John G. Avildsen – Rocky Road To a Classic
by Jay S. Jacobs
In the summer of 1976, Philadelphia was the home of the American Bicentennial. However, it turned out that celebration was only the second biggest thing to come out of the City of Brotherly Love that year.
A small movie about a ham-and-egg boxer getting a shot at the title, a film with an almost completely unknown star and filmed on a shoestring, ended up becoming one of the biggest success stories in film history.
That unknown lead actor, Sylvester Stallone, had also written the screenplay. In fact, the script had set off a Hollywood bidding war to make the film. Stallone eventually took much less than he had been offered to do the film with United Artists, because that was the only studio which agreed to let him play the lead.
It’s sometimes hard to remember now, after five sequels of varying quality, what a sensation the original Rocky was. The movie was a critical and popular darling, capturing the imagination of the world and eventually winning the Oscar for Best Picture of 1976.
The director hired to bring the story of Rocky to life was John G. Avildsen, who had earlier helmed the acclaimed counter-culture film Joe featuring a then-unknown Peter Boyle and Jack Lemmon’s acclaimed drama Save the Tiger. He put together a lean-and-mean character story which just happens to have one of the most-beloved fight scenes in cinema history. Avildsen ended up winning the Best Director film, as well.
Soon before the recent Blu-ray re-release of Rocky, director Avildsen returned to Rocky‘s home town of Philadelphia for a special screening of the original film. To make it particularly special, the screening was done at the Art Museum, the setting of the iconic scene in which the boxer exultantly runs up the stairs. The next day, I was able to sit down with director Avildsen at the Four Seasons Hotel to discuss his classic film.
Last night when introducing you, they said that forty years ago you were up for the job doing All the President’s Men.
Well, I wasn’t up for it. I wish I had been. I wanted to do that. It was a terrific book. But that didn’t happen.
When you read the Rocky script, did you have any clue that it would resonate like it did?
No. It resonated with me. That was all that counted. I was very charmed by the characters. I thought it was a love story and a character study. I had seen The Lords of Flatbush and Sylvester did a great job in that. (ed. note: That was a mostly overlooked 1974 film which later gained notice for including the first leading roles of future film and TV stars Stallone, Henry Winkler and Perry King.) So I thought it was a good bet, but I had no idea that it was going to become what it did.
You said last night when your agent first sent you the script, you had no interest in a movie about boxing. What changed your mind when you read the script?
No. But it wasn’t. It was a character study. It was a love story. The boxing was incidental.
It’s a famous Hollywood story that there was a bidding war for the script of Rocky, but Stallone took a lot less than he could have gotten because most of the studios did not want to let an unknown star in the film. As a director, when did you know that he had the talent to carry the movie?
I had met Sylvester a couple of times before. Once in ’71, he came to an audition in Miami Beach. I was shooting a Jackie Mason movie (The Stoolie) there. He was a student at the University of Miami at the time. Then again in ’73, he came in to audition for W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings for a hillbilly part. He didn’t get that either. But when I saw Lords of Flatbush, he was terrific in that. So I didn’t have any doubt that he could play the role. Now, the people at United Artists who financed the movie, they hadn’t heard of this guy. They wanted to see footage on him, so they looked at Lords of Flatbush. They said, “Oh, okay,” and they signed off on the movie. Now they started looking at the dailies and they said, “Where’s Stallone?” I said “That’s Stallone.” “No, no, no. Stallone’s a blond.” They thought that Stallone was Perry King. That’s who they thought they were buying.
The film also had a very interesting supporting cast. Burgess Meredith of course had been around for years, and Talia Shire had done The Godfather and Burt Young had done a few films, but someone like Carl Weathers was more unknown. How involved were you in the casting, and what do you think they each brought to their roles?
I was very involved. Our original Adrian was going to be Carrie Snodgress (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Pale Rider). But she wanted too much dough, so that was the end of that romance. Then Talia came in and knocked it out of the park. Burgess I had met in 1964, when I was working for Otto Preminger on a movie he made in Louisiana, Hurry Sundown. Burgess and I became friends. When this came around, we first auditioned Lee J. Cobb (The Exorcist, 12 Angry Men), but he wouldn’t read. He said, “If you want someone to read, get a radio actor.” So that was the end of that. Burgess came in to read. He read the scene where Rocky has been thrown out of his locker and he comes and complains to Mickey. It’s the first time we see Mickey in the movie. We read the scene a couple of times. I said, “Now you know what the scene is about. Put the script down and let’s run it again. Use your own words.” We came to the end of the scene and Rocky’s walking away and Burgess says, “Hey Rock, you ever think about retiring?” That wasn’t in the scene. So Sylvester said, “No.” And he says, “Well, start thinking about it.” I said, “You’ve got it. That’s perfect. That’s just what that guy would say in that situation.”
The final fight is now considered, along with Raging Bull, to be arguably best boxing segment in film history. How difficult was it to put together on film?
I had never seen a boxing match and knew zip about boxing. I looked at a lot of boxing movies once I got the job, and I noticed that the boxing was pretty phony. (laughs) So I said to the producers, “If we’re going to make the thing look real, we’re going to have to rehearse a lot. I need at least a couple of weeks before we shoot.” Fortunately, they said okay. I get the two guys in the ring and they start bouncing around, doing this and that. I go, “Wait a second. We’re going to be here all week. Sylvester, why don’t you go home and write this thing out. Lefts. Rights. Whatever you want. You write it out and that’s what we’ll learn, like a ballet.” He liked that idea. He came back the next day with 32 pages of lefts and rights. And we learned it. We did it over and over again. I had a little 8mm camera. I shot them every day. I’d show it to them. Not looking very good. We’ve got to get this better. I zoomed in on their waistline and said, “You could lose a little weight. Wouldn’t hurt.” By the time we came to shoot it for real, that’s what it looked like.