Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There was a talking robot in Rocky IV because Sylvester Stallone had been using the robot to work with his autistic child.
Very often, some of the more surprising legends involving Hollywood films come from the influence a film’s writer, director or star has on the film based on their outside interests. For instance, George Lucas’ interest in impressing his daughters nearly led to the band ‘N Sync appearing as Jedis in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Kirk Cameron’s refusal to kiss anyone but his wife led to a bizarre piece of movie magic in Fireproof. It was this same kind of situation that led to one of the strangest movie characters of the 1980s, the talking robot in 1985’s megahit film, Rocky IV.
The third sequel to 1976’s Rocky, the film was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone also stars as retired heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Balboa, who has to come out of retirement to defeat the seemingly superhuman Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, to avenge the death of Rocky’s friend and former trainer (and former opponent), Apollo Creed, who Drago had killed in an exhibition match earlier in the film. In the end, Rocky ends up defeating Drago in front of a large crowd in the Soviet Union (who all end up cheering for Rocky by the end of the bout). The movie was a massive success, becoming the highest grossing sports film of all time, a title it held for over two decades!
However, mixed into the otherwise straightforward story of Rocky avenging the death of his friend (and seemingly single-handedly ending the Cold War through boxing) is a rather bizarre subplot involving Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie (played by Burt Young), one of only a handful of characters to appear in all of the Rocky films. For Paulie’s birthday, Rocky gives him a talking robot.
Paulie and the robot appear in a number of comedic scenes together, including one where the robot is inexplicably female now and in love with Paulie.
It was weird at the time and it is even weirder in retrospect. As it turns out, though, Stallone had a very personal reason for including the robot in the film.
It all started with the work of Robert Doornick, founder of International Robotics, who believed (and still believes) that in certain situations, robots can deal with autistic children better than humans can. Doornick was on a talk show in the 1980s discussing his theories and soon after the appearance, he was contacted by Sylvester Stallone, whose son, Seargeoh Stallone, was autistic. Autism was much less understood back then (not that it is particularly well understood even today), so Stallone kept his young son’s autism secret and stopped doing any publicity involving his family (he had appeared with his wife and his two sons on the cover of People magazine in 1982). Eventually, in 1985, Stallone revealed his son’s autism to People in an in-depth article. Stallone and Doornick worked with Seargeoh with one robot in particular, named Sico, in particular. At the time, Stallone was going through a divorce from his wife and in order to keep his kids close to him, he wrote the robot Sico into the film so that he could have Seargeoh work with Doornick on set (Stallone also wrote his then-girlfriend, Brigitte Nielson, into the film for the same basic reason – he felt that his relationship with his wife suffered from being apart, so he wanted to keep Nelson close to him).
Once the robot was in the movie, though, Stallone the screenwriter got kind of obsessed with it and began to write more and more scenes for it (Doornick did the voice for the robot). Eventually, most of these scenes were cut from the film, as I suppose even Stallone had to concede that spending so much time on the robot was kind of distracting from the overall tenor of the film. Doornick explained to Trivia Happy about one scene in particular that was filmed but then cut:
In the scene, Paulie and the robot had developed an odd couple relationship, with the robot complaining that Paulie always slept in the same t-shirt and made too much cigar smoke. The robot “found it offensive to [his] sensors.” So Paulie responded.
“Paulie shuts the robot down,” Doornick remembers, “opens the back panel, and changes the circuits to turn the robot completely female. Which is why in another scene, when the robot brings Paulie a beer, that’s my voice being synthesized into a woman’s voice. Most people in the movie don’t understand why the robot switched from a normal voice to a female voice. That’s why.”
Amusingly enough, Sico’s claim to fame did not just stop with the film, Rocky IV. Legendary soul singer James Brown performs in the movie and the song he does, “Living in America,” was a surprise success, becoming Brown’s highest-charting single on the pop charts in his entire career and his first top ten hit in well over a decade. Brown went on tour and brought Sico along with him. Sico would even sing a little bit during performances of “Living in America”! Doornick recalled that Sico even needed to get a Screen Actors Guild card!
Sico still appears at robotics conventions and makes various other public appearances.
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Jim S., who wrote in with the compelling question, “Why the heck was there a talking robot in Rocky IV?” And thanks to Trivia Happy’s Phil Edwards (as well as Robert Doornick) for the lowdown!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.