Six films over a span of nearly four decades. Over a billion dollars at the box office. Three Oscar wins including for Best Picture. A monumental hit by any standards. Yet, Rocky wouldn’t have been made if not for Sylvester Stallone’s incredible resilience.

The Days of the Struggle

Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor in the 1970s. He had had small roles in a few films, but they were almost inconsequential, and in some cases, never made it on screen.
At the time, he was broke. Broke to the point that he slept at the New Jersey Bus Terminal for three straight weeks. With no roles in sight, he was desperate. He had to make a living somehow. Things got to a point where he had to sell his loyal companion, his dog for $25.
After years of struggled, he realized: if he had to make it in the industry, he had to write his own film and act in it.
“Early in my acting career I realized the only way I would ever prove myself was to create my own role in my own script.”
On realizing this, he thought about the screenplays that he wanted to write for a while. He then had a revelation — he wanted to write screenplays that he would personally enjoy watching on screen.
Then, he thought about what he liked.
“I relished stories of heroism, great love, dignity, and courage, dramas of people rising above their stations, taking life by the throat and not letting go until they succeeded.”
But he had too many ideas at the time and didn’t quite know which one to focus on.
So, with whatever money he had left for recreation, he went to watch a boxing match.

The Spark: The Mohammad Ali-Chuck Wepner Fight

Image Source: Mike Tyson
March 24, 1975. The Richfield Coliseum, outside of Cleveland in Richfield, Ohio. 36 year-old boxer of moderate talent, Chuck Wepner, was taking on the great Mohammad Ali.
Wepner didn’t stand a chance, people said. Everyone thought he’d be knocked out in three rounds.
Three rounds went by. Then, six. In the ninth round, Wepner even managed to knock Mohammad Ali down.
The next six rounds then turned ugly, with Mohammad Ali deciding to go on the offensive. He began pummeling Wepner, who took every blows that came his way and even then got a few punches in. He kept standing tall — as tall as he could — and kept fighting. Till he couldn’t anymore. With 19 seconds left for the close of the 15th and final round, Mohammad Ali scored a TKO, or technical knockout, against Wepner.
Although Wepner lost, he had put up one hell of a fight — against all odds. This inspired Stallone, who was amazed at the fight Wepner had put in the last six rounds. He now had the idea he wanted to pursue.

Punching out the Script

Stallone had barely written before. He had contributed a few dialogues to a film or two, but that was about it. But this idea of a boxer who fights all the way through and doesn’t stop till he succeeds had gripped him. So, he began to write. Right after the day of the boxing match.
He had this apartment where he would write his stories.
“I used to sit in this little apartment – well, it was a room, so small that I was able to open up the door and close the window at the same time while sitting on the bed. It was eight feet by nine feet!”
After writing furiously for three straight days, Stallone completed the initial script for Rocky. As per Stallone’s admission, only about 10% of that script made it into the final script. But the job was done — the script was ready and before him.

Support from Close Quarters

Stallone now had to share his script with a trusted someone for feedback. Turned out, he didn’t have to look anywhere. He found the best possible critic in his wife, who was such an integral part of his life. So he shared the script with her.
You’d be surprised — she didn’t like the story. She thought the character Rocky was nasty and that the film was quite dark. This was the first version of the story. He thought about what his wife had to say and then rewrote the story over and over again till it was ready to be taken to a producer.
Then entered Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler.
Stallone met them when he was auditioning for a part they had on offer. He didn’t get the part. But on his way out, he told them about the script he’d written — a story about boxing. They asked him to “bring it around.” This was the chance that Rocky had needed. Thanks to Chartoff and Winkler, he could see a possibility of his story being produced.
“…if they didn’t tell me that, I wouldn’t be where I am, so I have to give incredible credit to their insight and their patience and their willingness to take a chance, which doesn’t happen as much these days.”
The producers read the script and liked it. They were even willing to get started on the process. But one aspect brought this process to a halt: they didn’t want Stallone to act in the film.

Stallone’s Quest to Play Rocky

Now that the script was out there, Stallone started receiving a lot of offers. A man who had been dealing with tens of dollars was now being offered over $100,000. How tempting it would have been for him. And tempted he was. But he didn’t give in. He wanted to be in the film and play Rocky himself. He wasn’t willing to take this project forward in case this condition wasn’t met.
Chartoff and Winkler finally agreed to the condition that Stallone would star in the film. The money being offered then reduced drastically. He was an unknown actor at the time and the production house was taking a chance with him.
Gradually, everyone involved in the film made sacrifices — including Chartoff and Winkler who mortgaged their houses to raise the money — to bring the film to screen. Fortunately, they gathered enough resources to begin shoot with Jon Avildsen as the director.

The Last Few Rounds

Image Source: Empire
28 days of shooting prevailed. Stallone and crew underwent a lot of challenges during the shoot. Some of the sequences involved strenuous physical strain on Stallone’s body, but he kept at it with the support of the director. In Carl Weathers, they found another terrific team member, who helped provide direction in the crucial fight sequences.
Great direction, precise editing, and heartfelt performances carried the film excellently on their shoulders and elevated the essence of the story.
Once it was out in the theatres, the public loved it. And so did the critics. And the film became a symbol of fighting against all odds. Rocky was made. And so was Sylvester Stallone.

Image Source: Self Inspiration

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