The Untold Story: Stallone’s “Rocky” Origin is a Studio Myth
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
HOLLYWOOD- CA(rushprnews)– 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 United Artists’ public relations department, according to the producers and key studio executives — and dutifully sold to the eager media and public by Stallone himself.
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.
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.”
This is apparently the first and only time most of those who lived the “Rocky” saga told the unvarnished truth, according to Senior Columnist Alex Ben Block in the latest issue of entertainment newsmagazine “Hollywood Today.” (www.hollywoodtoday.net)
With MGM’s release of “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth in the series of hugely successful “Rocky” movies, writer-director-star Sly 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.
Even Arthur Krim, then chairman of United Artists (now run by Tom Cruise and partner Paula Wagner) thought he was approving a completely different actor for the role.
“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.”
“I don’t have to tell you how the press feeds on the underdog story,” continued 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’s agent at the time, Larry 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.
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.
“The truth is, nobody knew whether we wanted the guy or not,” recalled Medavoy. “However, since the number was small enough, (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.”
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.”
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.
MORE: How Stallone got past UA chairman and what PR department made him do.
Read parts II and III of the True “Rocky” Saga and more at entertainment newsmagazine (www.hollywoodtoday.net).
Block has been editor of The Hollywood Reporter and TV Times as well as associate editor of Forbes Magazine. He is a best-selling author and radio talk show host on KPCC-FM in L.A.
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