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  20 Years with Rocky
The Real Story of an American Hero
(text and pictures taken from a book by the same name)



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When the origional Rocky was released on November 21, 1976, critics and audiences alike embraced Sylvester Stallone's inspirational story of a determined young boxer who gets his shot at the big time. With equal parts drama, romance and action, Rocky captured the imagionation of the entire nation, providing welcome relieve to a country still reeling from Watergate and Vietnam. As box office grosses grew, so did the films impact on popular culture, transforming Rocky Balboa from fictional character to culture icon. Rocky was everywhere. The film's theme song, "Gonna Fly Now," soared up the pop charts and Stallone posters became top sellers.

In February 1977, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Rocky with ten Oscar nominations, later awarding it the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture. Stallone's triumph was complete. As surely as Rocky Balboa overcame all obstacles to "go the distance" in the ring, Sylvester Stallone himself overcame ferocious odds to put his vision on screen.

It was March 1975 and Stallone witnessed a boxing match that would change his life - the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight. Wepner, a little-known club fighter, was predicted to go down within three rounds, but the young fighter proved to be amazingly strong. The crowd began to rally around the underdog and Wepner was still standing in found fifteen.

That very night, Stallone went home with an idea for a character: Rocky Balboa, a man without much mentality, but with incredible emotion, patriotism, spirituality and good nature. As Stallone conceived him, Rocky "would be America's child. He would be the 70's what Little Tramp was to the 20's."

For three-and-a-half days straight, Stallone wrote his first draft of Rocky, keeping himself awake with a steady intake of caffeine pills. Studios loved the script, but they weren't so enamored of the strings attached: Stallone, an unknown, wanted to star. James Caan, Ryan O'Neal and Burt Reynolds were mentioned as more likely candidates. Stallone was initially offered a hefty sum for the screenplay only, but he didn't bite. He'd sell his script only if he were allowed to star. "I knew if I [just took the money], then the whole thing I wrote about in the script was totally false, too," he said. "The picture was taking that goldon shot in the face of adversity." Eventually, United Artists gave in, putting their faith in Stallone.

Principal photography began December 5, 1975, with director John G. Avildsen at the helm. A surperb supporting cast was in place, including Talia Shire (a 1974 Best Supporting Actress Oscar-nominee for The Godfather, Part II) as Adrian, Burgess Meredith (Of Mice and Men and "Batman") as Mickey, and Burt Young (Chinatown) as Paulie.

Rocky was an immediate success, with positive word-of-mouth spreading even before its release. It was seen as an antidote to the pessimism and cynicism that had characterized much of Hollywood's output earlier in the decade, and many critics compared Rocky to the work of Frank Capra, the legendary director of such classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra himself has said of Rocky, "Boy, that's a film I wish I had made." As a result, Stallone's career had been launched as few had ever been before.

After starring in F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley, Stallone returned in Rocky II, for which he not only starred and wrote, but also directed. Because Rocky was clearly a character with universal appeal, Stallone thought "it would be a shame just to throw him away after two hours."

The sequal depicted both Rocky's return to the ring, and his struggle to overcome his own doubts and meet the expectations he created in the first match. Again this Rocky film mirrored Stallone's own life, as the actor attempted to recreate the first film's magic and satsify the audience that made him a star. He needn't have worried: Rocky II was a smach hit all over the world.

As Stallone's stardom grew, he realized how easy it was to become complacent and make "safe" choices to preserve one's success. As he tried to free himself from this trap, he wrote Rocky III, in which the enormously successful champ loses his edge. Rocky is defeated by Clubber Lang (Mr. T) and then must regain "the eye of the tiger" in order to win back the championship.

Stallone himself was coming to grips with many of Rocky's feelings. "I was really providing therapy for myself," he says of making Rocky III. "It is not only what has happened but what is happening to me that is paralleled in the Rocky films."

Rocky IV followed the boxer to Moscow, where he would fight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a six-foot-four-inch, 261-pound Soviet adversary. At the time of the movie's release (1985), the Cold War was heating up, and Rocky was fighting not only a man, but an ideology. It was a fight-to-the-finish struggle between a freedom-loving America and an oppressive Soviet Union. Again, Stallone had tapped into the Zeitgeist of his country. Rocky IV became the biggest hit in the entire series.

The Rocky saga came full circle with Rocky V, a film which finds the champ penniless and unable to box professionally. Rocky is back in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where he started, searching for meaning in his shambles for a life. He thinks he finds salvation in young Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an aggressive boxer whom Rocky trains. Only later does Rocky realize that his own family, paricularly his neglected son, is his true salvation. Rocky must fight Gunn in the stunning climaz, but the more important battle for his family has already been won. Rocky's son in the film is played by Stallone's real-life son, Sage.

But the Rocky saga does not end there, for we will always hold a fond place in our hearts for that Philadelphia club fighter who proved that nothing is impossible, and that no challenge, no matter how great, is beyond our grasp. Rocky not only celebrates the American spirit ... with heart, soul and eternal optimism, he celebrates the human spirit.