Sylvester Stallone’s actual real life story is far more improbable and impressive than that of Rocky Balboa, the part that he wrote for himself in the movie that catapulted him from literal poverty to worldwide stardom.
Although it is very hard now to imagine anyone but Stallone playing Rocky Balboa, the part-time mob enforcer, part-time club fighter down on his luck, in fact the movie studios originally wanted the screenplay but not Stallone in the role. Stallone only managed to obtain the starring role by refusing to sell the screenplay otherwise. This was no small dice roll at the time, as Stallone was so broke that he barely had enough money for dog food; yes, the dog in original Rocky movie was in real life Stallone’s beloved dog Butkus. But he doubtless recognized that there would be no better vehicle for him. So he took the risk, held his ground and ultimately prevailed.
Stallone was himself from the tough Philadelphia neighborhood featured in the movie. No Hollywood actor could have been nearly as authentic. It is in fact the resounding authenticity that really makes that movie. The characters seem real. Their environment, though dismal and gray, seems real. This makes the fact that Rocky goes the distance against the champ – though he doesn’t win – also seem realistic.
Even once Stallone passed this initial hurdle, he still had a tough row to hoe. The first Rocky movie was a very low budget affair. Use of the authentic South Philadelphia locations were obtained mostly by groveling. This I know purely by circumstance. The house which in the movie belonged to Rocky’s love interest, Adrianne, in real life belonged to distant cousins of mine. Initially bemused when a group of strangers showed up at their door and pleaded with them to use their house, they agreed. It was a story to tell: “Hey, can you believe some idiot wanted to use our living room in a movie?” Their living room, as was, was the set, with the exception of a few knick knacks such pictures of the actors that were brought in by the crew. For the use of their house, my cousins were either paid no money, or a very small amount – I don’t recall. To say that they were beyond astonished when the movie became a worldwide phenomenon would be a gross understatement.
Since all of the houses in these working class neighborhoods are very similar to one another – there are long rows of literally identical houses street after street, hence the term “row house” – there was by definition nothing at all special about my cousins’ house. I can only therefore conclude that they were the first people who agreed, but were far from the first people asked. For all I know, they were the hundredth people asked. They surely could not have been the first. It is hard to imagine now that Stallone and his crew went door to door in that fashion just to get the use of a very ordinary living room for a small number of hours to shoot several scenes. But that is very much part of the universal experience of starting a startup as an unknown. Even after some initial success has been achieved, it remains hard to get most people to take you seriously. One must just persevere through that stage, as Stallone did.
Forty years after the release of the original Rocky film, Stallone brings back the Rocky character in Creed, now in movie theaters. Creed is essentially an updated take on the first Rocky movie: underdog fighter training in the same neighborhood goes the distance against the current champ (but likewise doesn’t win.) Creed is not a great movie, but is a generally good one. It is doing well at the box office. Rocky Balboa, though seventy, is still clearly the same character as before, just a lot older. In other words, the branding is unchanged and still is relevant 4 decades later. That is a claim that very few software companies, regardless of their size, will be able to equal.