A veteran screenwriter couldn’t have scripted a better fable: A no-name scrapper full of hope and drive beats all the odds, starring in a movie he penned that KO’s audiences and launches a long, prosperous Hollywood career. The real-life details behind Rocky, the boxing fairy tale that opened Nov. 21, 1976, and made Sylvester Stallone a star, were as irresistible as the movie’s palooka with a heart of gold.
Before the film opened, America knew the ”roaches to riches” story of Rocky‘s much-interviewed creator, Stallone. Sly, the product of a rough upbringing, longed to act. But his physique, slurred speech, lugubrious good looks, and years of auditioning brought only bit parts as dumb thugs (Bananas), one dumb-thug lead (The Lords of Flatbush), and a role in a porno film (Party at Kitty and Studs). Unbowed, Stallone tried screenwriting. Inspired by a 1975 Muhammad Ali — Chuck Wepner prizefight, the 29-year-old wrote Rocky in 86 hours.
The script focused on a pugilist who, picked to be the easy target in a match with the heavyweight champ, instead proves himself a contender. Stallone’s project attracted studios that were considering Burt Reynolds as the Italian Stallion and offering $360,000 for the script. Despite a pregnant wife and $106 in savings, Sly refused, insisting that he star. The unknown Stallone’s suitors withdrew, leaving only producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. They agreed to cast Sly and pay him $22,500, plus a 10 percent share of profits.
The movie’s sentimentality and heroism made Rocky a champ with critics and audiences, grossing $117 million; even the theme song ”Gonna Fly Now” hit No. 1. Tying Network as the year’s most Oscar-nominated movie with 10 nods, Rocky won Best Picture and Best Director. Most stunning was Rocky‘s effect on post-Watergate film. Many of Rocky‘s bicentennial peers, like Taxi Driver, dealt in antiheroes and nihilism. But the phenomenal success of the upstart legitimized uplifting films again, causing what Janet Maslin has dubbed ”creeping Rockyism” in movies.
Rocky‘s fairy-tale endings (four sequels followed) were, alas, reserved for the movies. Although Stallone currently pockets $20 million per picture, his domestic career has faltered, particularly when he’s played un-Rocky-like characters. But Rocky itself — as the franchise’s success and the myth’s frequent invocation in halftime pep talks and political campaigns attest — has proved unbeatable.
TIME CAPSULE: Nov. 21, 1976
Gail Sheehy’s Passages topped the nonfiction list; Network took moviegoers behind the tube; Rod Stewart’s ”Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” scored as No. 1; and TV viewers were nostalgic for Happy Days.