Rocky II and Rocky III nearly went a different way – with a bit of a Frank Capra twinge to them: here’s the story.
Amongst the relics of cinema, seemingly consigned to history, is the idea of making a trilogy for the big screen. To see a standalone three-part series of films that isn’t just taking up one corner of a bigger boxset is now something of a rarity. Much-loved trilogies such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars have long since expanded. Even less-loved trilogies like Men In Black managed to spit out a fourth instalment, whether we wanted it or not.
Yet it’d be remiss to suggest this is anything new. Even appreciating that sequels were sneered at in the 1970s, there were still some sizeable ones that managed to find their way to the screen in the end. 1978’s Jaws 2 for instance was a relatively quick cash-in on the Spielberg-directed blockbuster – arguably the first ‘modern’ blockbuster – but tellingly, the bearded one went nowhere near it. It wasn’t really until the 80s when the sequel became far more expected, and less of a dirty word. As for a trilogy? Well, in the 70s you could wash your mouth out with soap and water for even suggesting such nonsense.
Mind you, some people still did. Amongst them were Academy Award-winning director John G Avildsen, and the Oscar-nominated star and writer of the Best Picture-winning film Rocky. That’d be a man by the name of Sylvester Stallone. It’s pretty well known that Stallone wrote the script for the film and held out so that he could star in it. In fact, in the end he’d play hardball so he could direct the sequel. Notwithstanding the fact that his sole directorial outing to that point – Paradise Alley – had underwhelmed, he got what he wanted, helmed Rocky II, and scored another hit.
Yet there was a short period of time when he and Avildsen – both then unknowns – were making the first movie when a different path was emerging. Avildsen opened up about this in an interview he gave with Robert Emery’s book The Directors (second volume), in which he confirmed that he and Stallone were exploring during the making of Rocky the idea of a trilogy.
“I had an idea for a sequel”, he confirmed, adding “actually it was going to be a three-part story. “But Sylvester didn’t want to go in the same direction … that was the end of the Rockys for me”.
Producer Irwin Winkler would in fact end up using Rocky II as a bargaining chip with United Artists, threatening to hold the film back unless it funded Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull as well. It ceded to the request, but Avildsen moved on.
Well, not quite. He’d eventually be lured back for 1990’s ill-fated Rocky V, the film that was supposed to kill off the character of Rocky Balboa but didn’t. For the second time, he’d discover that this was a franchise where the end point kept moving further away.
Still, a later interview he gave to Delaware’s Morning News threw a slightly different light on the plan. By this stage, Stallone had directed Rockys II, III and IV, whilst Avildsen had taken a different path. He’d done a few films that hadn’t really ignited, but then he scored a big hit again in 1984, with The Karate Kid. This time, he stayed around for the follow-up too, and it was whilst promoting The Karate Kid Part II that he chatted about where that abandoned Rocky trilogy might have gone.
He seemed quite sanguine in the interview, saying that he and Stallone basically “amused ourselves with ideas for a Capra-esque trilogy”, ideas that “no one else took very seriously”.
That said, by this stage the original film hadn’t turned into the huge success it’d become: they were nobodies throwing around movie ideas. But Avildsen nonetheless teased a Rocky II where “in the second film, Rocky would run for mayor on a reform ticket and at the end would have won”.
Then the story would have picked up in a version of Rocky III that didn’t involve – as the eventual film would – Mr T smacking seven shades of shit out of Stallone.
“In the third”, Avildsen explained, “he would be faced with the problem of putting into action all these grand ideas”. Furthermore, “his by-then brother-in-law Paulie would be caught with his hand in the city treasury, and Rocky, because he’s terrific, would take the fall for the guy. He’d get kicked out of office in disgrace and end up where we found him in the first, in that little toilet of a club”.
Quite how serious this particular idea was is unclear, although it’s unlikely to have held much shrift when the box office started flowing in. Stallone, as Avildsen notes, made the decision not to “mess with success”, and opted for a far more conventional first sequel, that basically re-ran the first film. Avildsen and Stallone creatively parted ways as a result, but in truth with Sly eyeing the director’s chair, it was unlikely to have ended with an immediate reunion anyway.
Nonetheless, going back to that Robert Emery book, Avildsen said that “Sylvester didn’t want to go in the same direction as I did so I took a pass on Rocky II”.
Stallone would thus helm the next three Rocky films and take the franchise in a far more conventional direction (and Rocky would never become mayor), as he became the biggest movie star on the planet. And lest we forget, Stallone’s choices also led to the finest blockbuster sequel of the 1980s, the cruelly Oscar-snubbed Rocky IV. Where would we be without that?
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