Did Sylvester Stallone Star in Rocky Due to a Case of Mistaken Identity?

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: Sylvester Stallone was allowed to star in Rocky because the head of United Artists believed he was a different actor.

As you likely have heard by now if you know anything about the Rocky film franchise, the original Rocky movie was not just ABOUT an underdog boxer, it was literally an underdog itself…

Sylvester Stallone was a barely working actor whose only regular gig at the time of the filming of the movie was as an usher. However, he bet big on himself and insisted that if producers wanted to use his script for a movie about an underdog boxer who stuns the world by hanging with the heavyweight champion of the world…

then he would have to star in the movie.

Eventually, the movie was made on the extremely low budget (even in 1975, this was low) of $1 million. Stallone acted for scale (but he was also paid for the screenplay). The other actors got paid very little, as well. Talia Shire made less than $8,000 for her role as the love interest in the film, Adrian.

Anyhow, as the story goes, United Artists only agreed to greenlight the film for producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (who had recently signed a three-movie deal with UA) if they got to see Stallone act.

Stallone, to this point, only really had a single film credit, The Lords of Flatbush, with Henry Winkler and Perry King…

From a piece in Variety about the making of Rocky, Winkler explained, “We sent a copy of ‘Lords of Flatbush’ to (UA chiefs) Bob Benjamin and Arthur Krim. We heard a story that when Arthur was watching the film, he asked ‘Which one is Stallone?’ And some voice in the back of the screening room pointed to Perry King, who looked more like a leading man. Arthur said, ‘He looks good, but Stallone is Italian.’ The voice responded ‘You know in northern Italy there are a lot of blond and blue-eyed Italians.’ Apparently based on that comment, Arthur said that UA would make the movie.”

So the story is, of course, that Krim greenlit the movie by mistake.

But here’s where the story moves into the stuff of legend (and really, Winkler has done his own work spreading the story himself, so no one can be blamed for believing it). The story DID happen, that Krim mistook Stallone for King and was okay with the choice of Stallone based on him thinking that it was King who was starring in the movie.

However, the movie was ALREADY HAPPENING.

In his new book, A Life in Movies: Stories from 50 years in Hollywood, Winkler explained, in detail, how Winkler and Chartoff exercised the “put” clause in their deal with UA, where UA would finance any movie they put together, provided it cost less than $1.5 million. UA, though, tried to get out of it by claiming that the movie’s budget was actually $2 million. So Winkler and Chartoff went above and beyond that and assured UA that the film could be done for $1 million and that they would personally cover anything over that million (Winkler and Chartoff would later take mortgages on their houses to kick in the extra costs).

While UA’s production chief was willing to approve it based on those terms, Winkler specifically went to Krim to get his approval, as he obviously didn’t want animosity between them and UA and Krim told him he didn’t want to make the movie, but would begrudgingly approve it.

THEN Krim watched The Lords of Flatbush to familiarize himself with the actor they just got into bed with and it was then that he made the mistake of thinking that Perry King was Stallone. So the story is true, but it just isn’t true that it was how Stallone got the picture.

Winkler noted that before Krim watched The Lords of Flatbush, UA actually first tried to circumvent the deal by separately offering Stallone a sizable fee for the screenplay on the condition that someone else star in the film (more than $250,000), under the theory that they’d rather spend that large amount and get a more marketable movie than spend $1 million on a film they figured would bomb. Stallone turned them down. He knew that this was his best (and perhaps last) chance to become a star. Stallone often made headstrong decisions (like when he decided to have a talking robot in Rocky IV).

Chartoff talked to Empire a few years back and he reiterated that they never needed approval to get Stallone to star in the film, that the whole deal revolved around them doing the movie cheaply, “Getting Sly to star in the film was not difficult, despite anything you might have heard over the years. The studio just didn’t care that much whether or not we made the picture. I think they were hoping we would forget about it. What had happened was that Irwin Winkler and myself had just signed a long-term commitment with United Artists to make films. They were hoping that we would fill a niche of making big-name films. We had just made New York, New York for them and they wanted us to make substantial pictures, but then we brought in this little film with “Who? Sylvester what?” Obviously they didn’t have any strong feelings about making it. It was something that we wanted to make, and it was probably because we were just starting fresh with the studio and were committed to doing it that they agreed to do it. But there was never any question in my mind that Sylvester Stallone was going to be starring in it, in spite of all of the mythical stories you might hear. Making a million dollar picture with Stallone, that’s what it was all about.”

So while yes, even Winkler has sort of supported the mythical stories that Chartoff refers to here in the past, I think Winkler’s recent book goes too perfectly with Chartoff’s comments to deny them, so I’m going with the legend as..

STATUS: False

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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