“In a film sense, it’s like a minor miracle,” Sylvester Stallone said in a recent Dallas interview about “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth picture in the series about the Philadelphia pugilist that began with a bang in 1976 and continued through “Rocky V” in 1990.
But the sixty-year old actor immediately corrected himself: “Or a major miracle—to be able to have the opportunity to bookend it. Because I really wasn’t satisfied. I felt like I let a lot of people down with ‘Rocky V,’ really did. And I also thought, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs myself. If I can just put all of this into a film, maybe that’s what made the first one work. Because it didn’t deal with boxing, it dealt with the issues of just coping with life. And the metaphor, in the end, is boxing. One thing I realize—the older I get, the more difficult life becomes. So [the question] is, how do you cope with the last third of your life?”
It was with those ideas in mind that Stallone sat down and began writing a new “Rocky” movie—with a definite idea of his audience in mind. “If I had tried to appeal too much to the younger generation, they would smell that out—the pandering. So I said, I’m going to write this for the baby boomers, people my age. And if there are things in there that attract [younger viewers], great! There’s that temptation, but I think you can’t serve that many masters. So I said, I’m just going to write it for people who were around at the first one, and hope that the younger generation says, okay.” He added, “But now it’s really testing well with younger people. I was shocked.”
But the road from page to screen was as hard as the Italian Stallion’s initial trek to the championship. “I started writing this six years ago,” Stallone recalled. “That’s how long it took to get it made. MGM wanted no part of it, at all. I was fifty-two years old! And a miracle happened: MGM got sold, Sony came along, Comcast came along, and Harry Sloan was made the CEO, and he said, ‘I like the script.’ And that’s what did it. Thank God! Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Over those six years, moreover, the script went through major rewriting and revision. The germ of the idea for Rocky wanting to reenter the ring and fight the current champ came from a controversial computer-simulated fight between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. “What would trigger Rocky to start thinking about fighting?” Stallone asked. “There’s always a tendency for one generation to pit their stars against another’s. It’s just the way it is, and people get really argumentative about that. That’s what triggered it. And made it feasible that you’d have an unpopular champion who’s looking for publicity—kind of like Bobby Riggs did with Billie Jean King and that whole tennis thing—and it took on much more impact than a tennis game.” So Stallone devised the premise of a computer-generated bout between Rocky and champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) inspiring the fighter’s advisors to propose an exhibition match with the retired boxer, who’s himself still grieving the death of his wife Adrian and struggling to keep connected to his unhappy son (Milo Ventimiglia, now one of the stars of the TV hit “Heroes”).
In the early drafts, Stallone admitted, Adrian hadn’t died, and much of the story dealt with her concern about her husband’s fighting again. But it didn’t work, he felt, and the new angle gave the script greater depth. How did Shire take to the news? Was she upset? “A little bit,” Stallone said a bit sheepishly. “But she was very gracious, very supportive. She comes from a very film-literate family, so she understood.” And Adrian is still a presence in the film, since Rocky owns a neighborhood restaurant named after her, where he greets customers and regales them tableside with old war stories. Where did that come from? “I visited Jack Dempsey’s restaurant when I was twelve years old,” Stallone said. “So here I come, forty-eight years later, and [I thought of] Jack Dempsey’s restaurant.”
Even after Stallone had a script he was satisfied with, getting the green light was, as he said, still a struggle. And after the project was approved by the backers, the shoot was no picnic. Describing the training and boxing sequences, Stallone admitted that they involved “a lot [of pain]. No matter how much Advil I took, it hurt. And I was getting injured exercising.” But he was very satisfied with the authentic feel of the final match, which he achieved by using a real location and a real crowd of boxing fans.
“We were following the Hughes-Taylor, world championship middleweight fight on HBO,” he explained. “So right before they had their fight, we came in and used those ten thousand people” for Rocky’s entrance into the ring. “And then we told the people, after the fight, if you want to, stay around and watch Rocky get decimated. So we tried to find a fight and use their venues. It was just literally stepping in, blurring reality.”
Stallone was clearly content not only with the way “Rocky Balboa” had turned out, but traveling around the country on behalf of the film. “It’s nice to go out and promote something you enjoy,” he joked, “and not have to lie for seven hours a day, like we usually have to do—and we’re not fooling anybody.” But, he emphasized, as far as he was concerned, this is the end of the road for Rocky. When asked whether a seventh movie might be in store, he said, “No! This, to me, is the best thing I could be associated with for Rocky. So I don’t think so,” quickly adding, “I know so!”
But nostalgia fans can rest easy: Stallone has written a script for a prospective “Rambo IV.”