Yo Adrian — he did it. Forty-five years ago, Philadelphia pugilist Rocky Balboa, aka the Italian Stallion, went the distance with heavyweight champ Apollo Creed in a 15-round battle for the ages. Rocky ultimately didn’t emerge the victor in that fight, but he — and we — won something more valuable: a film franchise that’s endured for nearly a half-century and counting. Across the ensuing four decades and eight movies, he’s stared down a series of bigger and badder opponents both in the ring (Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago) and outside of it (financial ruin and cancer).
Rocky has also narrowly avoided death at the hands of two screenwriters, including his own alter ego, Sylvester Stallone (more than that later). But Balboa’s still standing and, according to longtime Rocky producer Irwin Winkler, he’ll never die… onscreen anyway. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2018, Winkler promised that audiences will never see a Stallone death scene in a Rocky or Creed movie. “Not as long as I’m alive,” he vows. (Watch our video interview above.)
Balboa’s career might have been over before it began had audiences gotten a look at the movie’s downbeat original ending when it premiered in theaters on Nov. 21, 1976. As in the theatrical cut, Rocky loses his bout with Apollo in a split decision. But the final scene that Stallone scripted and director John G. Avildsen shot found the boxer and his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire) holding hands as they exit the now-empty arena, headed back into obscurity after his brief brush with fame. It’s an image that’s preserved in the movie’s poster, even though it never played for the general public.
It’s a melancholy ending that’s closer in spirit to the movies that defined the late ’60 and early ’70s — think The Graduate or The Conversation. And according to Winkler, that’s exactly why it was the wrong finale for Rocky. “What happened was when we had screenings for friends and some press, and during the fight scene, everybody was standing on their feet, cheering and yelling and all that,” says the producer, who celebrated his 90th birthday this year.
“When he loses the fight, he and Adrian meet up and they walk out of the arena… very kind of ’70s realistic ending,” Winkler explains. “That whole high that we were getting from the audience suddenly dipped down to a real low. It was kind of depressing, which by the way, the mid-’70s in America was pretty depressing!”
Realizing that they didn’t want to bum audiences out further, Winkler and his producing partner, Robert Chartoff, asked Stallone to write a new ending — the one that fans now know by heart. Instead of finding each other after the fight, Adrian enters the ring and she and Rocky embrace as Bill Conti’s rousing score swells one last time. It’s such a triumphant moment, you almost forget that Balboa lost to Creed. “He [didn’t win] the fight, but he won his self-respect and he won the woman he loves,” Winkler says of Stallone’s revision. “That’s a great, great ending.”
United Artists — the studio that funded the film — agreed. But they didn’t agree to pay for it. “They said, ‘If you want a new ending, you pay for it yourself.’ So Bob Chartoff and I didn’t have a lot of money, but we put up $25,000 to do it.” That $25K bought them roughly 25 extras and a lot of creative staging in order to make that small group look like a big crowd. “The way Stallone wrote the script was Adrian was standing in the back of the arena and comes walking towards the ring,” Winkler says. “[We told] all the extras to come in with coats and hats… and we just changed where they standing and how they were positioned to get her into the ring.”
That new ending delivered the knockout punch that the creative team hoped for. Rocky grossed over $100 million in its initial theatrical run and beat out such cinematic heavyweights as Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver for the Best Picture trophy at that year’s Oscars. Meanwhile, the discarded final scene vanished into the UA vaults, surviving only on the poster and in on-set photos. To this day, Winkler has no idea where it ended up. “I don’t even know where it is, frankly. I’m going to check it out — maybe when we repackage it or something, we can include that on the DVD… I’d be curious to look at it myself.”
Even though it wasn’t his original vision for the film, Stallone happily reaped the rewards that came with the revised ending. And starting with Rocky II, he took nearly full creative control of the franchise, directing each of the sequels in addition to writing and starring in them. Balboa hit his commercial peak with 1985’s Rocky IV, which remains the franchise’s highest-grossing entry and also helped pave the way for his return in the Creed movies three decades later. (Stallone recently released a director’s cut of the fourth film that adds back in 40 minutes of unseen footage.)
Once again, though, Balboa’s second act was almost derailed by a downer ending. Five years after Rocky IV, Stallone planned to end the franchise in a permanent way with 1990’s Rocky V, which originally ended with a brain-damaged Rocky dying in Adrian’s arms after fighting his protege-turned-nemesis, Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (played by real-life boxer, Tommy Morrison). In the final scene, Adrian delivered a tearful eulogy on the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. “As long as there are people willing to meet challenges of life and not surrender until their dreams become realities, the world will always have their Rockys,” she was supposed to say just before the credits rolled.
Neither Winkler — nor returning director Alvidsen — liked that ending, and the producer said it was never shot. “I was a little bit out of Rocky V because at the time I started directing … so mostly it was Bob who took care of it,” Winkler explains, adding that Stallone ultimately saw the wisdom in giving Rocky a stay of execution. (Chartoff died in 2015, and Alvidsen passed away two years later.) “We thought that Rocky V would be the end of the road.”
Instead, Rocky kept punching in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, followed by 2015’s Creed, which was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, fresh off of his breakout debut feature, Fruitvale Station. And the young filmmaker had a bold ending in mind for the Italian Stallion, who acts as the Burgess Meredith’s Mickey to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. “Ryan’s [original] script had the Rocky character dying,” Winkler says. “He has ALS and he dies [at the end.] None of us wanted that.”
So just like with Rocky and Rocky V, the Creed script was re-written to give Balboa a more upbeat ending. In the new version, Rocky is diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma midway through the film, but battles back from the disease at the same time that Adonis trains for his own “go the distance” moment. That dramatic arc won Stallone a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and an Oscar nomination in the same category.
Rocky may have escaped death multiple times, but he can’t outrun retirement. In 2018, Stallone described Creed II as his “last rodeo,” and Jordan recently confirmed to Yahoo Entertainment that Balboa won’t be by Adonis’s side in the upcoming Creed III. “There’s going to be so many Rocky-isms that are forever going to stay with Adonis as he moves forward,” says the actor, who is also directing the new movie. “So as far as page space, or whether or not Rocky comes back for this one, this is the Creed franchise moving forward.”
Winkler, for one, believes that we haven’t seen the last of Rocky Balboa. “I think Sly really intends to retire and I intend to convince him to stay with it,” he says, laughing. As it happens, Stallone has announced other plans for his signature character, including a potential new film and a prequel TV series. It’s just further confirmation that Rocky will never die. “He’s such an iconic American character,” Winkler notes. “Not only America, but worldwide. Rocky and Sly are so interchanged, so much of the early Rocky [films] really represented the change in Sylvester Stallone’s career as well.”
Rocky is currently streaming on HBO Max