The story of the making of Rocky is as heartwarming as Rocky itself. Sylvester Stallone, a struggling thespian with a few, not-so-notable credits, wrote a Hail Mary script about a struggling pugilist. He miraculously got it made, with him as the lead. The result was the biggest hit of 1976, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Which is to say that 15 years later we got Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.) But there’s an alternate timeline in which Stallone’s original script got made — and that sounds like an even darker film than a Rocky IV in which Paulie’s robot has been deleted.
The Hollywood Reporter dug up an old interview with Stallone, in which he admitted that the initial script for Rocky was a lot closer to the bleak-o-rama fare trendy in ’70s Hollywood. In fact, Rocky Balboa was less a sadsack than just another of the era’s antiheroes — a Travis Bickle with boxing gloves — who threw the big fight with Apollo Creed.
“The character was very dark. As a matter of fact, he throws the fight at the very end,” Stallone said in the old interview. “And Mickey [Burgess Meredith] himself turns out to be this very angry, racist man. And the reason Rocky throws the fight is because he doesn’t want to be involved in this kind of world. He says, ‘I would just rather be who I was and just have all this hatred around me and so on.’”
Luckily he had a fierce critic: his then-wife Sasha Czack. “And she goes. ‘Oh. I don’t like it. Rocky seems so nasty,’” Stallone recalled. “Because I had made him very street-like and unrepentant. He did not have the attitude that he eventually ended up with. So I went back and re-wrote and re-wrote.”
Had he not, would the darker Rocky had been a blockbuster that turned him into an instant megastar? Probably not. Rather than gift the world with another cinematic downer, Stallone went the other way, offering audiences beaten down by grim movies — not to mention even more grim times — a respite. Which they enthusiastically took. Indeed, along with the previous year’s Jaws and the next year’s Star Wars, it helped usher in a new, happier time at the movies, laying the foundation for the blockbuster future we live in today.
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that the original Rocky is still pretty dark. Balboa is a sadsack who no one believes in, except for Talia Shire’s Adrienne. And it captures Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia at its grimiest, before it had an icon, even a fictional one like Rocky, it could believe in. Still, things could have been worse.
You can watch the full, old interview below.