‘Rocky Heavyweight Collection’ celebrates 40 years of the Italian Stallion
If you’re yearning for a good way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Rocky,” check out “Rocky Heavyweight Collection” (1976-2006, MGM, PG-13, $60), a Blu-ray set that collects the first six “Rocky” movies from the 1976 original to 2006’s “Rocky Balboa.”
The films, particularly the first one in the series, sparkle with an astounding clarity, helping to draw you deeper into the story of one of cinema’s most famous underdogs.
“I was involved in the remastering process, and it’s amazing how I see things in this new Blu-ray edition I didn’t see in the original movie,” says the film’s director John G. Avildsen of the 1976 classic.
“I could see snowflakes during one scene. And for others, I could see the actors’ breath [vapors] because it was so cold when we were shooting in Philadelphia. There’s no scratches on the print, no dirt. It’s never looked better.”
Four decades after Philly boxer Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone) got a million-in-one shot at the heavyweight title, the character remains evergreen, as last year’s hit “Creed” proved. Stallone, in fact, netted an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the aging pugilist.
So what is it about “Rocky” that continues to captivate audiences so many years after its initial release?
“Well, it’s a simple story,” says Avildsen. “It’s a character story. And Bill Conti wrote a great score, which I think is a big factor in the film’s longevity.
“It’s also a story that people can relate to. Everybody wants respect and everybody wants to be more than just another bum from the neighborhood. What’s not to like?”
Shot for a mere $1 million in just 28 days, “Rocky” went on to earn $225 million in global box office and net three Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Almost instantly, Stallone became a Philadelphia institution, as central to the city’s allure as Ben Franklin and cheesesteaks.
Oddly enough it was the Oak Park, Illinois-born Avildsen who insisted that “Rocky” be shot, at least in part, in the City of Brotherly Love.
“I remember saying to the producers, ‘The story takes place in Philly. It’s cold there. You have to see people’s breath when they talk.’
“And one of the producers said, ‘This time of year, early in the morning out by my pool, you can see your breath.’ They wanted us to do the whole movie in Los Angeles.”
But Avildsen got his way thanks to his ability to lens the movie on the fly with a non-union crew.
“We shot for 10 days in Philly and we would have shot longer but the Teamsters found us and ran us out of town,” says Avildsen with a laugh.
“Usually on a movie set, everyone has a chair. But we had no honey wagons and no trailers. We had none of that. It was bare bones. And breakfast, lunch and dinner was pizza ordered from neighborhood shops.”
Back in 1975 when the film began production, Stallone was a virtual unknown. The only way he was allowed to star in “Rocky” was because he’d penned the script.
Avildsen landed the job of director when another project he was working on with Richard Burton fell through.
“In September of 1975, I was just back from Malta where I’d been scouting locations for the Burton film,” recalls Avildsen. “The day I got back, the movie company ran out of money and I was without a job.
“A friend of mine sent me this script about a boxer. I thought, ‘Give me a break.’ I wasn’t interested in boxing. But this guy persisted and on the third or fourth page, Rocky is talking to his pet turtles Cuff and Link. I was charmed.”
Avildsen brought what Stallone called “a street quality” to the shots of Philadelphia, from Rocky’s meeting with his mobster boss (Joe Spinell) at Pat’s Steaks to the scenes of Rocky wandering into the neighborhood pet shop where his crush Adrian (Talia Shire) works. (The shop was located at 2146 N. Front St.)
Aiding Avildsen in his quest for documentary-like realism was Garrett Brown and his then-untested Steadicam camera. Now the Steadicam (a device which smoothes out handheld camera work) is routinely used but “Rocky” was only the second production (after “Bound For Glory”) to employ the invention.
Avildsen says that Rocky’s run through the Italian Market and up the Art Museum steps wouldn’t have been possible without Brown’s camera. In fact, on Brown’s sample reel was a shot of Brown’s wife running up those very same steps.
“I thought, ‘Hmmm, I know just where that is going to go,’” recalls Avildsen.
One of Avildsen’s favorite memories of shooting “Rocky” was hanging out at 1818 E. Tusculum St., the site of Rocky’s dingy apartment.
No police or barricades were needed since the folks who actually lived on the block were friendly and respectful of the actors. Before a nighttime scene, they even helped the filmmakers wet down the streets with buckets of water (a technique which makes shots look better).
“Everybody in Philly was great,” says Avildsen. “It was a magical time. We really lucked out.”
As Burt Young says on the Blu-ray, “Rocky” is “not a fight picture but a love story.” Indeed, the heart of the movie is the unusual romance between Rocky and the painfully shy Adrian.
In the original script, the first date between Adrian and Rocky took place in a small cafe. But Avildsen suggested the exchange be set in a bowling alley or a skating rink in hopes of adding more dynamism to the scene.
“There’s an ice-skating rink in the center of Philadelphia and we were going to fill it up with nonunion extras and play the scene there but the Teamsters found us before we were able to shoot it,” recalls Avildsen.
Back in Los Angeles, the producers insisted the scene be moved back to a restaurant.
“They said we couldn’t afford all of those union extras,” Avildsen explains. “So I thought that maybe the rink is closed. And Sylvester liked that idea. He changed a couple of lines in the script and that’s how the place came to be closed, which made it instantly better. It made the scene more romantic and funnier and special.”