Stallone’s Rocky Start
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Rocky’s improbable journey doesn’t start on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — it begins with a bull mastiff named Butkus.
FADE IN: Hollywood, 1975. In just over a year, Sylvester Stallone will be the toast of the town, and the film that he wrote and starred in will beat out such classics as All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture.
But for the moment, as he stands outside a local liquor store with his 140-pound bull mastiff, Butkus, the 29-year-old struggling actor turned screenwriter is facing a whole different set of challenges. His wife, Sasha, is pregnant; he has $106 in the bank; and his beloved Butkus is starving.
Stallone knows though, despite his wife’s angry protestations, that if he gives in, if he takes a regular job, then he may be able to pay the rent, but he will lose his hunger to make his dreams of making it as an actor come true.
Hocking his wife’s jewelry bought him some time, but now Sly knows he must take one last desperate measure to make ends meet. He is selling Butkus — the dog he had named after the equally ferocious Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, the dog that, lying on packets of crushed ice, had accompanied him on a sweltering cross-country drive from New York out to Hollywood.
Selling Butkus for $50 outside a liquor store turned out to be just Act One in an underdog story that would dwarf even Rocky itself.
On this day though — rock-bottom for the man who would be Rocky — Stallone waits outside the store, waiting for a buyer. As the film star recently confessed to ShortList.com about that moment: “I tied my dog up at the store with a sign that said a hundred bucks. I got $50 from this guy called Little Jimmy.”
Selling Butkus for $50 to Little Jimmy outside a liquor store was a painful moment for Stallone (he would refer to it as “the lowest day of my life”), but it turned out to be just Act One in an underdog story that would dwarf even Rocky itself.
Luckily, in addition to the new cash burning a hole in his pocket, Sly had a million-dollar idea banging around inside his head. Earlier that year, he, like many Americans, had watched in amazement as a little-known Caucasian club fighter from Jersey named Chuck Wepner went 15 incredible rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in Richfield, Ohio.
Stallone, whose only starring role as an actor to that point was in the 1974 flop The Lords of Flatbush, was inspired by Wepner and how close he had come to dethroning a boxing legend. He let the idea “incubate” for several months, and then, not long after parting with Butkus, the struggling actor — who had turned to screenwriting in part because his mother, an amateur astrologist, had predicted that writing would bring him success — set to work.
Getting up at 6 a.m. to write with a Bic pen in a lined notebook, Stallone churned out the first draft of Rocky in 3.5 days.
The studios wanted James Caan or even Ryan O’Neal (can you imagine that?)…
Sly’s script about the ultimate sports underdog garnered a lot of interest, and the bidding on it reached $265,000. There was just one problem: The penniless actor insisted on playing Rocky himself, and the studios wanted James Caan or even Ryan O’Neal (can you imagine that?). So the Italian from Hell’s Kitchen refused the money.
Eventually, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff came back to Stallone with a less lucrative, but more acceptable proposal: He could play the title role, but the movie would be low-budget and he would receive closer to $35,000 for the script. Stallone agreed.
The film, which would go on to win three Oscars and gross more than $225 million worldwide, was made for $1 million in just 28 days — ’’the gestation time for a water bug,’’ Stallone would later observe.
But before the 5-foot-10, 175-pound actor started to train for his new role Rocky-style — morning runs on the beach, shadow boxing, six-hour workouts at the gym — he had one piece of business to finish.
Stallone went to find Little Jimmy.
“When I sold the Rocky script, I went to see Little Jimmy and begged for the dog back,” he remembers. “He lined up his children [Stallone mimes crying], ‘Oh, my kids love the dog.’ I said, ‘You’ve only had him for a f*ckin’ week!’”
But Little Jimmy was a big-time negotiator, and $3,000 and one promised Rocky cameo later, Stallone had Butkus back.
That’s right, Little Jimmy is in Rocky, as is Butkus — credited as Butkus Stallone, who plays Rocky’s dog in both Rocky and Rocky II.
In November 1976, just before Rocky opened to critical acclaim and went on to achieve history, Stallone told the New York Times:
“You know, if nothing else comes out of that film in the way of awards and accolades, it will still show that an unknown quantity, a totally unmarketable person, can produce a diamond in the rough, a gem. And there are a lot more people like me out there, too.”
Sometimes success just requires a little hunger, and a good dog.