The True Story Behind the "Rocky" Myth
The 1976 low budget movie that inspired America was marketed by having it’s star sell a cynically concocted tale that promoted the film’s “underdog” ad campaign.
The underdog myth that gives punch to United Artists’ 1976 blockbuster “Rocky” starring and written by Sylvester Stallone, has become inter- weaved into American popular culture after nearly 40 years - but that doesn’t make it all true.
The real story of the origin of “Rocky” involves a lot more handmaidens than just Stallone, although it was based on his idea and script and he gave life to the character. It was the role that made him a star.
But most of what has been written, and continues to be passed along, about the movie’s labored delivery is just not true.
The biggest myth of all is the one about how Stallone won’t sell his script unless he could also star despite offers from United Artists to pay him more and more money. A great yarn. It just never happened. It was part of a PR campaign concocted by UA and “sold” to the media by Stallone as a way to market the movie on the cheap.
In fact, according to a 2010 book by movie producer Ronald A. Suppa (who passed away in January), Stallone was ready to sell just the script. “He wasn’t even going to be in it,” wrote Suppa; “they wanted ‘Paul Newman or someone like that.’ What about his determination to star in his own script, money be damned? He wavered, his muddy voice cracking, and said he had a baby on the way and ‘like 200 bucks in the bank.’”
I first reported on the myth of “Rocky” in 1999 and again in 2004 and 2006. At the turn of the century I was briefly access to the MGM/UA archives on assignment to write for a MGM website. After the Stallone story hit, and the company received complaints from the star (per my multiple sources), there were no more assignments and the entire division was soon folded.
At the time I reached out to Stallone through his longtime publicist at Rogers & Cowan but he declined to talk to me. His spokesman said he stood by his story.
If he had come clean, that would have been the end of it for me. Instead, it has bugged me ever since that that he continues at times to tell some or all of the tale concocted by the UA flacks who sent him out to spin.
The trigger for this story came when Stallone referred to the fake mythology in thanking the movie “Creed’s” producers for taking a chance on him by mortgaging their homes to finish the film. That too never happened. SEE LINK TO OTHE STORY.
If “Rocky” was just another movie, this story would be of little import, even with the “Creed” nomination for Stallone. But “Rocky” is very much a part of the American mythology about who we are as a nation – the underdog who can rise to the occasion and win the day. Even if he doesn’t win it all, he can still be a hero.
The fantastic “Rocky” theme by composer Bill Conti has also continued to be a go-to soundtrack for many sporting events, corporate announcements, political rallies and other occasions where the music cues us all that a hero is being thrust forward to greatness. It was played at a L.A. Lakers game in February to honor the retiring Kobe Bryant.
In recent years others have uncovered bits of the truth about the “Rocky” myth and written about it - but most people continue to drink the Stallone kool aid. So while I hope he wins his well deserved Oscar, I can’t let it go by without once again telling the truth.
This article is more extensive than what I have written about in the past. It is based on notes from research and interviews, done between the late 90s and 2006. Portions are being made public for the first time.
Let’s go back to the mid-1970s and set the scene. Stallone at the time was acting and writing but he very much an underdog in life just like his cinematic avatar.
He had been part of the ensemble of young actors in the indie breakout “Lords of Flatbush,” but his career was moving him toward being a screenwriter, not an actor. He had recently sold his script “Hell’s Kitchen,” which later became “Paradise Alley,” a flop when it was released two years after “Rocky” became a hit.
It was his work in “Flatbush” that had helped him find an agent, Larry Kubik, who became his agent after they met when Stallone auditioned for a role in “Stay Hungry,” had him as a client for about two years.
Kubik also had as a client Gene Kirkwood, who was working in production for producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler’s company. They had produced about 25 pictures including the critically acclaimed “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” but had not had a really big box office hit.
Kirkwood brought them Stallone’s scripts and arranged for them to see “Flatbush.” He told them the two scripts Stallone had written had already been sold.
“They said we like this kid,” recalled Kubik, “have him write something for us.”
Chartoff had originally been an attorney, mostly in the music business, and Winkler an agent at William Morris (where he started in the mailroom) before partnering as producers. .
Chartoff and Winkler pitched United Artists an idea for a big budget movie they had already packaged called “New York, New York,” a musical with Robert DeNiro, Liza Minelli directed by Martin Scorsese.
Eric Pleskow, who was President of UA at the time, recalls that over lunch while doing that deal he and his exec’s talked with Chartoff and Winkler not only about that movie but also said the studio wanted to make an overall deal with them for several pictures a year.
“They were a couple of guys,” recalled Pleskow, “who were not really keen on making a deal with a studio.”
As a result the deal the producers made was unusual in that it was not only rich, but gave them great freedom. If they produced a movie with a budget under $1 million, the studio had only script and director approval, and would not have to approve the star or be involved in the actual production.
It was a golden age for United Artists, which had won a Best Picture Oscar the year before “Rocky” for “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and the year after for Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” The year “Rocky” was nominated UA also had two other best picture nominees among the five movies up for the top award.
UA was known as the studio without a studio – meaning unlike competitors like Fox and Paramount, they did not own a studio lot. Based in New York City, they were primarily financiers and a distributor.
The next picture Chartoff-Winkler brought to UA was to become “Rocky.” Pleskow recalled they wanted a budget of almost $2 million. “I read the piece,” said Pleskow. “It was a page turner. It was well written but basically it was nothing new. It was a rags to riches kind of story, which has been done in different forms.”
Under the UA deal the producer’s had to cross-collateralize the two movies – “New York, New York” and “Rocky” – so if either made money, it would pay for both. “NY,NY” expected to hit flopped while “Rocky,” amid low expectations, was a huge profit maker.
Kirkwood had lunch with Stallone at the suggestion of Kubik around 1975 and out of that came the idea for a movie about a boxer. They discussed the character Terry Malloy from “On The Waterfront.”
“He always said he could be a contender,” recalled Kirkwood, “but nobody saw him fight…that’s how the germ came about.”
Stallone had also seen a pay per view boxing match in a theater featuring Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner who had gotten a chance to fight Muhammad Ali on his comeback after being sent to jail for draft evasion. What was supposed to be a mere tune up for Ali became a real battle with Wepner winning respect. That stayed with Stallone.
“We talked about ‘Rocky’ and in a week (Stallone) came to me with 80 pages,” continued Kirkwood. “He stayed up all day and night writing.”
Chartoff-Winkler bought the script, after which Kirkwood and others spent around six months working on it before it was sent out to possible directors and stars.
John Avildsen was signed to direct based on his success with the low budget film “Joe.” Several actors were considered including James Caan and Ryan O’Neal but eventually Chartoff-Winkler decided to cut the budget and go with Stallone, because that would take the decision on who stars out of UA’s hands. Chartoff told me they could have cast anyone.
When Chartoff-Winkler first notified UA that “Rocky” would be the second movie under their recent deal – much to UA’s shock – it had a budget of about $1.75 million, but they still had to convince to make it at all.
“They had some real serious issues,” recalled Chartoff (who passed away in August 2015). “First we weren’t using a name actor, and there was an anathema to anything connected to boxing at that point. Since John Garfield in the late 40s there hadn’t been a decent boxing movie that made any money. The feeling was boxing pictures were dead.”
To save the project, Chartoff-Winkler cut the budget to a fraction under $1 million and pushed ahead. “(UA) had the horns of a dilemma,” said Chartoff. “We just signed this significant contact with them and they wanted to satisfy us.”
Forced to accept “Rocky” and Stallone, UA asked to see a sample of the actor’s work. A screening was arranged of “Lords of Flatbush,” at the UA office in Manhattan early in the morning. None of those in attendance knew what Stallone looked like, and they mistakenly thought their “Rocky” star was a blonde actor named Perry King. “It was inconceivable to them that any of the others could be the one we were thinking about,” recalled Chartoff.
“(UA Chairman Arthur) Krim said, ‘Hey he’s very interesting, but Stallone? Isn’t he Italian?’” recalled Chartoff, recalling stories from the screening. “And this voice in the back said, ‘You know in northern Italy there’s lot of blonde blue eyed Italians.’ Krim pondered that and said, ‘Yeah, alright. OK. Let’s use him. And that’s how we got approval for Stallone.”
The UA execs didn’t figure out what Stallone really looked like until they saw the movie assembled several months later, after principal photography was done.
UA also didn’t like the title. They wanted to call it, “The Contender.” “They said what the hell is ‘Rocky?’” recalled Kirkwood. “I said, ‘They didn’t call ‘Marty’ (a low budget movie that won the Oscar in 1955) ‘The Butcher.’ With support from Chartoff, Winkler and Stallone, UA finally agreed on the title “Rocky.”
The movie went into production with a budget of $980,000. Stallone was paid $35,000 for acting and writing and was given ten net profit points (which later earned him about $2 million).
Even after it agreed, UA “was leery about ‘Rocky’ and was prepared in the worst case to go directly to TV with it” recalled Gabe Sumner, who was UA’s head of marketing with oversight of PR and promotion as well.
Chartoff and Winkler asked Sumner to come to L.A. for the first industry screening of the finished film, held n the MGM Theater in Culver City. When Sumner walked in and saw it was an industry crowd, he fretted it was ‘the toughest kind of crowd to screen for.’”
Instead, it was a surprise triumph, recalled Sumner. At the end, he said, “this room full of haters stood up and anything like it. I went back to New York and told my people I had seen this extraordinary thing.”
At that point the budget had risen to $1,075,000, plus producer’s fees of about $100,000, for a total of $1.2 million. UA could have demanded Chartoff and Winkler cover the overage but by then liked the movie enough to spend the extra $80,000, recalled Pleskow.
Part of that money was used to re-shoot the ending, recalled director John Avildsen. Originally, a number of extras were to carry Rocky away afterward. “When Conti’s music was put in we said this is terrific,” said Avildsen, “but I don’t have picture to go with this. So I was able to convince the producer’s to go back for half a day with a few extras and did that bit with Adrian and Rocky walking away. It was Bill’s music that inspired the change.”
Later Stallone claimed, as part of the myth, Chartoff had to mortgage his home to finish the film. It wasn’t true. Winkler said later he did use the millions he made from “Rocky” to buy a large home where he lived for many years.
WHEN UA TOLD STALLONE TO GO SPIN A STORY
Prior to the release, however, UA was still not convinced, so they told Sumner to find a way to do a limited release with as little advertising spend as possible, he added, ‘to protect the downside.”
Sumner and UA’s vice president of publicity and promotion Lloyd Leipzig decided to position the movie as the story of an underdog starring an underdog actor/writer – Stallone.
“It was important we remain at all times the underdog,” recalled Leipzig. “Any talk of being an overdog would be poisonous to what we were attempting to do.”
Sumner came up with the advertising line for the movie: “His life was a million to one shot.” He also designed the poster. At a time most movie one-sheets used drawings, Sumner favored real photos. “I found a shot of Stallone and Talia (Shire),” recalled Sumner. “Stallone was in boxing shorts and wearing boxing gloves, walking away from the camera. She was holding his hand. That was the campaign we used to launch the film and through most of the release.”
Sumner sent a copy of his ad and promo materials to Chartoff-Winkler in in L.A. “All of a sudden one day I get a call and my secretary says there’s a man named Sylvester Stallone outside and he wants to see you,” said Sumner. “In walks Stallone. Remember, at this point Stallone is nobody….After cursory pleasantries he says ‘I think your campaign is shit. I don’t want to use it. I don’t like the line ‘his life is a million to one shot.’ My line is ‘It’s a story of love and courage.’ That’s the line I want to use.”
“So I looked at him,” continued Sumner, “and said to myself very quickly, ‘this is not Kevin Costner. This is not Sean Connery. This is not Tom Cruise. This is not even Burt Reynolds. This is nobody.’ So I said to him, ‘Thank you Mr. Stallone but the answer is ‘No!’ We’re not going to change the campaign. And he got furious. And I did my best to calm him down and explain all he had was the right of consultation and we were consulting. And that the final decision of what the campaign would be and everything else to do with distribution and the release of this film, and the marketing, was the prerogative of United Artists.”
“I reminded him,” added Sumner, “we financed the picture and its our responsibility to get the money back, not yours. You just be a good boy and do the talk shows and do the interviews and we will do the advertising. End of meeting. And he walked out and I think to this day he is pissed off at me.”
He might not have liked it, but Stallone did what he was told to do, meeting with critics, doing print interviews, appearing on radio and TV, spinning out the tale that Sumner and Leipzig had dictated.
“We did a tremendous publicity campaign,” boasted Sumner, “on 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 aid, ‘I’m not going to sell it to you unless I star in the film.’ And we said, ‘No way.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t have the script.’ And we said, ‘We will give you $18,000 – that was the figure we used – and a deal was finally made for Stallone to star in this film he wrote and he got all of $18,000. Now is this true? It was horseshit. But it worked. It promoted the whole underdog concept and kept on going. I don’t have to tell you how the press feeds on the underdog story. It filled up space on entertainment pages and in columns looking for something for the next day. They loved the idea of an actor who loved his work so much and was willing to sell it for a nickel and a dime in order to star in it. Blah. Blah. Blah. It all became part of the underdog fabric that people bought into. Period. They just fucking bought into it.”
Warren Cowan of Rogers & Cowan masterminded much of the PR campaign, recalled David Kramer, who was unit publicist on the movie. Kramer said at first, “it was hard to get Sly an interview. It was really terribly difficult. I got interviews for Burgess (Meredith), Burt Young, Carl Weathers. But nobody knew Stallone. Of course it did a great deal for his career.”
“Our ad guys, Gabe Sumner and Fred Goldberg, came up with the thought,” said Pleskow. “They said (to Stallone) you take this picture under your arm and go to the editors of newspapers and magazines and say, ‘Listen,’ in that halting voice he had in those days, ‘you know about the big studios. I need your help and so forth.’ All this shit our people told him to say.”
“Now he’s a smart guy,” added Pleskow with a laugh, “but eventually he started to believe his own story.”
Sumner didn’t even tell the top UA executives exactly what he was doing until the weekend before the Oscars were handed out in 1977. The night before the awards, all the top UA executives attended a party at Winkler’s home in Malibu. “We got to talking about how we got here, with Stallone in a boxing film,” recalled Sumner, “and about the marketing campaign. And they (Winkler, Sumner, Leipzig and others) told (UA Vice Chairman Robert Benjamin) and Arthur Krim about the myth we had 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 shit.’ I said, ‘Right, Arthur. But this is one of the things that got us here.’”
And nearly four decades later it is one of the things that has gotten Stallone back to the Oscars for playing his underdog character once more.