'The Real Rocky,' a documentary about Chuck Wepner, Bayonne boxer who inspired Stallone, premieres Tuesday on ESPN
PHILADELPHIA, PA. What better place, other than Bayonne of course, to have the world premiere of a film about Bayonne’s Chuck Wepner than the City of Brotherly Love?
After all, “The Real Rocky,” which screened here Friday night as part of the 20th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival, is a documentary about the man who inspired Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” boxing film series. And “Rocky,” of course, was based in Philadelphia.
The film will have its television premiere tomorrow night at 8 on ESPN.
Friday night’s screening capped an extremely hectic 24 hours for Wepner, as he arrived at the 32 Degrees Club for a pre-screening VIP cocktail party.“
“I just finished my seventh interview of the day,” he said. On Thursday afternoon, he ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum where a statue of Stallone now stands as the Rocky character did in the movie. That scene had been inspired by Wepner’s regimen in his fighting days of running up the steps in Stephen R. Gregg/Bayonne County Park.
There was one difference, however.
“There were 74 steps here; in Bayonne, there are only 41,” he moaned. Stallone had been invited to run up the steps with him, but he never responded.
Friday night’s screening was a true world premiere. Wepner hadn’t even seen the film before then. At the end of the documentary, he received a standing ovation from the packed house at the Ritz East Theater as he walked down the aisle from the rear of the theater for a question-and-answer session.
“I loved it,” said Wepner in response to a question about what he thought of the film. “I only wish they had more of my wife Linda in it.”
In fact, it was Linda Wepner who set the wheels in motion for her husband’s newly-found fame. Wepner hasn’t received this much attention since his 1974 fight with Muhammad Ali in Cleveland, where he knocked down the great champ in the ninth round and lasted until the 15th round with 19 seconds left when the fight was stopped.
That fight inspired the first “Rocky” in 1976, with Carl Weathers playing Apollo Creed, an obvious Ali-like fighter. For years, Wepner said Stallone had paid him because he was too embarrassed to tell people “I never got a dime.”
Stallone had also promised movie roles for Wepner that never came to fruition.
“The last straw was ‘Cop Land’ when Stallone didn’t give him a role in that,” said Linda Wepner about the movie that was being shot in Edgewater. “If anyone should have been in that, it was Chuck. I told Chuck, ‘this guy has been shunning you for years and he’s made hundreds of millions of dollars off you and it’s time you did something about it.”
Through a friend, Wepner hired attorney Tony Mango who was present at Friday night’s screening and Stallone was sued for $15 million. Stallone tried to deny that Wepner was his inspiration, but, as “The Real Rocky” showed, there was a lot of evidence to the contrary and Stallone settled.
“Part of the deal was that I not reveal the amount of money I got, but I did OK,” said Wepner. “I just wanted him to admit it. That’s all I wanted.”
Added Linda: “He (Stallone) made a wonderful film about a wonderful man. There are no hard feelings.”
“The Real Rocky” was directed by Hazlet’s Jeff Feuerzeig, an award-winning filmmaker who is best known for his 2006 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” about a cult music icon. Feuerzeig said Bruce Springsteen and Wepner were his boyhood idols.
“Before the Ali-Wepner fight, my father took me to Raritan High School, where Wepner was making an appearance. I was 10 years old,” said Feuerzeig. “Wepner walks in, he’s 6’5” wearing a pimp hat and full-length fur coat and all this bling jewelry and the place just explodes. He showed us films of his fight against Sonny Liston and then showed us his robe and there was no doubt how he got his super cool nickname of ‘The Bayonne Bleeder.’ “
Filming of “The Real Rocky” began in 2005. Feuerzeig and producer Mike Tollin are working on a feature-length biopic about Wepner they hope will begin shooting next year. Liev Schreiber has signed on to portray Wepner and Naomi Watts will play Wepner’s first wife, Phyllis.
Other friends of Wepner in attendance Friday were agent Paul DeAngelo and Sue Anne and Walter Olender, owners of Walt’s Deli in Bayonne.
Tomorrow night, friends of Wepner will be holding a fund-raiser to erect a statue to the Bayonne fighter at the steps of Bayonne County Park. It will be at the Union Bar, 498 North St. in Union, where they will watch “The Real Rocky” on TV.
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