Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Road To The Academy Awards
Oscar Night 1977: Director John Avildsen & producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler surrounding the star
When he won a Golden Globe, the veteran performer spun yet another lie about the 1976 movie that made him a star. Will he do it again at the Oscars? Will you be able to tell? Read the true story about the origins of the myth
As a fellow baby boomer, I’ll be rooting for Sylvester “Sly” Stallone to win the Best Actor Oscar he should have won thirty-nine years ago. However, I am hoping that Sly will not lie again in his acceptance speech as he did at the Golden Globes when praising the producers of the movie that made him a star and began his career odyssey to Creed.
Sly said before a global audience on Jan. 10, 2016 that he wanted to thank Rocky producer’s Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who he said, “actually mortgaged his house to take a chance on a mumbling actor and give me the shot a lifetime.”
In reality, neither Chartoff nor Winkler had to take a home mortgage to get the movie finished; United Artists paid the entire cost.
In 2001, I asked Eric Pleskow, President of UA, at the time Rocky was made, if it was true Chartoff and Winkler had to mortgage one or both of their homes to finish the movie, as Stallone had said in interviews.
“No sir,” Pleskow told me. “No sir, this is bullshit and it is not the truth.”
Pleskow said that the movie was originally budgeted at $950,000 and had gone about $80,000 over that during production, for a total cost of $1.25 million. There was a clause in the lucrative multi-picture contract Chartoff/Winkler signed only months earlier by which UA could have forced the producer’s to make up the overage. However, having seen and liked Rocky, UA did not press the issue.
“In the end,” said Pleskow, “I gave them $80,000. There was never a question of them hocking their homes, all that garbage, which had been invented.”
However, Winkler did say that later on he used the millions he made from Rocky to buy a large home where he lived for many years.
This is not the first time Stallone has made the false claim. It is part of a complicated mythology about the origin of the original Rocky that is a nearly complete fabrication, whipped up by United Artists’ publicists in 1976 as a cynical marketing ploy. They created a story about Stallone being “the American underdog,” which helped propel the film and Stallone to stardom. It was sold brilliantly to the media and public in the endless interviews that Stallone gave in the early years.
I know this because 15 years ago I interviewed the key players involved in the film for an article I was writing about the making of Rocky. During that period, I was granted access to the MGM/UA archives (in a Los Angeles warehouse) where I was able to review the movie’s memos, schedules, call sheets, contracts and more.
Stallone declined to talk to me then and has remained mum about the true origins of the movie. His longtime spokesman told me that his client stands by what he has said in the past.
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.
Ironically, the real story behind the making of the film is equally as interesting as the fabricated one.
THE REAL STORY BEHIND ROCKY
Let’s go back to the mid-1970's and set the scene. At the time, Stallone was a nearly broke actor and writer with a pregnant wife. He had been part of an ensemble of young actors in the indie breakout Lords of Flatbush. However, his career was moving him toward being a screenwriter, not an actor.
Chartoff and Winkler had produced about twenty-five pictures including the critically acclaimed They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but they had not had a really big box office hit.
Stallone’s agent, Larry Kubik, introduced Stallone to Gene Kirkwood, who worked for Chartoff-Winkler at the time. Kirkwood brought them Stallone’s scripts and arranged for them to see Flatbush. “They said we like this kid,” recalled Kubik, “have him write something for us.”
Kirkwood had lunch with Stallone 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 boxing match featuring Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, who had gotten a chance to fight Muhammad Ali on his comeback. What was supposed to be a mere tune up for Ali became a real battle with Wepner, which won him 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 and Winkler had a deal with United Artists at the time where they could produce a movie with a budget under $1 million, and the studio had only script and director approval, not star approval. However, the studio still had to agree to make it.
Pleskow recalled that for Rocky they originally 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.”
“They (UA) had some real serious issues,” recalled Chartoff. “There was an anathema to anything connected to boxing at that point. Since John Garfield in the late 40's, there hadn’t been a decent boxing movie that made any money. The feeling was boxing pictures were dead.”
The biggest myth of all is that Stallone wouldn’t sell his script unless he could also star in the film, despite offers from United Artists to pay him more and more money. A great yarn, but one that just never happened.
In fact, according to a 2010 book by movie producer Ronald A. Suppa, Stallone was ready to sell just the script. “He wasn’t even going to be in it,” wrote Suppa. "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.’”
Several actors were considered to star in the film, including James Caan and Ryan O’Neal, but eventually Chartoff-Winkler decided to cut the budget to under $1 million and go with Stallone, because that would take the decision on who starred out of UA’s hands.
The movie went into production with a budget of $980,000. Even after they agreed, UA was leery about Rocky and was prepared in the worst case to go directly to TV with it. In the end, the budget had risen to $1,075,000, plus producer’s fees of about $100,000, for a total of $1.25 million.
Prior to the release of the film, however, UA was still not convinced, so they told Gabe Sumner, head of marketing, PR, and promotion for United Artists, to find a way to do a limited release with as little advertising spending as possible, he added, "to protect the downside.”
Sumner was an industry innovator, a disruptor in his time, who was passionate about his work. Until then a lot of studio movie advertising art – from billboards to one-sheets (posters) – were illustrated, graphic or surrealistic.
Sumner loved photo-reality and had his breakthrough success using photo-realism in 1969 when he created an unforgettable image that promoted UA’s hit Midnight Cowboy all the way to the Oscars.
“I looked for the same thing on all the pictures,” said Sumner. “Very frequently I couldn’t find it. On Rocky, I found a shot of Stallone and Talia, with Stallone in boxing shorts and wearing boxing gloves, walking away from the camera, and she is holding his gloved hand.” That was the key image for the entire marketing campaign.
Sumner and UA’s vice president of publicity and promotion, Lloyd Leipzig, came up with the idea of positioning the movie as the story of an underdog, starring an underdog actor/writer - Stallone.
“It was important we remained 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.”
A copy of all the ad and promo materials was sent 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,” continued Sumner. “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 I 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 it’s 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 said, ‘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.”
In reality, Stallone was paid $35,000 for acting and writing Rocky and was given ten net profit points (which later earned him about $2 million). The big money came from doing sequels over the years since.
Sumner added that the press ate up the underdog myth unfiltered: “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.”
“We didn’t have to do a lot of advertising because the press picked up the picture and was all over it,” said Kirkwood. “It became like a happening that year.”
Once on board, Stallone did try to help. “Sly used to come in and hang around,” recalled Leipzig. “We got along famously. He had a lot of ideas on promotions. He had some differences with Gabe on the way to approach it.”
Warren Cowan of Rogers & Cowan masterminded much of the 1976-77 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.”
According to Pleskow, Sumner told 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.”
“He’s a smart guy,” said Pleskow with a laugh, “but eventually he started to believe his own story.”
It is a story he has told on and off ever since, sometimes embellishing with new details.
“I don’t know if (Stallone) changed with success,” said Kubik, who Stallone left shortly after his Rocky success. “It’s like everybody does. You get arrogant with the more success you have.”
“Stallone was never humble,” said Chartoff, who died last year. “When he was broke he wasn’t humble. And I don’t mean that in a critical way. That is who he was. He was always a prideful person. He believed in himself. I’ve never known him to be humble.”
The marketing ploy was so undercover that even some of the top UA executives didn’t know about it until the night before the 1977 Academy Awards. The UA brass had flown to the coast from New York and attended a party the night before the ceremony 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 we told (UA Vice Chairman) Robert Benjamin and (Chairman) 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?’” said Sumner. “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 - still playing the underdog.