When Sylvester Stallone wrote the original Rocky, it was for him a Hail Mary — an attempt to salvage a career that wasn’t going anywhere. Needless to say it worked and then some, paving the way for everything from the John Rambo cycle to Staying Alive, his misbegotten, disco-less sequel to Saturday Night Fever. But what if audiences hadn’t been charmed by the film? What if Stallone had filmed his original script, which wasn’t as heartwarming as what got made?
Per Deadline, in the new Netflix documentary Sly, Stallone describes his initial version of the underdog hero as “thuggish,” the movie closer in tone to Martin Scorsese’s gritty breakthrough Mean Streets. Then he showed it to a friend, and it wound up making her cry.
“She goes, ‘I hate Rocky. I hate him. He’s cruel. He hits people. He beats them up,’” Stallone recalled.
Instead of being stubborn, he asked her how he could change it:
“I said, ‘what if you stop short of it?’ Like, maybe he almost did. He could have, that’s his job, but he doesn’t?’ ‘That’d be nice,’” he added. “I said, ‘What if he had a girlfriend or something?’ ‘Yeah, that’s nice.’ So I go back, start writing that: ‘Girlfriend. Nice.’”
And so instead of yet another feel-bad ‘70s Hollywood downer, they got one that was, like Jaws before it and Star Wars after it, a kind of antidote to them. Not only was it the top grosser of 1976, it nabbed the Best Picture trophy from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver. And though Rocky Balboa himself is (allegedly!) retired, that franchise is still puttering along.