The Real Rocky: Liev Schreiber stars as underdog Bayonne boxer in Philippe Falardeau’s 'Chuck'

Movies Features

Before there was The Italian Stallion, there was The Bayonne Bleeder. In fact, Rocky Balboa was born in that bolt of lightning that made Chuck Wepner legendary. On March 24, 1976, the New Jersey liquor salesman lucky-punched his way into boxing history by becoming the first fighter to knock Mohammad Ali down during a match.

Ah, but fame was fleeting, and Wepner’s didn’t even come close to the count of ten. An angry Ali rose up and proceeded to pulverize him like a pneumatic drill into the canvas—but, when the fight was called 19 seconds into the 15th round, Chuck Wepner had achieved his personal goal: He had gone the distance with The Greatest.

Do I hear an “Adrian!” in the house? Sylvester Stallone did on the night he saw the fight on closed-circuit TV. Inspired by Wepner’s bloodied-but-unbowed performance, the actor started typing out his own star-making ticket: the screenplay of Rocky.

The movie knocked down All the President’s Men and won the Academy Award as the Best Picture of 1976, plus additional Oscars for Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad), and Stallone became—after Charles Chaplin and Orson Welles—the third person ever nominated for both acting and writing in the same year. As late as 2015, when he reprised it for the seventh time (in the film, Creed), the role was still winning him Oscar consideration.

After Rocky, Wepner’s life spiraled in the opposite direction—downward. The pummeling he took from Ali (and, earlier, from Sonny Liston) was nothing to the haymaker that Dame Fortune delivered. He got third-degree burns from all that reflected glory of having inspired a world-class Super Underdog and drifted first into drugs and promiscuity, then into divorce and jail. When Stallone filmed 1989’s Lock Up at the East Jersey State Prison, he discovered his Rocky was a resident there.

In Chuck, opening tomorrow from IFC Films, Wepner was too ashamed to approach Sly, but, in truth, they got together. Stallone paraded him around the prison yard telling inmates this was the real Rocky.

The Real Rocky was the title of a documentary chronicling Wepner’s rocky, post-Rocky rollercoaster ride. It was made by Mike Tollin and Jeff Feuerzeig and aired on ESPN in 2011. Recognizing the dramatic potential of the property, Tollin pitched the part of Wepner to Liev Schreiber, a lifelong aficionado of “the sweet science.”

“Tollin showed me a script about ten years ago,” Schreiber recalls, “but, at the time, there was no financing for the film, and it didn’t get set up. I’m a bit of a boxing fan, so I was both kind of surprised and embarrassed that I didn’t know Chuck’s story. I felt it was worth telling, this cautionary tale about fame at the heart of the film.”

After a decade on hold, the film came together very suddenly with financing from Millennium, just as Schreiber was taking a breather from his five seasons of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.” A master of time management (apparently), he has several mediums in the fire. In addition to this feature about a ’70s prizefighter, he squeezed in a Broadway run of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in which he was a decadent French aristocrat of 1782. And, on the side, he has quietly become prolific at voiceover work. “I’m doing a lot of that, a lot of documentaries and sports specials. If the writing’s good, it’s fun—and the writing’s been really exceptional, particularly on the HBO Sports stuff.

“I think it’s important to mix it up—to keep yourself as off-kilter as you can—particularly when you’re on a television series, because you end up doing so much of the same thing. It’s important to try to find ways of exercising your acting muscles.”

Stallone’s permission was essential in telling the Chuck Wepner story, and the actor was not parsimonious in the least. He embraced the project, according to Schreiber.

“He was quite generous with his time. He talked to me about his own process as an actor, as an artist, how he came to the character of Rocky. In a lot of ways, the story of Rocky for him was a metaphor for his own battles as an artist and a writer and an actor. He talked a lot about Chuck and how he came to know him and work with him to try to get him into the sequels, so I’m very grateful to Stallone.”

Finding the right guy to play Sly was a major migraine for the film’s director, Philippe Falardeau. “It was terrifying to try to find someone to play Stallone, because the suspension of this belief here is so difficult. When we started auditions, I told myself, ‘Do not try to imitate Stallone. Try to capture something about Stallone.’”

For Morgan Spector, who eventually won the role, that “something” was his eyes—and the fact that he and Schreiber had worked together before. “We needed that dynamic of familiarity between the two of them. Then we started to work on Sly’s look and hair and clothes. I think, at the end of the day, it worked pretty good.

“The first time that we see Stallone, he’s in a restaurant, and I told the cameraman [Nicolas Bolduc], ‘We have to stay far from Stallone. We just need to get over the idea of Stallone.’ The next time we see him in the audition room, we can be closer because we’ve already been through the first step of seeing him from afar.”

Falardeau never got to meet or confer with Stallone, but he gave his blessing to the film as well as that statue of Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. It’s used at the end of the picture when Schreiber poses with it at Planet Hollywood.

Now 49, Falardeau was all of eight when he had his first boyhood brush with Rocky. “I remember seeing it and loving it,” he says. “The whole Rocky mythology had an effect on me for sure, but my interest in directing this film went far beyond that.

“I just found the character fascinating. I couldn’t quite understand why a man with so many flaws would be so lovable. He was so charismatic, such a performer, such an entertainer. What he did against Ali was quite amazing, but the challenges he faced afterward when he was hit by celebrity after the movie came out were far more interesting to me than the whole thing about the Rocky mythology. Back at that time, remember, there was no social network. He did not become an instant celebrity on YouTube. He earned it. We don’t give him enough credit for that.”

In real life, Wepner didn’t disappoint Falardeau. “I met him in a restaurant here in Manhattan with his lovely wife, Linda, and I thought he was as lovable as the man in the script. They both put on a show for me. They are still very much charismatic.

“Contrary to Rocky, Chuck is a very confident man in real life. Rocky Balboa’s a soft-spoken, insecure man who becomes a performer in the ring. Chuck is a performer in life, and I was very seduced by that. I like that he’s able to look back on what he did and know that he made a lot of mistakes—that he’s open about it. There’s strength in that. That’s what struck me about him when I met him. He adopted me as his son.

“From our first meeting on, it was important to me to make a film that would be dramatic enough and funny enough and true enough that it would honor the subject. There was a line I couldn’t cross because I knew I was dealing with someone who was still alive. As it is, it was probably tough for him to watch some of those scenes.”

Falardeau is pleased with the results, and he believes Wepner is, too. “It could have been pretentious and overly dramatic. I didn’t want that. Chuck’s not a dramatic guy. He’s a fun guy. I wanted to inject that spirit of playfulness and generosity into the film. The cast helps a lot with that. They’re very generous with their performances.”

Elisabeth Moss and Naomi Watts play the first and second Mrs. Wepner; Ron Perlman is his manager, Jim Gaffigan his crony and Michael Rapaport his estranged brother.

On the surface of it, Falardeau doesn’t seem as if he’d be the right director to reveal the real Rocky—he’s French-Canadian, with next to no knowledge or affection for boxing, telling the story of this very American sport—but then the real Chuck is a rise-and-fall-and-redemption story that takes place largely in Life, outside the ring.

Schreiber, who’d never worked with Falardeau before, would have no trouble working with him again. “He was the first director I met with who was very concerned with how we would actually execute what we were trying to execute,” he recalls. “So often when you meet people, there’s a tendency to try to win the job, and Philippe wasn’t interested in winning the job. He was interested in figuring out how to accomplish the job, and that gave me great confidence as a collaborator.”

Chuck is Falardeau’s seventh film—his second in English (following 2014’s The Good Lie). His first, The Left-Hand Side of the Fridge, won Best Canadian First Feature at the 2000 Toronto Festival; his second, Congorama, got him a Genie Award for Best Original Screenplay at Cannes in 2006; It’s Not Me, I Swear!—No. 3—grabbed the Berlin Festival’s Crystal Bear as well as the International Jury Award.

Monsieur Lazhar, his fourth time out en francaise, brought him to Hollywood’s attention via an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. Most recently (2015), My Internship in Canada won him three Quebec Cinema Awards.

A self-confessed “very slow screenwriter,” Falardeau has made himself open to directing only (like Chuck) to up his productivity to more than one film every four years. “It helps me to practice my craft as a director and not just as a screenwriter.”

He is currently adapting, in English, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year. “She worked in J.D. Salinger’s literary agency in the ’90s and was responsible for reading all his fan mail. For years, Salinger didn’t want to read the fan mail, so somebody had to do it and send a super-dull, generic response. But she began to be emotionally involved with the fans, and that’ll be our film. We’ll start finding financing soon.”