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‘Rocky' producer Irwin Winkler debunks popular myth about the film (exclusive)

Freda Cooper
·Contributor
·6-min read
American actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, with producers Irwin Winkler (L), and Robert Chartoff (R), receive the Best Picture award for their movie Rocky during the 49th Academy Awards ceremony. (Photo by Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images)
Sylvester Stallone, with producers Irwin Winkler (L), and Robert Chartoff (R), receive the Best Picture award for their movie Rocky during the 49th Academy Awards ceremony. (Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images)

Hollywood loves an underdog story. And in the case of one of the biggest movies of the 1970s, the fairy tale was real.

Rocky was the American Dream™ personified: a small-time boxer who gets a shot at the title. The idea for the movie, and the script, came from a little known actor called Sylvester Stallone and it made him into a star. The man behind turning that dream into reality was producer Irwin Winkler, who went on to have a stellar career including classics such as Raging Bull, The Right Stuff and They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

With all six Rocky movies returning to selected cinemas around the UK this week, we caught up with Winkler to set the record straight about Stallone’s greatest triumph.

He tells us that, despite the legend that the project was kicked around Hollywood before it was made, that the Italian Stallion ‘“didn’t pitch to any other studios”. His famous caveat was true though: “He said, ‘You don’t have to pay me. I’ll do it for free, as long as I can play the title role.’”

Watch the Rocky trailer below...

He also admits that, despite producing the Rocky series and Raging Bull, he’s ‘never been interested in boxing’.

Most recently the producer of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Winkler also talks about why he frequently works with the director and the whirlwind story behind the decision to make gangster classic Goodfellas, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.

Yahoo Movies UK: It’s gone down in cinema history that Sylvester Stallone pitched the script for Rocky to a long line of studios/directors/producers and was turned down so many times: What did you see in the story that others didn’t?

Irwin Winkler: First of all, that’s not correct! He didn’t pitch to any other studios. He came in to have a casting meeting with us, and said ‘by the way, I’m also a writer’. I was curious, as he didn’t seem like a writer from the conversation we’d had, so I said, ‘send me a script’, which he did. We didn’t like the script, but we liked his writing, so we called him and he said, ‘let me come in and pitch Rocky,’ which we loved.

Kino. Rocky, USA, 1976, Regie: John G. Avildsen, Darsteller: Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Kino. Rocky, USA, 1976, Regie: John G. Avildsen, Darsteller: Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

We wanted to do a fight movie – and he said, ‘You don’t have to pay me. I’ll do it for free, as long as I can play the title role.’

Why did you agree to it? Did you ever consider anybody else for the part?

Well – no, as I explained. So even if we’d wanted to consider someone else, we couldn’t. The studio considered Burt Reynolds and several other actors, but it was ‘no’.

How much was Stallone involved in the production of the film? Did he allow the script to be changed, or did he ever venture behind the camera as well as being in front of it?

Kino. Rocky, USA, 1976, Regie: John G. Avildsen, Darsteller: Sylvester Stallone. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)
Kino. Rocky, USA, 1976, Regie: John G. Avildsen, Darsteller: Sylvester Stallone. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

Well… he – as this unknown actor and a first-time writer – got involved in every aspect of casting and production.

You’ve produced all the Rocky films. Why do you think it still has such longevity?

The reason they’ve lasted so long – from then till now – is that we have managed to have the Rocky character move with the times and the social atmosphere that’s pervaded throughout the US and globally.

Rocky came out post-Vietnam War, Watergate etc and in the great era of American dissatisfaction with oneself and what was going in the US. And all of a sudden this movie says: ‘if you believe in yourself and give it your all, you might even be a champ someday’.

Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren with American actor, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of his movie Rocky IV. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren with American actor, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of his movie Rocky IV. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Even in the late 80s – when Rocky IV came out, with the backdrop of US vs Russia, it was a plea for everyone to get along – it was also about that time the Berlin Wall came down, when the US and Russia had a comfortable relationship – for a short period of time. Unlike now! So we have kept the films relevant to the time in which they came out.

Do you personally like boxing?

Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

The truth of the matter is I’ve never been interested in boxing. You may know I’m the producer of Raging Bull, and in both films, you find the story of a person and their commitment – their personal story beyond the ring is interesting, I’ve always been interested in characters and in both stories you find these incredible characters in the ring.

When the Academy Awards were presented, Rocky beat heavyweight contenders like Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Network to the Best Picture award. How much was the film – like Rocky himself – the underdog? Did you expect to win?

Frankly, no! We made a good little movie, with a director with no reputation [John G. Avildsen] and a lead actor who’d made no movies, competing against Scorsese and Bob de Niro, Alan J Pakula, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford – and Network and Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet.

So no we really didn’t expect to win. The film was an underdog story – and so was our Academy Award story.

How did you feel when you went on stage to accept the award? On the video, you look very calm.

Believe me, I was not calm – I was in a state of shock. The only thing I remember doing – I think it had never done before – when we won Best Picture. I grabbed Stallone and pulled him up with us to share the award. I look in shock. It was a serious moment, and a big surprise. But I was so happy that Stallone shared the award with us.

You’ve collaborated with Martin Scorsese on at least six films and one of them, Goodfellas, celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. What made you want to be involved in making the movie?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: (L-R) Harvey Keitel, Irwin Winkler, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro attend the Netflix 2020 Golden Globes After Party on January 05, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Arnold Turner/Getty Images for Netflix)
(L-R) Harvey Keitel, Irwin Winkler, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro attend the Netflix 2020 Golden Globes After Party, 2020. (Arnold Turner/Getty Images for Netflix)

You know – you have to go back to how I put the whole thing together – I read the book, the excerpt from New York magazine, in an English language book store in Paris, I think it was a WH Smith. I read the excerpt, I thought it would make a great film. So I bought the book, engaged Scorsese to direct and I produced.

Why do you like working with Scorsese?

Well, he’s the greatest living director today – and one of the greatest of all time. He’s a great friend and marvellous man to work with – so creatively exciting and we make great music together.

The Rocky Collection is released in selected cinemas from 25 September.