Staying power

New Smithsonian memorabilia and a new movie are a one-two punch for Stallone and his iconic Rocky Balboa

December 06, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

Washington — Washington-- --After 30 years, millions of dollars and countless minutes of fame, Rocky Balboa still calls out to Adrian as if he's a nobody who never left the old neighborhood.

"Yo, Adrian! How ya doin'?" bellowed Sylvester Stallone, imitating the iconic movie character that long ago helped vault his Rocky films into American lore.

As the actor/writer/director yesterday donated items from his first five Rocky films to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, he reflected upon the scrappy, pugnacious, unheralded boxer, who time and again triumphed over great odds and adversity.

After a dormant decade-plus, since Rocky V in 1990, it's been a busy time recently for Stallone's Balboa. A new collector's edition DVD of the original Rocky hit stores this week, and the actor is gearing up for the release in two weeks of Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment of the series.

The concept of a boxer in his 60s trying to recapture the glory of the original - in real life and in celluloid - seems more punch line than knockout punch. But it's undeniable that the Rocky franchise has had legs few would have expected when Stallone made the original movie in less than a month; he had $100 in his bank account when he first pitched it. On Monday night, he was in Philadelphia at the Eagles-Carolina Panthers football game. As he walked into Lincoln Financial Field, 60,000 people cheered, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"

Stallone says Rocky, the rare movie character immortalized in statue, has become larger than life and has given the world a lasting image of the underdog.

"Rocky is part of everybody. I don't claim ownership anymore," Stallone said yesterday. "The reason the story worked is because all of us have a need to feel fulfillment in their life. And that battle never ends. That's why I put it in the body of a boxer."

Visiting the Smithsonian yesterday was a bit of a homecoming. Stallone said he lived in Silver Spring as a youngster and his family moved to Potomac "when it was still a one-horse town with all hills."

The sixth - and Stallone says final - installment, Rocky Balboa, will be released Dec. 20, the day before Stallone's donated items will be featured in the Treasures of American History exhibit, which is on view at the National Air and Space Museum while the National Museum of American History undergoes renovations. The exhibit includes the boxing robe Stallone wore to Rocky's stirring fight against Apollo Creed in the 1976 film, which won the Academy Award for best picture over All the President's Men and Network. The exhibit also includes Rocky's signature hat from the first film, his boxing gloves from Rocky II and boxing shorts and shoes from Rocky III.

Stallone acknowledges that his cinematic career much resembles the character he created. He was a journeyman actor when he took his handwritten screenplay to Hollywood and insisted he play the starring role. The film ultimately included one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history - the title character's dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Bill Conti's tune "Gonna Fly Now."

"I've been here for 20 some years, and I see people run those steps every day. Everyone in Philly sees it. It's like seeing waves on the ocean," author Michael Vitez said in a telephone interview. A Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Vitez spent a year watching people from all over the world relive the famous scene, then recounted some of their stories in a recent book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps.

Vitez and photographer Tom Gralish chronicled visitors from as far away as South Africa, Australia and Bulgaria re-enacting the beloved scene. Among the most memorable, Vitez said, was a young man from France, with a Muslim father and Catholic mother, who said he felt ostracized by his family.

"He was poor, his parents split up and he had no father figure growing up," Vitez said. "Then he saw the film ... and identified with Rocky.

"He said that kept him on the straight and narrow, and when he grew up and had the chance to come to America, he had to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia and run those steps," Vitez said. "What I've discovered is that running up those steps, the Rocky steps, brings the message of the movie to life. It says that with faith and hard work and a little luck, you can make dreams come true. They're celebrating they're own lives and accomplishments."

Stallone said that after repeatedly hearing Rocky lingo used by children at schools and politicians in speeches, he realized that he had created a character much like Mario Puzo's Don Corleone or George Lucas' Darth Vader.

"It's got a life of its own," he said.

It's also given Stallone a life he scarcely imagined when he made the film with a $1 million budget. The first film grossed $117 million. Two of the four subsequent films, though predictable in story line and ending, grossed more.

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