By Bruce Westbrook
In 1976 he was a hero. Now he’s more of a zero. But Talia Shire hasn’t forgotten what made Sylvester Stallone beloved as an underdog actor, much as his Rocky title character was beloved as a boxer.
“Before, people used boxing movies as a metaphor for corruption,” Shire says of the film, which returns this month in a six-disc DVD box set that includes all five Rocky movies plus the A&E special Sylvester Stallone: The Rocky Road to the Top. “But Sylvester made a different story, where you go 15 rounds with your soul.”
Shire plays Adrian, timid girlfriend of Rocky Balboa, a small-time Philadelphia boxer who gets a fluke chance to fight world champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Rocky is expected to last a round or two as a publicity stunt, but he takes the fight seriously, training fiercely for his goal: to go the distance for 15 rounds, win or lose.
The film itself also was an underdog. Rocky cost less than $1 million to make, and its title star was an unknown. Stallone was a broke, failed actor with a screenplay he’d written for himself, and he wouldn’t sell the script without getting to play its title role.
Slugging it out with typically dark ’70s films like Taxi Driver and Network, Rocky scored a knockout, earning $225 million worldwide and three Oscars, including best picture.
“I hope it gets rediscovered,” Shire says. “Young people need that kind of folk hero, that inspiration.
“Rocky is about your right to have a dream. It’s very much an American piece. We’re a country of people who might never have had a chance anywhere else.”
Shire’s own Coppola family, which came from Italy, knows such success. Brother Francis Ford Coppola is Oscar-winning director of The Godfather films, in which Shire played mob daughter Connie Corleone. Her nephews include Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage and director Roman Coppola (CQ), while niece Sofia Coppola is the Oscar-winning writer-director of Lost in Translation.
Shire’s children with the late Jack Schwartzman, an entertainment attorney, also are performers. Jason Schwartzman, 24, starred in the Houston-made Rushmore and will play Louis XVI in cousin Sofia’s Marie-Antoinette next year. Robert Schwartzman 21, starred in The Princess Diaries and is in the rock band Rooney. (Jason formed the band Phantom Planet but quit to pursue acting full-time.)
When she made the first Rocky in 1976, Shire was married to composer David Shire and had just given birth to their only child, Matthew.
“Matthew was very sick and in the hospital for a month. I finally brought him home and was on my knees to God and joyful, and then this script comes along for an audition,” she says.
“Bringing home a healthy baby allowed me to go on that audition and meet an extraordinary man in Sylvester. Those were happy days.”
Four more Rocky films followed, with Rocky and Adrian marrying and having their own kids — and the boxing plots getting more threadbare. Stallone branched out with hits in the Rambo war movies, but became stuck in an action rut, fizzling in comedies like Rhinestone and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Now he’s reduced to playing wacky villains in Spy Kids 3.
Shire didn’t try matching her Rocky and Godfather success, deciding to produce, instead. (She had a hand in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again.) But in 1990, she made the third and final Godfather and the fifth and final Rocky.
“I think actors like sequels,” she says, “because we don’t have the ensemble feel of the old studios (where the same actors often worked together) unless you get back for a sequel. It was great being with Sylvester (on Rocky V) and Al Pacino and Diane Keaton (on Godfather III) years later.”
Shire, 58, doesn’t act often now, though she had a small part in the recent comedy I Heart Huckabees alongside son Jason, who starred.
Six years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a pristine print of Rocky, and Shire took her sons to see it for the first time.
“When the lights went on, they were looking at me a little differently,” she says. “They were moved by the character.”
She thinks that comes from the human truths of Rocky and Adrian. “Sylvester was always putting issues from his own life in his movies,” Shire says, “and they were often very spiritual questions.”
Unlike The Godfather’s crime clan, which treated business impersonally, the “family business” is always personal for Shire. She calls them “a circus family. We’re like the Flying Wallendas.
“It’s wonderful to see the cousins working together now. This family has an aesthetic and a professionalism that have been passed down.”
It hasn’t always been a pleasant ride. Fourteen years before winning an Oscar for writing Translation, Sofia was a late replacement for ailing Winona Ryder in her father’s Godfather III. She was savaged by critics for her performance as mob boss Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) daughter.
“Those low blows were ridiculous,” Shire says. “If anything, Sofia was heroic by being there. She inspired her father to keep this thing moving, because he was deeply concerned, having also lost the critical Tom Hagen character when Bobby Duvall didn’t take the role.”
But if the Coppolas are anything, they’re resilient.
“My father (late composer Carmine Coppola) used to get up early every morning and start work at the piano,” she says. “Now I see that in the next generation. They know how to pick themselves up and keep on trying. That’s what it’s all about — going the distance.”