“Butkus”

Appearing in: Rocky, Rocky II

Meet Butkus, one of the most beloved characters of the Rocky movies! This 140 pound Bull Mastiff wasn’t just a co-star alongside Rocky Balboa; he was Sylvester Stallone’s canine family member in real life.

Here’s the inside scoop on Butkus, the lovable Rocky dog who stole scenes both on and off-screen.

Butkus: The Early Years

A hefty little puppy joined the Stallone family back in 1969.

“We got [Butkus] when he was about six weeks old,” Sylvester Stallone remembers. “He was a ferocious-looking little devil and when he ate his security blanket we decided to name him after Dick Butkus, possibly the fiercest football player in history.”

Dick Butkus, the former NFL linebacker, is renowned for his aggressive playing style. He played for the Chicago Bears and football fans consider him one of the greatest linebackers in football history.

When Stallone wed his first wife Sasha Czack in 1974, five-year-old Butkus remained part of the family.

The young couple lived in a tiny apartment in New York City, along with their other large dog, so space was at a minimum. Butkus eventually grew up to be a bulky 120-130 pounds.

What Was Butkus Like

Bull Mastiffs are gentle giants known for their loyalty and protective nature, making them great family dogs. People love Bull Mastiffs because they’re big sweethearts with a tough side. Their affectionate nature and protective instincts make them a popular breed – and Butkus was no exception.

Frank Stallone described Butkus as “such a great dog”, adding that even over 40 years after his passing, that he still misses him. “A movie star dog, but a sweetie,” Frank wrote on Instagram.

Sylvester Stallone wrote a loving tribute to his old buddy in 2017, sharing an adorable (and rare) photo of himself with Butkus as a puppy in 1971.

Of the picture, Sly says, “We were both, thin, hungry and living in a flophouse above a subway stop, I used to say this apartment had ‘hot and cold running roaches’. Anyway, there was not much to do except spend time with each other and that’s where I started to learn the craft of screenwriting.”

The Instagram post continued, “Since I never went out, I relied on his companionship. And actually it was his idea to write Rocky, but don’t tell anyone.”

Moving Cross Country

In an attempt to seek their fortune in Hollywood, the Stallones hit the road and headed west, along with the dog. During the trip, the heat became so oppressive that, according to Sly’s legend, they had to pack old Butkus in cracked ice for two days.

During the trip, the Stallones passed through a wildlife preserve where Sly laughs that Butkus “practically got us killed. An exceptionally large ostrich decided to peck him to death and attacked the car.”

“Rather than being diplomatic,” Sly continues, “Butkus jumped out in a counter attack and I practically got slaughtered trying to separate them. By the time I got him back in the old car for a quick escape, the thing stalled and a herd of unhappy buffalo descended and attempted to upset the car with us in it. In the middle of all that confusion, Butkus jumped in the back seat and went to sleep.”

The Legend of Selling and Buying Back the Rocky Dog

There’s a legendary story Sylvester Stallone has told in countless interviews when the subject of Butkus the dog comes up. It’s quite a viral piece – there are memes and YouTube shorts about this tale.

The story, sometimes told with varying details, is that Stallone was actually forced to sell the dog before he hit it big due to his extreme financial straits. Stallone allegedly sold Butkus to a guy he met loitering outside a 7-11 convenience store.

A short time later, when Rocky was in the works and he had the security of more money in his pocket, Sly knew he had to try to get the dog back.

“The other family had owned him for six months,” Stallone said in one interview.  “They weren’t exactly thrilled, but I said, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘This dog belongs in the movie.’ He had suffered along with me for two years. I said, ‘Please let him have a shot in the movie.'”

According to this version, the unfortunate other family relented and released Butkus to his rightful owner.  For a price. The price tag to reclaim the dog has been inflated over the years from less than $100 bucks to a few thousand, depending on the version you hear.

However in 2020, Frank Stallone totally dismissed this legend of the buyback saying, “this is such a bullshit story, my brother loved his dog Butkus, he drove out to California with him – had him since a little puppy.”

Maybe the tale is an embellishment told for good interview copy – who knows – but Sly even repeated it on Instagram in writing back in 2017, saying, “When things got even worse I had to sell [Butkus] for $40 in front of a 7-Eleven store, because I couldn’t afford food, then like a modern day miracle, the screenplay for Rocky sold, and I could buy him back, but the new owner knew I was desperate, and charged me $15,000. He was worth every penny.”

Dog Tales: Funny Butkus Antics

When living the high life in Los Angeles, Butkus often engaged in a mind-boggling activity, allegedly as often as once per month. His funny habit was to launch attacks on bottles of spring water.

“He once broke [a bottle] and damaged two apartments in the process. I think it’s the blue cap on the top he’s after,” Sly said at the time. “We don’t dare leave him alone with bottled water.”

“The most incredible thing he ever did, and there are witnesses who’ll back me up, is related to his TV addiction,” Sly said. “I pointed a finger at him and went ‘bang bang.’ On cue, he did one of the best death scenes in history. One leg folded, then another. He finally slumped to the floor, did a little writhing, then rolled on his back and stuck out all four legs straight in the air. It was brilliant!”

A Rocky Dog for the Original Screenplay

In the original script that Stallone wrote, Rocky owned what he described as “a scruffy fleabag.” Though various iterations of the script, the dog theme morphed and Sly latched onto the idea that he’d have Rocky Balboa carry his dog up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We’ll come back to that idea in a moment.

Facing the dilemma of finding a budget-friendly but talented dog actor for the movie, the producers asked if Stallone had any cheaper ideas. That’s when Sly’s real-life family dog, Butkus, stepped into the movie scene.

A Dog’s Life Ain’t All Sunshine and Rainbows

The Rocky dog’s movie debut wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Sly recalled a weird incident that happened to the dog a few days before filming began. Butkus took a nap on a wet carpet and one side of him turned red. “We couldn’t use a two-toned beige and red dog,” Sly said. “Fortunately he finally came clean.”

“Butkus and I had some lean years together,” said Stallone, recalling that the dog’s airfare to Philadelphia cost a small fortune to the struggling young actor. “I kept promising him that if we made the big time, he’d always go first class.”

The giant dog got his moment in the spotlight thanks to his friend Sly – he appeared in the original Rocky (credited as Butkus Stallone) and enjoyed a relatively large role.

“He Eats Little Turtles!”

In the original movie, Rocky first spots the Bull Mastiff locked in a cage in the pet shop where Adrian works and Rocky squats down to howl at the dog, who playfully paws at Balboa.

Later in the movie, Adrian tells her boyfriend Rocky that she’s got a surprise for him, and boy, does she! Out from behind the steps bounds an excited Butkus, all spruced up with a big red bow around his neck. “What’s he eat, this dog?” Rocky asks Adrian. “He eats little turtles!” she replies.

Butkus then joins the Balboa menagerie, which includes other animals from Adrian’s pet shop – Cuff and Link the turtles, and Moby Dick the goldfish. Butkus enjoys a warm little spot on the floor of Rocky’s awful apartment (but enjoys sleeping on the bed when his people are out of the house.)

Gonna Fart Now

It’s one of cinema’s most iconic scenes – a triumphant Rocky Balboa runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raising his arms in victory. But the original plan for this moment was going to be a bit different.

Picture this: Rocky, the epitome of physical fitness, showcasing his strength by running up the steps with his faithful dog in his arms. A heartwarming image, right?

However, the reality of filmmaking on a shoestring budget kicked in. The crew, sans film unions, had to execute a run-and-gun shoot in Philadelphia to evade union troubles. The original plan was ambitious – Sly running up those iconic steps with a 120-130 pound dog in tow.

As the cameras rolled, Stallone soon faced a practical challenge. Running up the steps while carrying the enormous dog proved to be more daunting than anticipated. Besides the huge weight to lift – Sly was also hit with a special bonus when he hoisted the dog into the air – a particularly noisy fart.

In a candid revelation, he admitted, “I started to run, and after about four steps, I realize I’m not going to be able to carry this dog – unless he morphs into a chihuahua, I’m in big trouble.”

The vision of Rocky and his dog conquering the steps together was abandoned for the original film  leaving us with the iconic solo ascent that became a symbol of Rocky’s readiness for the boxing ring.

However, the idea was resurrected thirty years later for Rocky Balboa. In the 2006 sequel, Rocky’s new canine pal is Punchy, a scruffy little terrier who probably weighs about a hundred pounds less than Butkus. At the climax of the training sequence, Rocky finally gets that chance to run up the steps with a dog in his arms.

Butkus is Back for Rocky II

When the first Rocky sequel came around and production began in 1978, Butkus Stallone was back in front of the cameras.

Sly’s Rocky dog had an equally large on-screen role in Rocky II where he even had his own wardrobe – including a dangerous looking studded dog collar.

In Rocky II, Butkus wears a green and white human-sized football jersey with the Philadelphia Eagles’ late 1970s design – showcasing his support for the local Philly NFL team. Fans also got an intimate glimpse of the pup’s bathtime when he listens to his master’s problems. “I wish I was a canine sometimes,” Rocky grumbles to his soapy pal.

Sadly, Rocky II is the last time we see ol’ Butkus on film. Over twenty years later, he did reappear for fans when he made the transition to the gaming world. A digital Butkus can be spotted in UbiSoft’s popular “Rocky: The Game”, released back in 2002.

The Death of Butkus the Dog and How He Lives On

According to an interview with Stallone, Butkus died of a heart attack in 1981. He would have been about twelve years old – about average for his breed.

Though this famous Rocky dog has been frolicking around the pearly gates for a few decades (cause, you know, all dogs go to heaven), his family still misses him dearly and his name often pops up in interviews and social media posts.

In a 2015 interview, Sly said of his old friend: “He’s still my desktop wallpaper.” And during the weird drama of the supposed split between Stallone and his wife Jennifer Flavin in 2022, Butkus’ name made headlines again.

Sly’s famous body has been sporting colorful tattoos for many years now, one of which was a portrait of Flavin’s face on his right arm. But in 2022, photos emerged of Mrs. Stallone’s face being wiped out and replaced with none other than the mug of ol’ Butkus.

“Mr. Stallone intended to refresh the tattoo image of his wife Jennifer; however, the results were unsatisfactory and, unfortunately, unfixable,” Sly’s publicist Michelle Bega told the Daily Mail.

Pretty clever artistry – turning the beautiful face of a former model into the likeness of a beloved Bull Mastiff.