The film, made on a budget of just over $1 million, was a sleeper hit; it earned $225 million in global box office receipts, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976, and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film received many positive reviews and turned Stallone into a major star. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". Rocky is considered to be one of the greatest sports films ever made and was ranked as the second-best in the genre, after Raging Bull, by the American Film Institute in 2008.
In late 1975, the heavyweight boxing world champion, Apollo Creed, announces plans to hold a title bout in Philadelphia during the upcoming United States Bicentennial. However, he is informed five weeks from the fight date that his scheduled opponent is unable to compete due to an injured hand. With all other potential replacements booked up or otherwise unavailable, Creed decides to spice things up by giving a local contender a chance to face him. He settles on Rocky Balboa, an aspiring southpaw boxer from an Italian neighborhood of Philadelphia, known by the nickname "The Italian Stallion".
Rocky meets with promoter Miles Jergens, presuming Creed is seeking local sparring partners. Rocky reluctantly agrees to the fight, which will pay him $150,000. After several weeks of training, using whatever he can find, including meat carcasses as punching bags, Rocky accepts an offer of assistance from former boxer Mickey "Mighty Mick" Goldmill, a respected trainer and former bantamweight fighter from the 1920s, who always criticized Rocky for wasting his potential.
Meanwhile, Rocky begins a relationship with Adrian, a clerk at the local pet store. He gradually gains the shy Adrian's trust, culminating in a kiss. Her brother, Paulie, becomes jealous of Rocky's success, but Rocky calms him by agreeing to advertise his meatpacking business at the fight. The night before the fight, Rocky begins to lose confidence after touring the arena. He confesses to Adrian that he does not expect to win, but is content to go the distance against Creed and prove himself to everyone.
On New Year's Day, the fight is held, with Creed making a dramatic entrance dressed as George Washington and then Uncle Sam. Taking advantage of his overconfidence, Rocky knocks him down in the first round—the first time that Creed has ever been knocked down. Humiliated, Creed takes Rocky more seriously for the rest of the fight, though his ego never fully fades. The fight goes on for the full fifteen rounds, with both fighters sustaining various injuries; Rocky suffers a broken nose and debilitating trauma around his left eye, and Creed sustains brutal blows to his ribs with substantial internal bleeding. As the fight progresses, Creed's superior skill is countered by Rocky's apparently unlimited ability to absorb punches, and his dogged refusal to be knocked out. As the final round bell sounds, with both fighters locked in each other's arms, they promise to each other that there will be no rematch.
After the fight, multiple layers of drama are played out: the sportscasters and the audience go wild, Jergens announces over the loudspeaker that the fight was "the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring", and Rocky calls out repeatedly for Adrian, who runs down and comes into the ring as Paulie distracts arena security. As Jergens declares Creed the winner by virtue of a split decision (8:7, 7:8, 9:6), Adrian and Rocky embrace and profess their love to each other, not caring about the result of the fight.
Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky in three and a half days, shortly after watching the championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner that took place at Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio on March 24, 1975. Wepner was TKO'd in the 15th round of the match by Ali, but nobody ever expected him to last as long as he did. Despite the fact that the match motivated Stallone to begin work on Rocky, he has subsequently denied that Wepner provided any inspiration for the script. Other possible inspirations for the film may have included characteristics of real-life boxers Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier, as well as Rocky Graziano's autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me and the movie of the same name. Wepner filed a lawsuit which was eventually settled with Stallone for an undisclosed amount.
United Artists liked Stallone's script, and viewed it as a possible vehicle for a well-established star such as Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds, or James Caan. Stallone appealed to the producers to be given a chance to star in the film. He later said that he would never have forgiven himself if the film became a success with someone else in the lead. He also knew that producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff's contract with the studio enabled them to "greenlight" a project if the budget was kept low enough. The producers also collateralized any possible losses with their big-budget entry, New York, New York (whose eventual losses were ironically covered by Rocky's success). The film's production budget ended up being $1,075,000, with a further $100,000 spent on producers' fees and $4.2 million on advertising costs.
Although Chartoff and Winkler were enthusiastic about the script and the idea of Stallone playing the lead character, they were hesitant about having an unknown headline the film. The producers also had trouble casting other major characters in the story, with Apollo Creed and Adrian cast unusually late by production standards (both were ultimately cast on the same day). Real-life boxer Ken Norton was initially sought for the role of Apollo Creed, but he pulled out and the role was ultimately given to Carl Weathers. Norton had had three fights with Muhammad Ali, upon whom Creed was loosely based. According to The Rocky Scrapbook, Carrie Snodgress was originally chosen to play Adrian, but a money dispute forced the producers to look elsewhere. Susan Sarandon auditioned for the role but was deemed too pretty for the character. After Talia Shire's ensuing audition, Chartoff and Winkler, along with Avildsen, insisted that she play the part.
Boxer Joe Frazier has a cameo appearance in the film. The character of Apollo Creed was influenced by outspoken boxer Muhammad Ali who fought Frazier three times. During the Academy Awards ceremony, Ali and Stallone staged a brief comic confrontation to show Ali was not offended by the film. Some of the plot's most memorable moments—Rocky's carcass-punching scenes and Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as part of his training regimen—are taken from the real-life exploits of Joe Frazier, for which he received no credit.
Due to the film's comparatively low budget, members of Stallone's family played minor roles. His father rings the bell to signal the start and end of a round, his brother Frank plays a street corner singer, and his first wife, Sasha, was stills photographer. Other cameos include former Philadelphia and then-current Los Angeles television sportscaster Stu Nahan playing himself, alongside radio and TV broadcaster Bill Baldwin; and Lloyd Kaufman, founder of the independent film company Troma, appearing as a drunk. Diana Lewis, then a news anchor in Los Angeles and later in Detroit, has a small scene as a TV news reporter. Tony Burton appeared as Apollo Creed's trainer, Tony "Duke" Evers, a role he would reprise in the entire Rocky series, though he is not given an official name until Rocky II. Though uncredited, Michael Dorn, who would later gain fame as the Klingon Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, made his acting debut as Creed's bodyguard.
Principal photography for Rocky began on January 9, 1976. Filming took place primarily throughout Philadelphia, with a few scenes being shot in Los Angeles. Inventor/operator Garrett Brown's new Steadicam was used to accomplish smooth photography while running alongside Rocky during the film's Philadelphia street jogging/training sequences and the run up the Art Museum's flight of stairs, now colloquially known as the Rocky Steps. It was also used for some of the shots in the fight scenes and can be seen at the ringside during some wide shots of the final fight. Rocky is often erroneously cited as the first film to use the Steadicam, although it was actually the third, after Bound for Glory and Marathon Man.
Certain elements of the story were altered during filming. The original script had a darker tone: Mickey was portrayed as racist, and the script ended with Rocky throwing the fight after realizing he did not want to be part of the professional boxing world after all.
During filming, both Stallone and Weathers suffered injuries during the shooting of the final fight; Stallone suffered bruised ribs and Weathers suffered a damaged nose, the opposite injuries of what their characters had.
The first date between Rocky and Adrian, in which Rocky bribes a janitor to allow them to skate after closing hours in a deserted ice skating rink, was shot that way only because of budgetary pressures. This scene was originally scheduled to be shot in a skating rink during regular business hours. However, the producers decided that they could not afford to hire the hundreds of extras that would have been necessary for that scene.
The poster seen above the ring before Rocky fights Apollo Creed shows Rocky wearing red shorts with a white stripe when he actually wears white shorts with a red stripe. When Rocky points this out, he is told that "it doesn't really matter, does it?" According to director Avildsen's DVD commentary, this was an actual mistake made by the props department that they could not afford to rectify, so Stallone wrote the brief scene to ensure the audience did not see it as a goof. (Carl Weathers, coincidentally, wore white-striped red shorts for the Creed-Balboa rematch in Rocky II). Avildsen said that the same situation arose with Rocky's robe. When it came back from the costume department, it was far too baggy for Stallone. Because the robe arrived on the day of filming the scene and there was no chance of replacing or altering it, instead of ignoring this and risking the audience laughing at it, Stallone wrote the dialogue where Rocky himself points out the robe is too big.
The musical score for Rocky was composed by Bill Conti, who previously composed a score for director John G. Avildsen's W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) that was ultimately rejected by the studio. In fact, David Shire (then-husband of Talia Shire) was the first to be offered the chance to compose the music for Rocky but had to turn it down due to prior commitments. Thus, Avildsen reached out to Conti without any studio intervention due to the film's relatively low budget. "The budget for the music was 25 grand," said Avildsen. "And that was for everything: The composer's fee, that was to pay the musicians, that was to rent the studio, that was to buy the tape that it was going to be recorded on."
The main theme song, "Gonna Fly Now", made it to number one on the Billboard magazine's Hot 100 list for one week (from July 2 to July 8, 1977) and the American Film Institute placed it 58th on its AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs. A soundtrack album was released on November 12, 1976 by United Artists Records. The album was re-released in 1988 by EMI on CD and cassette.
Rocky grossed $5 million during its opening weekend and eventually reached $117 million at the North American box office. Adjusted for inflation, the film has earned nearly $460 million in North America at 2015 prices. Overseas Rocky fared just as well, grossing $107 million for a worldwide box office accumulation of $225 million. With its production budget of $1 million, Rocky is notable for its worldwide percentage return of over 11,000 percent. It was the highest-grossing film of 1976 in the United States.
Rocky received positive reviews at the time of its release. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it 4 out of 4 stars and said that Stallone reminded him of "the young Marlon Brando." Box Office Magazine claimed that audiences would be "touting Sylvester 'Sly' Stallone as a new star". Frank Rich liked the film, calling it "almost 100 per cent schmaltz," but favoring it over the cynicism that was prevalent in movies at that time, although he referred to the plot as "gimmicky" and the script "heavy-handed". Several reviews, including Richard Eder's (as well as Canby's negative review), compared the work to that of Frank Capra.
The film, however, did not escape criticism. Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, called it "pure '30s make believe" and dismissed both Stallone's acting and Avildsen's directing, calling the latter "none too decisive". Andrew Sarris found the Capra comparisons disingenuous: "Capra's movies projected more despair deep down than a movie like Rocky could envisage, and most previous ring movies have been much more cynical about the fight scene," and, commenting on Rocky's work as a loan shark, says that the film "teeters on the edge of sentimentalizing gangsters." Sarris also found Meredith "oddly cast in the kind of part the late James Gleason used to pick his teeth."
Four decades later, the film enjoys a reputation as a classic and still receives nearly universal praise; Rocky holds a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 54 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The site's consensus states: "This story of a down-on-his-luck boxer is thoroughly predictable, but Sylvester Stallone's script and stunning performance in the title role brush aside complaints." One of the positive online reviews came from the BBC Films website, with both reviewer Almar Haflidason and BBC online users giving it 5/5 stars. In Steven J. Schneider's 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Schneider says the film is "often overlooked as schmaltz."
In 2006, Rocky was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Rocky received ten Oscar nominations in nine categories at the 49th Academy Awards, winning three:
The Directors Guild of America awarded Rocky its annual award for best film of the year in 1976, and in 2006, Sylvester Stallone's original screenplay for Rocky was selected for the Writers Guild of America Award as the 78th best screenplay of all time.
In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Rocky was acknowledged as the second-best film in the sports genre, after Raging Bull.
In 2008, Rocky was chosen by British film magazine Empire as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. In contrast, in a 2005 poll by Empire, Rocky was No. 9 on their list of "The Top 10 Worst Pictures to Win Best Picture Oscar".
Rocky has also appeared on several of the American Film Institute's 100 Years lists.AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (1998) – #78.
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills (2001) – #52
AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions (2002) – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains (2003)
Rocky Balboa – #7 Hero.
AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs (2004)
"Gonna Fly Now" – #58
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes (2005)
"Yo, Adrian!" – #80.
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores (2005) – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers (2006) – #4.
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) (2007) – #57
AFI's 10 Top 10 (2008) – #2 Sports Film
The famous scene of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has become a cultural icon, with the steps acquiring the vernacular title of "Rocky Steps". In 1982, a statue of Rocky, commissioned by Stallone for Rocky III, was placed at the top of the Rocky Steps. City Commerce Director Dick Doran claimed that Stallone and Rocky had done more for the city's image than "anyone since Ben Franklin."
Differing opinions of the statue and its placement led to a relocation to the sidewalk outside the Spectrum Arena, although the statue was temporarily returned to the top of the steps in 1990 for Rocky V, and again in 2006 for the 30th anniversary of the original Rocky (although this time it was placed at the bottom of the steps). Later that year, it was permanently moved to a spot next to the steps.
The scene is frequently parodied in the media. In the 2008 movie You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Zohan's nemesis, Phantom, goes through a parodied training sequence finishing with him running up a desert dune and raising his hands in victory. In the fourth-season finale of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as the credits roll at the end of the episode, Will is seen running up the same steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; however, as he celebrates after finishing his climb, he passes out in exhaustion, and while he lies unconscious on the ground, a pickpocket steals his wallet and his wool hat. In The Nutty Professor, there is a scene where Eddie Murphy is running up the stairs and throwing punches at the top.
In 2006, E! named the "Rocky Steps" scene #13 in its 101 Most Awesome Moments in Entertainment.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics torch relay, Philadelphia native Dawn Staley was chosen to run up the museum steps. In 2004, Presidential candidate John Kerry ended his pre-convention campaign at the foot of the steps before going to Boston to accept his party's nomination for President.1979 – First telecast on American Television (CBS-TV)
1982 – CED Videodisc and VHS; VHS release is rental only; 20th Century Fox Video release
October 27, 1990 (VHS and LaserDisc)
April 16, 1996 (VHS and LaserDisc)
March 24, 1997 (DVD)
April 24, 2001 (DVD, also packed with the Five-Disc Boxed Set)
2001 (VHS, 25th anniversary edition)
December 14, 2004 (DVD, also packed with the Rocky Anthology box set)
February 8, 2005 (DVD, also packed with the Rocky Anthology box set)
December 5, 2006 (DVD and Blu-ray Disc – 2-Disc Collector's Edition, the DVD was the first version released by Fox and was also packed with the Rocky Anthology box set and the Blu-ray was the first version released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
December 4, 2007 (DVD box set – Rocky The Complete Saga. This new set contains the new Rocky Balboa, but does not include the recent 2 disc Rocky. There are still no special features for Rocky II through Rocky V, although Rocky Balboa's DVD special features are all intact.)
November 3, 2009 (Blu-ray box set – Rocky The Undisputed Collection. This release included six films in a box set. Previously, only the first film and Rocky Balboa were available on the format. Those two discs are identical to their individual releases, and the set also contains a disc of bonus material, new and old alike.)
Upon the film's release, a paperback novelization of the screenplay was written by Rosalyn Drexler under the pseudonym Julia Sorel and published by Ballantine Books in 1976. Several video games have also been made based on the film. The first Rocky video game was released by Coleco for ColecoVision in August 1983 titled Rocky Super Action Boxing; the principal designer was Coleco staffer B. Dennis Sustare. Another was released in 1987 for the Sega Master System. In 1985, Dinamic Software released a boxing game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (also advertised for and/or published on the Sega Master System, Amstrad CPC and MSX) called Rocky. Due to copyright reasons it was quickly renamed "Rocco".
In 1988, William T. Naud released a low budget parody entitled Ricky 1.
More recently, a Rocky video game was released in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube, Game Boy Advance, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, and a sequel, Rocky Legends, was released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. In 2007, a video game called Rocky Balboa was released for PSP. In 2016, Tapinator, Inc. released a mobile game named ROCKY for the iOS platform, with a planned 2017 release for Google Play and Amazon platforms.
A musical was written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics and music), with the book by Thomas Meehan, based on the film. The musical premiered in Hamburg, Germany in October 2012. It began performances at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway on February 11, 2014, and officially opened on March 13, 2014.