This article is part of Yahoo’s ‘On This Day’ series.
In an alternate timeline, there’s a version of Rocky — released on this day 21 November, 1976 — where Ryan O’Neal is the name splashed across that iconic poster, and another where it’s Burt Reynolds, not Sylvester Stallone, that steps into the ring with Apollo Creed in that final reel.
There’s even a third where James Caan – yes, Sonny Corleone – is the one that cries “Adriaaaaan!” in those closing moments.
It’s a big question as to whether Rocky, which premiered 45 years ago today, would have become the box-office-conquering, legacy-birthing phenomenon had any of those starrier names essayed the role of the Italian Stallion.
Yet it’s only because of Sylvester Stallone’s dogged determination that he got to headline his own movie. If Rocky feels authentic, it’s because not only did the Hell’s Kitchen-born beefcake pen every heartfelt word of that script, but Stallone really had lived that life.
It’s difficult to imagine the now-mighty Sylvester Enzio Stallone, whose net worth today is estimated at $400 million, once being so hard up he was forced to sell his dog (“it was either that or he wasn’t going to be very well fed,” he said).
A man who — in 2021 — resides in a $35 million mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, but who — in 1975 — had just $106 to his name.
Before Rocky, Stallone had headlined only one movie, playing — somewhat unconvincingly given he was 28 — teenage gang member Stanley Rosiello in low-budget indie The Lords Of Flatbush. Yet his career was going nowhere.
In film, he was lucky if his character even had a name (he’s ‘Subway Thug #1’ in 1971’s Bananas, and ‘Youth in Park’ in 1975’s The Prisoner Of Second Avenue), and in his only other movie appearance in 1976, road race comedy Cannonball!, he wasn’t even deemed worthy of an on-screen credit.
In 1975, in search of greater opportunities, Stallone upped sticks from New York City to California. Soon after, he went to see a fight between the mighty Muhammad Ali and a boxer that few had much faith in, named Chuck Wepner.
“I saw a man called ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ fight the greatest fighter who ever lived,” Stallone recalled of that night. “And for one brief moment, this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent. And he lasted and knocked the champ down. I thought, if this isn’t a metaphor for life…”
That night, the idea for Rocky, about a struggling, impoverished fighter who gets a shot at the big time, was born. Within three days he had a 90-page script, earmarking himself for the lead role of Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa.
Stallone, then just 29, got a chance to tout his script when at a casting call for a part he figured he had little hope of getting. As he was leaving, he told the producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, about his idea and, suitably intrigued, they arranged a meeting.
The eventual meet-up went well, but, for Stallone, there was good news and bad news. The good was that United Artists loved the script and wanted to make it. The bad news was that they didn’t want him as Rocky.
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It seems crazy now to countenance the idea of anyone but Sly as Rocky Balboa, but UA wanted someone bankable. The list of possibles reads almost comically now. Would audiences have bought the then-40-year-old Robert Redford as a young, working class boxing wannabe? And would alpha male incarnate Burt Reynolds have ever convinced as someone who’d date a girl as timid and unsure as Adrian?
Stallone was offered $360,000 for the script alone, but that wasn’t enough. He’d written Rocky for himself and wasn’t going to surrender it to some marquee-name rival. So he gave the studio an ultimatum: “Cast me as Rocky Balboa, or no deal.”
United Artists, who’d first floated a price tag of $2 million if a star was attached, acquiesced, but slashed the budget by a half. If this sleepy-eyed no-name was their headliner, they were going to play it safe. They even made Winkler and Chartoff sign agreements that they would be personally liable if the film went over budget.
Upon banking his Rocky cash, the first thing that Sly did was buy back his beloved bullmastiff, Butkus. He’s even there in the movie, credited as ‘Butkus Stallone’.
Opening on 21 November 1976, Rocky ended up grossing $5 million during its first weekend and would become the highest-performing film of that year. It went on to bag ten Oscar nominations at the 1977 Academy Awards, winning three (Best Picture, Best Director for John G Avildsen and Best Editing).
As significant as those wins was a Best Actor nomination for Sylvester Stallone. The man who, just a year before, had just over 100 bucks in his bank account and who had to fight for a role in his own movie, was now the toast of Hollywood.
It’s been noted before that the narrative of the Rocky series mirrors that of its creator’s life, with Balboa’s 80s existence paralleling the fame and fortune that Stallone was enjoying at the time, and 2006 comeback movie Rocky Balboa representing the actor’s own resurgence.
There was never anyone better in 1976 to play Rocky Balboa, because Stallone knew what it was like to be the underdog.
Rocky made a star of Sylvester Stallone, just as that fight with Apollo Creed made a star of Rocky Balboa. And 45 years on, Stallone — after the triumphant one-two punch of Creed and Creed II — is teasing a return to his most famous character’s poverty-stricken past with a prequel TV series reportedly in the works.
Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that we’d be talking about the legacy of that original movie had Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal put on those boxing gloves back in 1976.
Sometimes there’s only ever one actor for one role. And for Rocky Balboa it was only ever Sylvester Stallone.
Watch: Stallone at 75