John G. Avildsen – Rocky Road To a Classic
Updated: May 26, 2021
John G. Avildsen, director of “Rocky.” At the Four Seasons Hotel, Philadelphia, PA March 11, 2014. Photo by Jay S. Jacobs.
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.
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire star in “Rocky.”
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.”
Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers star in “Rocky.”
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.
You were saying last night that the movie was almost not filmed in Philadelphia, which is amazing, since the film is so tightly woven into the fabric of the city. Why were you certain that the city was so vital to the story, and how did you make sure to get the filming done here?
Oh, yeah. The producers wanted to shoot the whole thing in LA, because they didn't have money to come here with an union crew. Fortunately I was able to convince them that I had shot a number of non-union pictures in New York with a half a dozen guys I felt very comfortable with. We'd done a lot of stuff together. So they said okay. That's who came to Philadelphia with me. We shot ten days here, which was more than a third of the 28-day schedule, before the Teamsters discovered us and we had to go back to LA. Originally the first date was written to take place in a diner. The two people were going to sit there for eight or nine pages of yakking. I said, "You know what? That is really boring. Very static. Why don't the go bowling? Why don't they go ice skating?" They said, "Well, okay, they can go ice skating." There was an ice skating rink in the center of Philly. That's where we were going to go with a bunch of non-union extras. We were going to shoot it there. Well, that was before the teamsters found us and we had to leave before we shot that scene. When we get back to LA, the producers said, "Now we've got to put it back in a diner." I said, "No, no. Maybe the ice rink is closed and that's why there's nobody there." Sylvester liked that idea. We changed a couple of the lines and we shot it in an empty ice rink in Los Angeles. It was much more romantic and unique and funny that way. So, that's how that came to be.
Philadelphia has certainly changed a lot in the almost 40 years since you filmed Rocky. Have you been able to explore a bit while back in town, maybe check out how some of the old haunts have changed from the original filming?
Yeah. I have. The skyline has certainly changed, but the pet shop is still there and the gym – the exterior, anyway. So a lot of it hasn't changed. But the skyline is great, distinctive and beautiful.
I believe Rocky was the first film to use Steadicam.
No, the second. Bound for Glory the year before. (ed. note: That film was a Woody Guthrie bio pic starring David Carradine.) I had never heard of [Steadicam]. Ralph Hotchkiss, who was my assistant cameraman – I was the cameraman on the stuff we shot here – he said, "I have a friend who invented this new camera. Do you want to see the reel?" He lives in Philadelphia. That was Garrett Brown. I looked at his reel and he had his girlfriend at the time – who is now his wife, Ellen – run up the stairs of the Art Museum. I said, "Oh, I know where this is going to go." That's how we came to meet Garrett and use his Steadicam and because of that chance meeting, Garrett made a lot of the terrific shots that have become so famous now.
That's funny, because the scene of running up the Art Museum steps is now burned into pop culture. To this day, tourists visiting Philadelphia have to run the stairs.
Did you have any clue that would become such an iconic image?
No. We had no idea at all that it would be the hit that it was. We thought maybe it would end up in the bottom half of double bill at a drive-in in Arkansas. We had no conception that it was going to be successful in that way.
It was amazing to see the film on a big screen again last night, you notice so many things that you miss in years of watching on video. The new Blu-ray version seems to be a particularly crisp print as well. As a filmmaker, what do you think of the new version?
I loved it. I worked on the conversion for a few months back in LA. I saw stuff I'd never seen before. The breath (in the cold). Snow flakes. There's no scratches or dirt. It's beautiful.
In the extras of the new Blu-ray, there are a bunch of long-forgotten home movies of the filming of the movie.
Yeah, Lloyd Kaufman, who was our production manager when we were here, found this stuff in his basement a few months ago. (Ed. note: Kaufman went on to create and run the infamous B-movie studio Troma Entertainment.) I had never seen it. It was great to see everybody back then. I cut it together and now it's part of the extra content.
Due to all the sequels, people sometimes have a tendency to forget how truly good the original film is. It actually won the Best Picture Oscar, which was kind of astounding for such a little film. And you won Best Director. And most of your cast was nominated, too. What was Oscar night like?
Not bad. (laughs) It was a delightful surprise. I recommend it. It was great fun.
Rocky has spawned six movies and now a Broadway show. Could you ever imagine how far this little movie has come?
Not in a thousand years. We had no expectations.
Have you seen or heard anything about the new musical?
Yeah. A friend saw it the other day and raved about it. And it was very successful in Germany.
You have done your share of well-known films – Joe, Save the Tiger, The Karate Kid – but Rocky is always going to be synonymous with your name in Hollywood. As a filmmaker, how does it feel to have been a part of such an iconic film?
I feel very fortunate. I almost didn't make Rocky. I was procuring a picture to be shot in Malta, with Richard Burton. Richard was having trouble with his drinking. We were trying to figure out how we could build some kind of a prop that he could stand in so he wouldn't fall over. (laughs) But by the time I came back from the location hunt, the company had run out of money. We hadn't even shot anything yet. Suddenly I was out of a job and the phone rang with my friend with this script about a boxer. I said, "No, I'm not interested in boxing." He said, "Oh, please read it." On the third, forth page, the guy is talking to his turtles Cuff and Link, and I was charmed. It was a love story, a character study. It was a real good script. So I said yes. But if the Malta picture had happened, I wouldn't have happened.
CHECK OUT JOHN G. AVILDSEN ANSWERING SOME OF OUR QUESTIONS ON VIDEO!
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