The Rocky movie franchise has earned over $1.4 billion at the box office, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time. While most people have heard the story of Rocky Balboa (the washed up fighter who ends up fighting for the title) few know how it was made.
It is truly one of the most inspiring Hollywood stories of all time.
In the early 70s, Sylvester Stallone was an unknown actor trying to make it in New York. He had some minor success in the movie The Lords Of Flatbush but he was still broke.
“After The Lords Of Flatbush, I decided it was time to come to California, so I moved to California and things weren’t going so well there. As a matter a fact, I actually had to go out and try to sell my dog because it was either that or he wasn’t going to be very well fed around the house.” said Stallone in an interview with Michael Watson.
“And then one night, I went out to see Muhammad Ali fight Chuck Wepner. And what I saw was pretty extraordinary. I saw a man called ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ fight the greatest fighter who ever lived. And for one brief moment, this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent. And he lasted and knocked the champ down. I thought if this isn’t a metaphor for life.”
That was the catalyst for his idea: A man who was going to stand up to life, take a shot, and go the distance. He started writing and in three days had the script done. It was only 90 pages, and only about a third of it was used in the movie, but it was done.
Later, he was on a casting call for an acting role and quickly realized that he wasn’t right for the part. On the way out he told the producers about the story he was writing. They told them to bring it by later.
They read the script and loved it, except for one thing: They didn’t want to have Sylvester Stallone play the main character, Rocky. You can’t blame them. Stallone was an unknown actor at the time and other Hollywood types would be a much safer bet at the box office. They were looking at Ryan O’Neil, Burt Reynolds, and others to play Rocky Balboa.
They offered Stallone $360,000 for the script, with the condition that he wouldn’t play Rocky. Remember that he had no car, $106 in the bank, and sold his dog to pay the bills.
Stallone said, “I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life. So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script. and it does very very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. Laughs. So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it.’”
The producers eventually relented and gave Stallone one million dollars to make the movie, starring himself. They came in under budget by using family and friends in the cast, handheld cameras, and only using one take to film most of the footage. One million dollars was an extremely low budget for a film, even in the 1970s.
When the movie started getting screened around Hollywood, it started to get a positive reaction from the crowd. But the real test was when it was screened at The Director’s Guild, in front of 900 industry types. The theater was packed but the movie was playing terrible.
Stallone told Michael Watson, “The laughs weren’t coming where they were supposed to. The fight scenes seemed to be listless, as the response was. And I just sat there, as everyone left the theatre, and I couldn’t believe it. I really blew it. I was humiliated and saddened by it. So I walked down three flights of stairs out of the theatre and everyone from the theatre were standing there waiting for me. And they started to applaud. I mean truly applaud. I’ll never experience a moment like that again.”
Rocky went on to receive nine Oscar nominations and got three wins, including Best Picture and grossed over $200 million.