Appearing in: Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV
Carl Weathers, former pro-football player with the Los Angeles (then Oakland) Raiders and the British Columbia Lions – has been a student of champions for most of his adult life.
Born on January 14, 1948 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Weathers grew up in the ghetto, relying on his athletic prowess to overcome the difficulties of his situation. Once in college at San Diego State, he became a formidable football star playing for the Raiders in the early 1970’s.
In 1973, he retired from football to devote himself entirely to his dream of becoming an actor. Five years in the sporting world had taken their toll on the 6’2″ linebacker and Weathers believed he was destined for greatness on the silver screen.
He started slowly with a variety of work on television commercials and then moved on to bit parts in motion pictures like Robert Redford’s The Candidate. Being just another face in the crowd, however, wasn’t for him. Like Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers was determined to be at the top of his game, no matter what field he was playing on.
CAST AS THE KING OF STING
Weathers’ big break came in 1975 when he learned that casting directors were on the lookout for a bold and brash actor to play the World Heavyweight Champ in an upcoming film, Rocky.
“Fortunately,” Carl says, “having had an extensive background in professional sports, I had known men in all fields with just those same self-centered personalities that Creed was required to have. In certain sports, that very flair for showmanship can better make one a star rather that one’s actual give for playing the sport in question.”
Sylvester Stallone recalls Weather’s initial audition: “At first, Kenny Norton was the prime target for Apollo Creed but Kenny has great size and since I am only five foot ten and one hundred eighty-five pounds, against a two hundred thirty pound man like Kenny, it would have looked as though I were a middleweight. After a week, we were getting desperate until by sheer fluke, the producer received a call from an agency saying, ‘Would you mind seeing one of our clients? His name is Carl Weathers.’ Well, Carl Weathers came into the office and by this time, I was tired. It was late at night. Carl was very exuberant. . .”
“He told us how he was right for the part, and one thing was certain – he wasn’t lacking confidence. He was asked to read the role of Apollo Creed opposite me. He had no idea who I was. He thought I was just some semi-literate office boy because I had submerged myself so far into the character of Rocky that I didn’t exactly sound like your typical writer. I appeared to be the janitor’s nephew who was just there to do the windows or take out the trash; in other words, I was a yawning basket case.”
“Carl read the part and I thought he was good, but he turned to the producers and complained: ‘Oh, I would have done much, much better if you had given me a real actor to read with.’ I looked at myself. I had always considered myself a real actor, but Carl had no idea who I was so I decided to play along with the ruse and I said, ‘You’re right. You should have a real actor but since we’re here, why don’t we box? Let’s see what kind of body you have.’ So Carl took off his shirt and needless to say, he has probably one of the finer bodies in the world; it’s perfectly sculptured-a natural body that was perfect for the champion. He’s a born natural, in fact. Then he began to box. Carl is not a fighter; he is an actor but he has a great background as an athlete and he began to dance around the office, just lightly throwing jabs out. Then he began to tag me. And he was hitting me in the forehead. And I’m there suffering brain damage helping this man audition for my movie.”
“I started chopping back but then I decided to call it a day before we ended up playing the major portion of the movie from the intensive care ward at Mount Sinai Hospital. Carl was a winner. Carl got the part.”
A champion bluffer, Carl used his natural acting bravado to win the role of a lifetime. But Carl is also the first to admit that there are champions and then there are champions – and the genuine articles always astonish the public with their real talent and their potential for growth as human beings.
“I wanted Creed to be as believable a champion as Ali, so I immersed myself in a strenuous two-month training program. I’d work out every day. Then, at night, I’d screen films of all the great boxers – Tunney, Louis, Frazier, Norton, Sugar Ray, Marciano and, of course, Ali. By the time the cameras rolled, they had to temper me down for the fight scenes.”
But it wasn’t until Rocky III and Rocky IV that Weathers, as Apollo Creed, showed audiences what makes a true champion tick once he gets past the showmanship and even the talent. Maybe it’s the scene in Rocky IV when Creed tells Balboa why he wants to fight the Russian boxer Ivan Drago, that says it best.
“I can’t make a new life,” Apollo tells Rocky. “I tried, but I burn inside. It’s wrecked my life. I don’t hardly see my family anymore. I don’t do anything but think about being somebody again. Maybe we look like we’re changing to other people, but we’re not changing inside. You and me, we don’t have a choice. We are what we are. We have to live on the edge. We’re never going to fit in a normal life, because we’re the warriors. We’re the last ones left standing, and without a war to fight, a warrior may as well be dead!”
By the film’s end, we learn that Creed is not the kind of warrior to fight for himself alone, that he feels he represents others who can’t fight the way he can, and that those feelings run deep and wide. But the depth of Apollo’s feelings is no surprise to Carl Weathers. Even through the first two films, when Creed is a loser whether he actually retains his title or not, “Stallone had written a story that allowed us a relationship of considerable depth and nuance on screen . . . Something far beyond antagonistic threats and punches.”
All the same, Weathers was surprised to be back in demand for Rocky III. In fact, like all of the other principal actors, the continuing success of this film sagas that has lasted ten years, somewhat overwhelms him.
“Who would have thought it would turn out like this?” he once marveled. “No one was more surprised than I was when they wanted Apollo for Rocky III, since Rocky had beaten Apollo for the title in Rocky II. I have to admit that I, too, had thought we’d seen the last of the defeated former champ, Creed. But I was thrilled, delighted to again be such an integral part of the Rocky story.”
Although Weather’s connection with the Rocky saga was effectively severed in Rocky IV, the actor had no qualms about his role. “Who wants to portray the losing champ? But Rocky is all about how there are no losers in life, unless you allow yourself to see yourself that way. The Rocky saga stresses the importance of self-worth and that’s a lesson for everyone to learn. It’s something that I can really get behind and believe in personally, too.”
In the course of four films, Weathers came to have a rewarding relationship with co-star and director Stallone. “Off-screen, Sylvester Stallone and I already had, and continue to have, both a professional working relationship and a personal friendship,” he commented. “So it was really a pleasure to have the chance to ‘act’ those real feelings out for the movie script. An actor could hardly ask for more. I want to do pictures that involve the nobler emotions, like tenderness, love and caring. One-dimensional characters don’t’ interest me. That’s why I’m so thankful that Sly expanded the character of Apollo, along with insight into what really drives him.”
Indeed, in Rocky IV, Apollo Creed finally has the chance to deliver a moving statement about what drives him.
“Standing up for your honor is everything,” he says. “Without honor, you’re a loser. You call this a pathetic and corrupt society. Maybe this country isn’t perfect, but it sure beats anyplace else, because here we walk around free. Maybe I can’t do nothing about changing the world, but I can say I’m a man who’s proud of coming from the greatest place on earth.”