Born on April 25, 1946 in New York, Talia Shire was raised at her parents’ Long Island home and “on the road”. Her father, Carmine Coppola, was a distinguished musician, conductor and composer who was first flutist in Toscanini’s NBC orchestra when Talia was just a little girl. His work caused the family to travel around the country year-round.
Talia attended catholic schools and exhibited typical Adrian Balboa tendencies even then. ”In high school,” Talia says, “I was so shy that if somebody looked at me I could feel it. I definitely was not the cheerleader type!” To help conquer her shyness, she persuaded her family to send her to Yale Drama School in 1966. She then moved to Hollywood.
Her big break came with the role of Connie Corleone in The Godfather (1971). Few moviegoers realized that they were watching director Francis Ford Coppola’s little sister “Tally” when she came to national prominence in his blockbuster hit, but Talia Shire, like many another show business relative before her, is right when she explains that “a famous name or a connection may open doors initially, but no one hires an actor or an actress unless they’re right for the role.”
Tally reprised her role as Connie in The Godfather: Part II. For the sequel, she won a 1974 Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. That same year, her brother Francis Coppola took home an Oscar for his direction in the second Godfather installment, and their father Carmine Coppola won a much deserved statuette for Original Dramatic Score for the same film.
Shire first heard of the Rocky project through her then-husband, film music composer David Shire. Then, she went to audition for producers Winkler and Chartoff, and director John Avildsen. Sylvester Stallone was jogging about the room, preparing himself for the role.
Stallone remembers the scene . . . “We were having difficulty casting the role of Adrian . . . I had remembered Talia Shire from The Godfather and asked that she come in. She came in. She wore glasses, her hair was short and dark; she was almost the opposite of the way I had pictured Adrian. She came in with enthusiasm and gave one of the finer improvisational readings I had seen since working on the film. And at the very end of the improvisation, she reeled back and gave me a couple shots in the jaw playfully, as though she were a fighter. I felt that she had achieved near total control over the character even in this sort span of time and I wanted her badly and screamed and yelled and made everyone around me uncomfortable until finally they said, ‘Okay, you’ve got her!’ which was an incredibly great coup for us all.”
It seems difficult to picture anyone other than Tally shouting Rocky’s name at ringside during the final confrontation which highlights each film. She recalls being totally overwhelmed by the script. “When I read the script, I went crazy for it, I loved it. I connected easily with Sly. He created a sense of enjoyment right away, a sense of fun. I have never had a better time in a reading. The next day, I heard from them that I got the role.”
“I liked making Rocky more than anything I’ve done. It’s a positive film, and there aren’t many of those around anymore.”
Talia was nominated at the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony for her portrayal of Adrian, but unfortunately lost to actress Faye Dunaway for Network (1976). She is the only performer ever to twice appear in original films and their sequels and be honored in each case with Oscar nominations.
Tally has only kind words for Sylvester Stallone, both in and out of the ring. “During the shooting, we all got along and loved each other and were willing to work hard. Sly is a giant in all ways, bigger than life, very sensitive. It must have been the same working with Marlon Brando when he first started.”
What’s it like to play the same character five times over? ”It seems strange playing Adrian again and again. One of the things I most enjoy about it is that both she and I have gone through such major changes in time. I feel that audiences identify with that, too, in relation to all the characters. What’s really unusual, perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is that all of us in the cast have been growing and maturing and changing in our characters, just as people really do – both the people playing the parts, and the people in the audience watching these films.”
Shire reflects on Rocky’s enduring popularity: “Everything about the Rocky movies has been one series of pleasant surprises followed by another. None of us involved in the first Rocky suspected just how big a hit it would prove to be. It was a thrill to be at the beginning of something special. However, for me as a performer, there’s another, even more rewarding side to these films that has made them all especially memorable and meaningful. What I’m talking about is versatility, that rare opportunity to play many facets of the same person.
“It’s hard to believe that the Rocky movies have ‘gone the distance’ themselves. I think that all of us involved have been so fortunate to do what movies rarely do, to tell the whole story of Rocky.”
Shire separated from her husband in 1980 and as a single mother went back to work in films such as Old Boyfriends, Prophecy, Windows and Rad. Peppered amongst these pictures were Rocky reprisals II-IV. With Rocky V and The Godfather: Part III, 1990 marked Tally’s return to her two most celebrated roles.
Five years later, Shire made her feature directorial debut with One Night Stand (1995). Happily married to producer Jack Schwartzman for some years, the two formed a production company and started work in earnest on her latest project. Sadly, Tally’s venture into directing was overshadowed by the tragic events still to come. Her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and shockingly died only months later while One Night Stand was in post-production.
Since his death, she has immersed herself in her work in films: Bed & Breakfast (1992), Chantilly Lace (1993), The Landlady (1998) and in 2002 she re-teamed with old pal Burt Young in Kiss the Bride. In 2004, Tally was in talks with Stallone about his new script for the sixth and final installment of the Rocky series – Rocky Balboa – when the idea was hit upon to allow Adrian’s character to die. Shire agreed with Stallone’s decision on the fate of her character as it would help form the basis for Rocky’s lonely later years and the reason behind his final fight. In the final cut, Talia’s Adrian appeared only in brief flashbacks from earlier moments in the series.
Talia’s family tree is one of the most famous in Hollywood history. In addition to her celebrated father and brother Francis, her extended family includes Academy Award winners Sofia Coppola (her niece) and Nicolas Cage (her nephew). She has three sons – Matthew, Jason and Robert. Jason Schwartzman, star of the critically acclaimed Rushmore (1998) is a star in his own right – as is her youngest, Robert Schwartzman, who is an accomplished musician and has also appeared in films, most notably The Princess Diaries (2001).