A "Rocky" Retrospective with a TV Twist

Herbie J Pilato

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Let's play a round of Seven Degrees From Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Feature Film Franchise – and slant it toward classic television.

Firstly, three classic television stars owe a great deal to the success of the Rocky movies.

1] Burgess Meredith, who played Mickey Goldmill, the unstoppable trainer for Stallone's Robert Rocky Balboa, bantamweight champ and owner of a local boxing gym. Before Rocky’s debut in 1976, Meredith had best been known as The Penguin on ABC’s 1960s cult hit, Batman.

2] Thayer David, who portrayed Miles Jergins - a successful fight promoter - in both Rocky and Rocky II, initially found fame on the daytime gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which was another one of ABC’s cult favorites from the 1960s. Here, David played a myriad of characters, including Ben Stokes (from the 18th Century timeline premise) and later, Professor Stokes (from the 1960s tine line).

3] Mr. T. who was Sly’s on-screen opponent in Rocky III, went on to find small screen stardom on NBC’s Big ‘80s hit, The A-Team. Here, he offered an additional initial knock-out performance as Sgt. Bosco B.A. Baracus, whose popular catchphrase, “I pity the fool,” was later employed as a title for Mr. T’s recent new real-i-T-y show on TV Land.

Beyond these three direct classic TV tie-ins, the retro (small-screen) link to Rocky is further undeniable.

The first film’s producers were unfamiliar with the work of Sylvester Stallone when the Italian Stallion introduced himself and his screenplay. To better acquaint themselves with the actor, someone presented a group photograph of the 1974 feature film, The Lords of Flatbush, in which Stallone starred with a then-equally unknown Henry Winkler, who, only one year later, would find superstardom of his own (or have superstardom find him) by playing Arthur The Fonz Fonzerelli on ABC’s mega-sitcom, Happy Days (which, like Flatbush, as it turns out, was also set in the 1950s).

Then, once the Rocky producers caught a glimpse of the Flatbush photo, they became somewhat enthused, if also somewhat further confused. They wondered why someone named Stallone had blond hair and blue eyes. Besides the fact that there may have been a possible Stallone family migration from Northern Italy (where those with light hair and light eyes run rampant), the producers should have taken a closer look at the caption on the Flatbush photo.

Apparently, they had mistaken actor Perry King, who also appeared in Flatbush (and who went on to star in NBC’s Riptide adventure series – around the same time that Mr. T. was playing B.A. on the Peacock network’s A-Team). Finally, when Rocky producers understood Sly’s true identity, they almost passed on the film altogether. They simply did not want Sly to star in the movie and sought to cast either Ryan O’Neal or James Caan as Rocky.

At the time, not only was O’Neal a hot film commodity (it was only about three years after his major movie hit in the guise of Love Story), but he was also then-working on another motion picture set in the world of boxing. But this time, it was a comedy, titled, The Main Event (in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand). It was only a few years after that when O’Neal would make his move on classic TV and Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett, who was then married to ABC’s Six Million Dollar Man star and Ryan’s then-best friend Lee Majors.

Bottom line: The Rocky producers offered $150,000 to Stallone to have O’Neal take the lead. But Sly still said no dice.

Meanwhile, Caan, who has recently gambled his way to contemporary TV stardom as the star of NBC’s Las Vegas, was just as hot as O’Neal during the pre-development of Rocky. Caan’s performance as Sonny in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic 1972 film, The Godfather, and his take as Brian Piccolo on ABC’s classic TV-movie Brian’s Song, were astounding to critics and audiences alike.

Still, Stallone would not budge. He wanted to star in and write Rocky and that was that.

Finally, the Rocky producers relented. Stallone got his way, and though no one is too sure if he and O’Neal ever formed an off-screen bond, he and Caan established a friendship that remains intact today (as Caan would make a guest appearance some three decades in 2005 on Stallone's boxing reality show, The Contender).

Once Sly was in place as Rocky, the question still remained as to who would have portrayed his on-screen romantic-love-interest. Before Talia Shire won the role of the initially-shy Adrianna Adrian Pennino, Susan Sarandon and Bette Midler - both of whom would later go on to win Oscars - were up for the part.

Sarandon, who was then only best known as the star of another Rocky-titled film, The Rock Horror Picture Show, may have been struggling with an on-screen identity crisis on several levels. Movie-goers and TV-watchers frequently confused her with look-a-like actress Leslie Ann Warren, who starred in the second CBS TV-remake of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (and who periodically appeared as Teri Hatcher’s mother on ABC’s Desperate Housewives).

The Midler camp, meanwhile, was pushing to further the red-hot musical-acting career of its main star, fresh off of taking the lead – and the world by storm – with her performance in The Rose.

So, there you have it. And other than the main casting news, and besides the fact that a pre-Bob Barker/Price Is Right game-show host in the form of Dennis James played the commentator in Rocky III, here are two more little tidbits of Rocky classic TV trivia that may be of interest to some:

[1] Rocky III commences where Rocky II leaves off, with Rocky winning the title from Apollo Creed (played by the awesome Carl Weathers). Creed retires, and Rocky becomes an accomplished champion, making ten defenses of his belt over three years. Consequently, he purchases a mansion, appears on several magazine covers, and makes many TV show appearances, including one on The Muppet Show. And the particular montage that was employed was a sequence from Stallone’s actual real-life appearance on the hit variety show on January 9, 1979. For the Rocky re-do, however, Muppet master Jim Henson dubbed in Rocky’s name during an introduction by Kermit the Frog.

[2] Rocky Balboa, which is the title of the finale in the successful film franchise, features former Gilmore Girls and Heroes actor, Milo Ventimiglia - the present star of TV's This Is Us - who portrays none other than - Rocky, Jr.

And there ya' go.

Or should that be, "Yo, Adrien!"

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, writes for the Television Academy and Emmys.com, and is the host of THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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