Night of the Underdog
Two producers and a flat-broke actor went into the ring. Rocky was their KO.
By Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, Vanity Fair
In 1975, as we walked the unknown actor Sylvester Stallone out of our office, he said, “I got an idea for a story about a fighter. If I write the script, will you promise you’ll read it?” Well, we did. And in spite of the fact that United Artists offered the struggling Stallone $250,000 to let either Ryan O’Neal or Burt Reynolds star in the film based on Sly’s script, he held firm and said, “Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler promised me I could star in it, and I believe in them.” UA tried inflating the budget to quash its obligation to make the movie. But we took a gamble, came back with a lower budget, and personally guaranteed the film’s completion. We shot it in 28 days and persuaded UA to release it in time for Academy Award consideration.
On opening day—35 years ago this past November—we were standing outside a theater on Second Avenue, reading the New York Times review, by Vincent Canby: a “sentimental little slum movie … an unconvincing actor imitating a lug.” “Be warned.”
Our old friend Peter Falk came up to us, and we said, “Peter, look at this review. It’s awful. It’s going to kill the movie.” And he said, “Do me a favor—go inside. The audience is standing and cheering.” Canby’s review is framed and sits right next to our respective best-picture Oscars for Rocky.
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