the press picked up on the picture and were all over it. It became like a happening that year.” In February 1977, “Rocky” was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including acting and writing honors for Stallone, and the most important award of all, best picture. It was up against two other UA films – “Network” and “Bound For Glory” – as well as “All The President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver.” All of the UA top brass came from New York to Hollywood to attend the Oscars in the early Spring of 1977. The night before the awards, there was a party for them at producer Winkler’s home in Malibu, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. “We got to talking about how we got here, with Stallone in a boxing film. We got to talking about the marketing campaign,” recalls Sumner. “And they (Winkler, Sumner, Leipzig, Mike Medavoy and others) told Benjamin and Krim about this myth we created. This underdog myth. This Sylvester Stallone story. And they said, ‘Is that where it started? You mean my people started it?’ And Krim turned to me and said, ‘You devil. You devil. This is a lot of sh*t!’ I said, ‘Right Arthur. But this is one of the things that got us here.’” And the rest, as they say, is history.

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