Yo, Adrian!

‘Rocky Heavy­weight Col­lec­tion’ cel­e­brates 40 years of the Ital­ian Stal­lion

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Amy Longs­dorf

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.”

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