45 years ago, Sylvester Stallone brought the ultimate underdog story to the big screen. With its contrast of the American Dream amid the squalid realities of urban Philadelphia in the 1970s, Rocky was an unglamorous portrait of taking your shot when it’s given to you.
Watching the film all these years later, the most charming aspects are what the production was able to do with a shoestring budget: the jazzy score, the gritty cinematography, the grime of real-life skid row streets. Major studios were interested in funding the film, but no one wanted to roll the dice on Stallone as the lead. By keeping the film under budget, Stallone was able to retain his leading man role. Despite its cheap production, Rocky still looks and feels like a cinematic marvel, and the financial restrictions actually enhance the film’s rags to riches storyline.
Getting Rocky made was difficult from the very beginning. Stallone was broke, he had almost no previous writing experience, and the script kept getting rejected because Stallone insisted on playing the title character. Even when the production was greenlit, characters like Apollo Creed and Adrian Pennino were cast at nearly the last minute. Boxing injuries and budgetary restrictions called for quick changes, and Stallone often found himself rewriting the script during filming to accommodate a series of mistakes or flaws that befell the production.
Just like the story it was telling, Rocky was a true underdog phenomenon. With a budget of just $1 million, the film wound up grossing over $100 million in the United States alone and an additional $125 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing movie of 1976. At that year’s Academy Awards, Rocky received ten nominations, including wins for Best Picture and Best Director for John G. Avildsen. Rocky was a global phenomenon, and a string of sequels would be produced that extend all the way to the Creed films of the modern-day.
Remarkably, Rocky has remained in the cultural zeitgeist for over four decades. By all accounts, nobody on the set believed that the film would elevate beyond its modest origins. When looking back on the production, it’s not hard to see why. Here are some of the best stories from the making of Rocky.
1. Sylvester Stallone was broke while writing the script
Sylvester Stallone wasn’t a complete unknown before Rocky: leading roles in The Lords of Flatbush and Death Race 2000 made him a notable character actor in Hollywood, but he had yet to elevate himself to a household name. According to a contemporary piece in The New York Times, Stallone only had $106 in his bank account while writing Rocky‘s script.
It only took Stallone four days to finish the script, inspired by a fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. His agents shipped the film to studios, but Stallone’s insistence on playing the lead almost caused him to go broke.
2. The production got extras by offering them free chicken
Most of the budgetary restrictions worked in Rocky‘s favour: real Philadelphia streets were used, cast members wore their own clothes, and the famous ice skating date was actually filmed during the rink’s off-hours because the production couldn’t afford to rent the space. But it would have been impossible to fake a Heavyweight title fight without scores of spectators.
Instead of paying professional extras, the production offered random fans a free chicken dinner to come see the fake fight. Roughly 4,000 people showed up, and the large crowd shots were finished in a single day of shooting.
3. Stallone rewrote nearly 90% of the script while filming
By his own estimation, Stallone claims that the studio only retained about ten per cent of his original script. Some of the details, like Creed being Jamaican, were minor shifts, while major changes like Mickey’s vehement racism were excised completely. But during filming, a number of gaffes required Stallone to improvise new dialogue.
Rocky’s visit to the ring the night before the match where he mentions that his shorts are the wrong colour on the poster was included because the production department really did mess up the poster. The same goes for Rocky’s robe, which was a few sizes too big. Stallone wrote a few lines incorporating it into the script so that the character could be self-aware regarding his lack of polish and flair when compared to Creed.
4. Stallone and Carl Weathers suffered opposing injuries
In the final fight, Rocky takes an endless series of punches to the face, breaking his previously impervious nose in the first round. In contrast, Creed gets a few nasty shots to the ribs, causing him to have trouble breathing as the fight reaches sits 15th and final round.
Over the course of shooting, these injuries were actually swapped for their respective actors: Stallone took a nasty body shot that caused him bruised ribs, while Weathers took a jab to the nose that required medical attention. Both Weathers and Stallone had real experience in boxing, so when the occasional punch landed, it was painfully real.
5. Almost everything about the ice skating scene was improvised
As previously mentioned, the ice skating date between Rocky and Adrian was shot during the rink’s off-hours because the production couldn’t rent the space or pay for the extras.
On top of that, Stallone either rewrote or simply threw out most of the dialogue between the two characters, trying to tap into the budding romance and heightening the awkwardness between them. Stallone didn’t know how to skate, which is why he’s jogging around the rink with Adrian. It all adds to a believable coupling between a shy pet shop owner and a knuckle-headed boxer.
6. Rocky was still innovative, despite its meagre budget
Even though the film didn’t have a lot of money to throw around, they knew how to find the right people for the job. That included cinematographer James Crabe, who wanted the fluid motion of Rocky’s training and the final fight to be captured.
So he turned to Garrett Brown, who had recently invented the Steadicam and had used it on the films Bound for Glory and Marathon Man. With this new technology, shots like Rocky’s triumphant ascension of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps and the dynamic battle at the film’s climax were captured in all their exciting glory. Largely thanks to Rocky, Steadicams became prominent equipment for both film and sports coverage.