How ''Rocky'' nabbed Best Picture -- The only Cinderella story more rousing than the film itself is the tale of its unlikely route to Oscar gold
”If that bell rings and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life…I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood”
In 1975, Sylvester Stallone had $106 in the bank. His beat-up car had just blown up, so the struggling actor had to hitchhike to auditions. His wife was pregnant with their first child. And even though he’d managed to pay off four months’ rent on their San Fernando Valley apartment with the $700 he’d earned on ”Death Race 2000,” things were looking bleak. So bleak, in fact, that he was forced to sell his dog — a 135-pound bullmastiff named Butkus. ”It was either the dog or us,” says Stallone, now 55. ”Trust me, I thought it was over.”
”The Lords of Flatbush,” a slice-of-life tale about a pack of street toughs in 1950s Brooklyn, had recently come out and earned Stallone some good notices. But he had little luck parlaying the film into anything more than routine go-sees for background parts. One of those meetings was with Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, a hot producing team over at United Artists who’d made ”Point Blank” and ”They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
”I gave him about 15 minutes in my office,” recalls Chartoff. ”I enjoyed meeting him, but I didn’t know what to do with him.” On his way out the door, the dejected actor asked if they would read a script of his. Chartoff figured, What the hell? The next day, the producers received a copy of ”Paradise Alley.” It needed a lot of work, but the writing had a fresh voice. ”Honestly,” says Winkler, ”when we read it we figured his real talent must be writing.”
But as his loser’s luck at the time would have it, Stallone had already sold the rights for $500 to keep his landlord at bay, so there was no way he could sell it to Chartoff and Winkler. ”The doors of opportunity were opened and closed in a matter of seconds,” Stallone remembers thinking. The producers mentioned that they’d been toying with the idea of a boxing movie. Stallone said that he too had a boxing script in mind.
Stallone had just seen a fight in Cleveland between Muhammad Ali and a New Jersey palooka named Chuck Wepner, who went by the tomato-can nickname of the Bayonne Bleeder. ”This guy was like a 30-to-1 underdog,” recalls Stallone. ”He didn’t have a chance against a perfect fighting machine like Ali. But he won even though he lost the fight. He’d won something for every loser in the world because he showed he could knock down the invincible and go the distance.” Stallone pitched his million-to-one-shot idea to the producers and they bit. Says Winkler, ”He basically said, ‘Look, I’ll write the script for nothing for you, but there’s one proviso: You’ve got to make sure that if you want to make it, I’ve got to star in it.”’
In the Valley apartment he couldn’t afford, Stallone sat down with a Bic pen and a spiral notebook — ”50 cents worth of equipment,” he jokes — and wrote the first draft of ”Rocky” in three days. ”It just poured right out of me. I think because it was such a metaphor for my life.”
It’s safe to say that if Stallone’s original ”Rocky” script had been made, he’d still be hitchhiking to auditions. While the nuts and bolts of the story are similar, his Italian girlfriend, Adrian, was originally conceived as a Jewish girl modeled on Bette Midler. Rocky’s coach, Mickey, was an abrasive racist. And the red-white-and-blue champ, Apollo Creed? Jamaican. At the end of the script, Rocky throws the fight and uses the money to open a pet store for Adrian. ”Not as dramatic,” laughs Stallone, ”is it?”
After several months of revisions with Winkler and Chartoff, the three of them finally hammered the script into fighting shape. They sent it up the line to United Artists. Mike Medavoy, who at the time was the senior VP of production at the studio, remembers reading ”Rocky” on a flight from New York to L.A. ”I liked it a lot, but everyone at the studio was afraid of doing a boxing movie because boxing movies in general hadn’t done well.”
Chartoff and Winkler asked UA for a budget of $2 million. But that price tag meant the studio was well within its rights to make a few suggestions. ”I’d thought Stallone was terrific in ‘Lords of Flatbush,”’ says Medavoy. ”But we suggested Jimmy Caan.” Other names that were batted around for the role of Rocky were Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal. ”The studio [UA] only wanted to make it with a big star,” recalls Winkler.
Although Medavoy knew who Stallone was, the suits in UA’s New York office had no clue what he even looked like. When they screened ”Flatbush” in the company’s headquarters, they figured he must be the film’s leading man, Perry King. ”They didn’t understand how a guy with a name like ‘Stallone’ was blond and blue-eyed,” laughs Chartoff. ”They figured he must be from northern Italy. And they thought he was very good and agreed to make the picture with him.” When they found out that Stallone was actually the swarthy one in the background, the deal was off. ”That’s when the offers started to come in,” remembers Stallone. They dangled $20,000 for the screenplay if he wouldn’t star in the film. ”They got to $100,000 [if I would] just go away, then $200,000,” says Stallone. ”In the end, my agent told me they got up to something like $340,000…. It was a dilemma because if I didn’t provide any security for my kid, then it was all about raging ego. But we’d gotten used to being poor.”
In the end, the producers lowered their budget to $1 million — which, according to their deal with the studio, prevented UA from vetoing Stallone. After all, Winkler says they had made a promise to Stallone, and if he was going to turn down that kind of money, the least they could do was keep their word. ”There was never any doubt in my mind or Irwin’s mind that he was going to star in the picture,” recalls Chartoff. ”I mean a million bucks isn’t a lot of money so why not take a chance on an unknown?” As for Stallone himself, he got a mere $20,000 for the script and the SAG minimum of $350 per week for his acting duties. What could have been a golden $340,000 kiss-off shriveled down to $21,400. To be fair, Medavoy disputes trying to buy Stallone out.
”It makes good copy,” he demurs. Actually, Medavoy says what sold him on ”Rocky” was an agreement to ”cross” the profits of the film with those of the studio’s guaranteed hit ”New York, New York.” By doing this, Medavoy says the profits from Martin Scorsese’s musical would, in effect, pay for the boxing dud. Of course, cracks Medavoy, ”’Rocky’ wound up paying for whatever losses we had on ‘New York, New York,”’ which tanked.