The Right Hook

Talia Shire, Rocky, ...
Image credit: Rocky:

''You're gonna eat lightning and you're gonna crap thunder!''

Just before ''Rocky'' opened on Nov. 21, 1976, the film had a sneak screening at a fitting locale -- midtown Manhattan's Baronet was a dingy place where Stallone had worked six years earlier as an usher. ''Imagine coming back, it was truly surreal,'' says Stallone. ''I was feeling pretty victorious.''

Not for long, though. Stallone recalls half the audience walking out of the first show. ''At the end, there were maybe 15 people left,'' he says. ''And most of them had nothing else to do -- they would have watched anything.... I was past my fingernails. I was chewing down to the finger.'' An early review, which ran in The New York Times, was a Vincent Canby pan: ''Not since 'The Great Gatsby' two years ago has any movie come into town more absurdly oversold than 'Rocky.'''

Medavoy remembers getting a call from UA's New York office. ''They said, 'Jesus, we did $5,000 a theater for the weekend -- that's not a hell of a lot of money.' The numbers were indicating it would probably do four or five million bucks.'' But the second volley of reviews were raves. Audiences began to jolt into standing ovations during the finale.

''By the second or third week business doubled,'' says Winkler. ''It kept going up and up and up.'' Stallone was beginning to be compared to Brando by the media. And ''Rocky'' played through the new year, taking in $117 million at the box office -- an astronomical sum when adjusted for inflation and relative ticket prices. ''I knew we had a hit when I got a check for a lot of money,'' laughs Avildsen. ''I think it was for almost a million bucks, so that impressed the hell out of me.'' Meanwhile Stallone, who had not so savvily negotiated 8 percent of the film's ''net'' profits, no longer had to worry about rent money. ''It was 8 percent of the net, not the gross,'' he says. ''And that, young man, was the first and last time anyone's seen net. We all probably made between five and eight million when it was all over.''

In February 1977, ''Rocky'' received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor nods for Stallone. Its competition in the Best Picture category was ''All the President's Men,'' ''Bound for Glory,'' ''Network,'' and ''Taxi Driver.'' ''I was most worried about 'Network,''' recalls Winkler. Avildsen didn't think ''Rocky'' had a shot either. But when critic Gene Siskel called and asked if he could spend the day of the Oscars with him and follow him around, it got Avildsen thinking maybe he had a shot, so he used a marker to jot down some thank-yous on an envelope.

As for the Italian Stallion himself, he figured it was between ''All the President's Men'' and ''Taxi Driver.'' Stallone says he was also discouraged on his chances for Best Screenplay when ''Network'' writer Paddy Chayefsky came up to him at an event and said, 'You're not winning. I am. Don't even try to figure it out.' Says Stallone, cracking up. ''He was right, too.''

Despite tying with ''Network'' for the most nominations that year, things looked grim for ''Rocky'' from the outset of the telecast. ''When Burgess didn't win I was shocked,'' says Stallone, ''Because he'd been nominated the year before for 'The Day of the Locust' and had 50 years of work behind him.'' When Shire lost, Stallone figured: ''Okay, we're in big trouble now.'' Confounding the filmmakers, Conti's music didn't win either, although they did pick up a statuette for Best Editing. Then Stallone lost in both of his categories. ''Anyone who says they're not disappointed is putting you on,'' he says.

When Jeanne Moreau called out Avildsen's name for Best Director, he remembers reaching into his pocket for his envelope: ''My perspiration had caused all the ink to run -- it looked like a Monet.'' (Siskel later added the smeared envelope to his memorabilia collection.)

Finally, when Jack Nicholson presented the Best Picture Oscar to ''Rocky,'' Chartoff and Winkler grabbed Stallone and brought him on stage with them. As Stallone bounded out of the crowd without a tie, the spread-wing collars of his tux shirt flew outside of his jacket's lapels, like he'd just come in from breaking someone's knuckles. ''I guess I looked like a cut-rate Vegas act or like I was at an Italian wedding at four in the morning,'' laughs Stallone. But what the press didn't know was that Stallone's rental bow tie had ripped on the way to the event. ''The limo driver offered me his, but I said, 'Nah, I don't think it makes a difference.' I had no idea I'd catch such heat for it. Now you can finally settle it: Tell Mr. Blackwell I'm sorry.''

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Originally posted Feb 18, 2002

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