PHILADELPHIA - Someone has a sizable police escort waiting downstairs. The motorcycle cops are huddled in the hotel lobby to escape the year’s first cold snap. Outside, a phalanx of patrol cars sits, yellow caution lights slowly spinning.
Upstairs, Sylvester Stallone insists it isn’t him they’re waiting for. It’s Rocky.
“The character has transcended,” he says. “He’s a real living person in Philadelphia. I’m just along for the ride. I have no illusions that any of this is for me.”
Anyone who doubts that the Philly brawler is still the people’s champ in this town should have been on the set when “Rocky Balboa” was filming here last December. Thirty years after he first entered the ring in the Oscar-winning “Rocky,” the Rock is still treated by rank-and-file Philadelphians with a kind of reverence.
Milo Ventimiglia, the star of NBC’s “Heroes,” who plays the old fighter’s estranged son in “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth film in this underdog saga (which opens Wednesday), relates that the hardest part of the shoot was getting used to being invisible.
“People would walk on the set all the time right past the cast and crew,” he says. “They’d pay no attention to us whatsoever. Just walk directly up to Sly, say what they had to say, and then walk away. It’s like we weren’t even there.”
Stallone knows the feeling. He’s gotten used to people addressing him when it’s obvious they’re really talking to Rocky. “The character has overtaken the guy who invented him,” he concedes.
Of course, it’s easy to conflate the actor and his creation. Rocky is the role that Stallone was seemingly born to play. At 60, Stallone still has the perpetually tousled look of a man who just woke up from a nap in an overheated room. It could (and does) easily pass for the tenderized appearance of a guy who has tasted the business end of far too many Everlast gloves. (In Stallone’s case, the droopy expression is the result of an obstetrician who pinched his head too hard with forceps during his delivery.)
Even though the character has attained iconic status, Stallone had trouble getting backing for “Rocky Balboa,” the capstone to the Rocky cycle. He kept running into the same industry perception: No one wants to see a movie about a boxer at 58, the age when most guys are fighting prostate problems, not taking on an undefeated heavyweight champion in his prime.
“Ageism was a real problem,” Stallone admits, “and I said, `I understand that. That’s what the story is about.’ They said, `No. Don’t be glib with us.’ I said, `Yeah, but it’s kind of intriguing.’ They said, `No, not intriguing at all.’ MGM said, `Over our dead bodies.’ The producers didn’t want to do it. It was over.”
But like his counterpunching alter ego, Stallone refused to give up. In part that was because he was dissatisfied with 1990’s “Rocky V,” and was determined to write a new final chapter that would send off his hero on a positive note.
The dark and depressing “Rocky V” grossed $41 million, a fraction of what the previous films had made. (The 1976 original made $117 million domestically; the highest U.S.-grossing installment was “Rocky IV,” with $128 million in 1985.)
“It sunk in that we had failed,” he says, “and really disappointed a lot of people, myself included. I really felt like I had let everyone down.”
The other motivation to reprise Rocky was that Stallone’s film career was stalling. The options for an aging action star narrow precipitously.
Stallone had long since come to realize that his early-`90s forays into comedy, such as “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” and “Oscar,” had been ill-advised. “Did I ever want to see a yukfest starring John Wayne?” he muses. “Not really. So why did I do it? I don’t know.”
To prove his acting chops, Stallone, once Hollywood’s highest-paid star, worked for scale on 1997’s “Cop Land.” Though his poignant performance was universally praised, it didn’t get his phone ringing with offers.
Yet he still wanted to work. “My kids had never seen me act,” he says. Stallone has three preteen daughters with his third wife, Jennifer Flavin. “They thought their father’s occupation was being a bad golfer.”
He knew that if there was one project he could still drive to market, it was the “Rocky” franchise he owned. So he set about writing a script.
In the earliest versions of “Rocky Balboa,” Adrian was still alive and Rocky was trying to run the gym Mickey left him as a youth center. He goes, porkpie hat in hand, to every civic leader in Philly to ask for funding. Finally he figures his only hope of keeping the place open is to go barnstorming, fighting in a series of exhibitions.
Nah, too melodramatic, Stallone decided. It would be better to saddle Rocky with grief. So in the revision, Adrian has passed on (from “the women’s cancer”) and a computer-simulated fight on ESPN between a young Rock and the current champ, Mason Dixon (boxer Antonio Tarver), sparks renewed interest in the ancient warrior.
That’s the version that found its way into the hands of Revolution Studios chief Joe Roth. Suddenly, it was let’s-get-ready-to-rumble time again.
The announcement that there would be a sixth “Rocky” film was met with derision. “I totally understood that,” Stallone says. “If somebody said, `OK, we’re doing “Godfather VI,’ right away you go, `Pleeease, make it go away!’ Naturally you’re going to get hit with that as soon as you announce something that sounds incredibly stupid.”
And yes, he heard all the jokes. Like Letterman’s “Top Ten Signs Sylvester Stallone Is Too Old to Play Rocky” (No. 5: “His stunt double: Wilford Brimley”). And Bill Maher’s quip that at this stage, the only acceptable title for another sequel would be “Rocky Dies.”
“I rolled with it,” Stallone says. “That’s what the movie is about: trying to turn around people’s skepticism about being too old.”
Then he had to drag his 59-year-old body back into the ring, impeded by “torn rotator cuffs, an arthritic back, an arthritic neck, aching knees, the things that come with age,” he says. “There’s a scene in the movie where he’s told by his trainer, `You just don’t have it anymore. We have to go a different route.’ That was very biographical.”
Intensive training for all the “Rocky” and “Rambo” films has taken its toll on the actor. He lifts his shirt to display a nasty scar that runs from his rib cage up through his armpit and out to his right biceps. It’s a remnant of the 160 stitches he took to repair a severed pectoral while shooting “Rocky II.”
In the end, Stallone as writer/director/star was able to forge a film that in plot and tone brings his sparring partner full circle. “We did the original film on the run,” says Irwin Winkler, who has coproduced all the “Rocky” movies. “We did this one on the run, too, with a very short shooting schedule. In a way, they were both guerrilla warfare. I think that’s why this one has the same quality.”
There was never any question that the coda would be shot here. Rocky is as integral to Philadelphia’s pop culture as the cheesesteak. And the city’s streets play a role in the “Rocky” films as essential as Paulie’s.
It’s been that way since Stallone first came up with the idea of the Italian Stallion in the `70s. He vividly remembered moving to Philadelphia with his divorced mother when he was 13.
“First day I got here I got leveled on the street corner at a bus stop,” he says. “It wasn’t even out of maliciousness. The guy says, `Hey, you want to go five to the head?’ I had never heard of it. It’s the first one to land five punches. I go, `I guess so.’ The next thing I knew I was down on the sidewalk.”
Stallone laughs. “Five to the head. I’ll never forget that. That was my introduction to Philadelphia.”
Why has the city embraced Stallone’s punch-drunk palooka so thoroughly? “Because Rocky is an underdog,” he says. “Philadelphia is a get-off-the-ground, come-from-behind, bite-down-on-your-mouthpiece-and-knock-this-bum-out kind of city.”
Having provided Rocky with the satisfying send-off he deserves, Stallone can now let go of his battle-scarred creation. That is, if the public will let him.
“People still expect you somewhat to be the character,” he says, “and that’s hard because Rocky’s so even-keeled. He keeps it all inside. I wish I was that noble.”
Then it’s off to join his police escort, which whisks him out to a Philadelphia Eagles Monday-night game. All the TV personalities who interview him conclude by asking him to address them as Rocky would. So it’s “Yo, Sal” Paolantonio and “Yo, Tony” Kornheiser.
All of which Stallone puts up with good-naturedly. After all, it’s not him they’re asking.