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The Boy Who Saved Batman

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Michael Uslan lived and breathed comic books. When he was a teenager, his collection was so vast, it consumed his parents’ New Jersey garage. In seventh grade, he co-founded a comic book club that coordinated a field trip to DC Comics’ Manhattan headquarters. He even completed a script for a daily comic strip about the Cricket, a superhero he invented, and submitted drafts to newspapers. An employee at The Sacramento Union was so impressed, he suggested they collaborate—until he realized the author was in junior high.

No superhero fascinated Uslan like Batman. Unlike Superman, Batman didn’t have special powers. His strength came from his will, training, and armored flying suit. Batman was human and damaged—as a child, he’d watched a stranger murder his parents and swore to avenge their deaths. That origin story deeply affected Uslan, who couldn’t consider a world in which his mom and dad didn’t exist.

So it was with great excitement that he tuned in to the ABC premiere of Batman on January 12, 1966. Watching it, Uslan’s heart sank. Portrayed by Adam West, TV’s Batman was stilted, overly earnest, and almost buffoonish. Paired with his guileless sidekick, Robin, he wore tights and spoke in corny adages (“Crime never pays!”) while imparting good-citizen lessons about proper grammar and paying taxes. Even the bad guys were ham-handed jokes, nothing like the terrifying, unhinged criminal overlords of the comic. The fight scenes? Slapstick routines replete with full-screen flashes of onomatopoeic gibberish (“Pow! Crash! Boff!”).

“Society was laughing at Batman—and that just killed me,” Uslan said in the 2013 documentary Legends of the Knight. To him, Batman was an orphan whose vigilantism was a civic and emotional reconciliation, not a campy pop-art punch line. There and then, teenage Uslan made his own Bruce Wayne–like vow: “I would restore Batman to his true and rightful identity as the Dark Knight, a creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows...a master detective who survived and thrived more by his wits than by his fists.”

He would do this by making his own Batman movie.

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Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a mason contractor father and a bookkeeper mother, Uslan learned to read by thumbing through his older brother’s comics. At 5, his brother brought him to a candy shop and let him pick two comics, one of which was Detective Comics #236, a 1956 title featuring Batman and Robin battling mobsters in a purple armored Bat-Tank.

Batman quickly became an obsession. Soon, Uslan was dutifully purchasing every title in which the Caped Crusader appeared. “In my heart of hearts, I believed that if I studied really hard and worked out really hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could be this guy!” Uslan remembers in his 2011 memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman. By the time he was a high-school senior, he’d amassed a collection of 30,000 comic books.

In 1972, the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, offered an experimental program allowing students to pitch entirely new classes for credit. As a junior undergrad, Uslan drew up a syllabus outlining the scholarly merits of comic books and presented it to the department’s board, arguing that superheroes were modern mythological gods. The attendant dean cut him off, insisting “funny books” were entertainment for children.

Thinking quickly, Uslan, who wore a Spider-Man T-shirt to the meeting, asked the administrator to recite the story of Moses: “Moses was an endangered Hebrew infant sent to safety in a river basket and recovered by a couple who raised him as their own. Later, he became a heroic figure to his people after learning his heritage.” Then Uslan asked him to recall Superman’s genesis: “Superman was an endangered Krypton son sent to safety by his parents in a rocket ship, then recovered by a couple who raised”—there, the dean cut himself off, and the 20-year-old became the world’s first professor of a college-accredited comic-books course.

The United Press International ran a story about Uslan’s course, and soon he was fielding television and radio requests from around the globe. Journalists were sitting in his class, which became so popular that the university asked Uslan to adapt it into a correspondence course. They even paid him to write a textbook on the subject. DC Comics also called. The company’s execs had heard Uslan on the radio and wanted to offer him a job. He could work in DC’s Manhattan office in the summer; during his senior year, they’d keep him on retainer. Uslan was beside himself.

Before graduating, Uslan sent 372 résumés to industry names he’d found while scouring Variety, hoping to land a position working in movies or television cartoons. The responses—all two of them—were dismal. Discouraged, Uslan applied to law school, calculating it as a backdoor to Hollywood, and funded his further education (along with his wedding to his college sweetheart) by selling 20,000 comics from his collection.

After law school, he took a position in the legal department of movie studio United Artists, where he drafted contracts for smashes like Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, and Rocky. He also busied himself plotting out his purchase of the rights to Batman.

The world wasn’t cooperating, though. The DC exec who’d hired him back in college advised Uslan not to waste the money. Batman was considered a “dead brand.” After ABC canceled the TV show, the Caped Crusader’s merchandising sales took a nosedive and never recovered. Warner Publishing had recently negotiated the deal for Superman: The Movie, and would expect the same pricey terms, even though Batman was worth less.

But Uslan wouldn’t be talked out of his dream. He convinced the father of a co-worker, former MGM executive Benjamin Melniker, of the project’s commercial potential, and in October 1979, after six months of negotiation, against all advice or logic, the production partners acquired Batman’s film rights for a reported $50,000. Uslan immediately quit his day job.

That year, the partners started pitching Hollywood studios. One by one, each declined. Execs told Uslan that he was crazy: Outdated TV shows weren’t being remade into movies. Besides, this was TV’s cheesiest character. How could this story be turned into a serious film? Superman’s success proved superheroes needed to be pure and almighty (not dark and internally conflicted).

Eventually, Uslan and Melniker signed a deal to make Batman with the producers behind Midnight Express and A Star Is Born—but they still couldn’t get a studio on board. Meanwhile, Uslan needed cash to get by, so he and Melniker got a different project off the ground: Swamp Thing, a popcorn flick featuring a rubber-suited monster.

The movie was a success, which only strengthened Uslan’s resolve. “You could either chalk it up to stubbornness or abject stupidity,” he says now, “but every time my back was against the wall, I went back to that one question: ‘Is the rest of the world right and I’m wrong, and I’m just being stubborn?’ Or do I truly believe in this? I kept coming up with [the answer]: ‘This is the right way.’”

The right way demanded years of conversations about distribution, contracts, and filmmakers. Gremlins director Joe Dante was attached to the project, and then he wasn’t. Ivan Reitman was on board, as they waited for him to finish Ghostbusters—and then he wasn’t. At one point, Uslan’s former intern urged him to stop telling people about the project because it made him sound like a joke.

By 1986, Swamp Thing’s earnings were dwindling. Uslan—now in his thirties, with two children—bet everything on his next undertaking, a historical miniseries for CBS pegged to the Texas Revolution’s sesquicentennial. When executive reshuffling killed the project, Uslan stubbornly insisted he was less than six months away from securing enough money to tide him over until a studio signed on to make Batman a reality. His father-in-law made him a deal: He’d pay the family’s bills for five months, but if his son-in-law didn’t have that six-figure paycheck by the end of the grace period, Uslan would return to practicing law and stop this Batman nonsense. “That was my lowest moment,” he says. He accepted the deal.

As the clock ticked, Uslan grasped for salable ideas. Then one day, he had an epiphany: What about dinosaurs from outer space? The kid-friendly lightning bolt resulted in Dinosaucers, a 1987 animated television series that provided just enough cash to get by. On the exact date of his father-in-law’s deadline, a paycheck came to his house.

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Around the time Uslan made that last-ditch deal with his father-in-law, a graphic novelist named Frank Miller published a new Batman title called The Dark Knight Returns. It revived the darker, grittier origins of Batman that Uslan loved. Other people were drawn to it too: It was an instant, huge success, breaking out of comic book shops into mainstream bookstores. Suddenly, the appeal of a dark Batman didn’t seem so far-fetched.

By this time, the producers with whom Uslan and Melniker had partnered were signed to Warner Bros., and an imaginative director who’d recently worked on Warner Bros.’ Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also interested. His name was Tim Burton, and his second project for the studio, the one that could give him the credibility to make a big, expensive tentpole movie, was right around the corner: Beetlejuice. (It starred Michael Keaton, who the director thought was versatile enough to play Batman too.) Burton had a script inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and he approached Sam Hamm, a 31-year-old Warner Bros. screenwriter (and longtime Batman fan), about working on it. Finally, the stars had aligned. Batman got the green light for pre-production in the spring of 1988. In October, the movie went into production.

On June 23, 1989—almost a decade after Uslan and Melniker obtained the rights—Batman opened, starring Keaton as the title character, Jack Nicholson as the Joker (Uslan’s idea), and Gotham City as a steaming apocalypse of metropolitan corruption. Anticipation was so high people smashed the glass at bus stops to steal the poster, even if—in a twist of delicious irony—diehard Batman fans fretted that Keaton, known as a comic actor, was too goofy to play Batman. Those fears soon proved unfounded. In its opening weekend, Batman raked in a record-breaking $43.6 million.

Batman’s cultural impact was enormous. In November, Uslan watched the Berlin Wall fall on CNN and saw a boy in the wreckage wearing a Batman hat. “This had become more than just a movie,” he writes. “It was, indeed, revolutionary.” In North America, the film was the highest-grossing movie of 1989.

Over the next decade, follow-ups rained down with varied success (Uslan has a producer credit on all of them). The choice to hire auteur Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise was, according to Uslan, “a godsend for hardcore fanboys, as well as mainstream audiences around the world.” Nolan’s gothic Dark Knight trilogy (2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) accomplished the nearly impossible feat of achieving both critical and commercial acclaim, depicting Bruce Wayne as a psychologically complex figure and pulling in nearly $2.5 billion worldwide.

Next year brings Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which Uslan and Melniker executive produced. “My greatest wish is that I could have a narrow tube into the past, so I could yell to Michael at age 8, 12, 16, and 20: ‘Hey, guess what I’m doing?!’” says Uslan, now 64. “But I know in my heart of hearts I always believed.”

He also believed that the world needed new role models. The Golden Age of comics took place during World War II, when Americans were desperate for stories of good overcoming evil. As the 20th century progressed, they’d realize the enemy wasn’t simply abroad, but sometimes within. Someone larger than life had to embody existential conflicts over justice, selflessness, and purpose. Uslan had known this since he was a teenager: Batman might not be the superhero everybody wanted, but he was the one that would speak to a new generation.


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Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Rocky Turned the Common Man Into a Hero
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Sylvester Stallone wasn’t born a leading man. Complications at birth left the son of a hairdresser with nerve damage that slurred his speech and curled his lips into a permanent snarl. His childhood wasn’t easy. His parents fought constantly, and he and his brother slipped in and out of foster care. By high school, they’d moved back in with their mother in Philadelphia, but Stallone’s emotional problems followed him. He struggled academically and was expelled from multiple schools. The arts became his refuge. He spent his free time painting and writing poetry, but his real dream was the silver screen. By the time he was 18, he knew he wanted to act.

Stallone studied drama at the American College of Switzerland and then at the University of Miami, but then abandoned school to pursue a career in New York City. By his mid-twenties, he was getting by on odd jobs like cleaning lion cages and ushering at movie theaters. The bit parts he did manage to land were few and far between. Once, when funds were short, he took a role in an adult film to keep from living in a bus station. When Stallone landed bigger parts, it was because his drooping, stone-chiseled face made him the perfect heavy (Subway Thug No. 1. wasn’t an uncommon credit). By 1975, the 29-year-old actor was desperate for something bigger, so his agent sent him to the L.A. offices of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, two producers who had a standing deal with United Artists.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. When Winkler and Chartoff met Stallone, they didn’t see a movie star. Dejected, Stallone had his hand on the doorknob when he turned and made one last pitch. “You know,” he said, “I also write.”

The script Stallone turned in was an underdog tale, the story of Rocky, a streetwise palooka who gets an unlikely opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. But the story of how the film itself got made is even more improbable.

Earlier that same year, a boxer named Chuck Wepner had silenced the world. Pitted 40:1 against the heavily favored Muhammad Ali, Wepner landed a blow that knocked Ali down. Though Ali ultimately knocked out Wepner in the 15th round, Stallone was riveted by those moments in which it seemed like Wepner stood a chance. When he sat down to write a screenplay, it took him just three days to dash it off.

Stallone centered his story around Rocky Balboa, a club boxer plucked from obscurity and eager to go the distance. But Rocky would have the odds stacked against him. Even his trainer, a salty old cynic named Mickey, would write him off—until a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight against brash champion (and Ali stand-in) Apollo Creed arises.

To ground his story, Stallone drummed up a love interest for Rocky: Adrian, a shy pet store employee. The unlikely romance allowed the film to become as much a character study as a genre slugfest. But when Stallone’s wife, Sasha, read an early draft, she pushed him to sand down his hero’s rough edges even more. In the rewrites, Rocky, who had started out as a violent thug, emerged as a gentle and deceptively wise soul who, in the actor’s words, “was good-natured, even though nature had never been good to him.”

Impressed by the story’s heart, Winkler and Chartoff agreed to produce the film with United Artists, which gave them creative freedom for any picture budgeted under $1.5 million. But the studio balked. A boxing picture and all its trappings—extras, location, and arena shooting—just couldn’t be made for so little money. And with a nobody in the lead role, the flick seemed doomed to box office failure. Chartoff and Winkler countered by offering to make the movie for less than a million, promising to cover any overages out of pocket, and the producers sent the studio a print of Stallone’s recent independent film, The Lords of Flatbush, to seal the deal. With no one in the screening room to recognize him, the executives assumed handsome costar Perry King was the young nobody who had written the script.

Fine, they said. Go make your boxing movie.

The small budget meant that the production team had to get creative. Interiors were shot in L.A., since a full 28-day shoot in Philadelphia was too pricey. Instead, the team spent less than a week on location, quietly shooting exteriors using a nonunion crew. Driving around in a nondescript van, director John Avildsen would spot an interesting locale—a portside ship, a food market—and usher Stallone out to jog, sometimes for miles, while he rolled film. It wasn’t long before the actor gave up smoking.

The slim budget was evident everywhere. Stallone’s wardrobe was plucked from his own closet. His wife worked as the set photographer. But it was more than that— the movie’s finances also meant that the director had to be choosy about how many shots to film. A crucial scene where Rocky confesses his fears about the fight to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) was almost cut before Stallone begged the producers to give him just one take. The scene became the film’s emotional spine.

When the director proposed shooting a date between Rocky and Adrian at an ice rink, the producers laughed. A rink full of extras, combined with the costs of filming all the takes, seemed risky. But when Stallone convinced them of the scene’s worth, they wrote around it. In the movie, Rocky pays off a manager to let the duo skate in an empty rink. The result was easier to shoot and made for a beautiful metaphor: a clumsy dance between two misfits, each holding the other up.

But improvisation wasn’t always an option. For Rocky’s climactic bout with Creed, Stallone and actor Carl Weathers rehearsed five hours a day for a week. Though both were incredible physical specimens, neither had ever boxed and their earliest attempts were exhausting. (Ironically, only Burt Young, cast as Rocky’s sad-sack pal Paulie, had any actual ring experience: He was 14–0 as a pro.) When the director saw their first sparring efforts, he told Stallone to go home and write out the beats. Stallone returned with 14 pages of lefts, rights, counters, and hooks, all delivered using camera-friendly gloves too small to be legal in a real prizefight. As they practiced, Avildsen circled them with an 8mm camera, recording them to point out their weaknesses. He even zoomed in on Stallone’s waistline to remind him he needed to shape up.

Studying all that footage paid off. The fight was shot in front of 4,000 restless extras, corralled with the promise of a free chicken dinner. In the original ending, Rocky walks off with Adrian backstage. But composer Bill Conti’s score was so soaring that the director decided to reshoot the finale, despite having run out of funds. The producers paid for the overage themselves, allowing for the unforgettable final scene: Rocky in the ring, with Adrian fighting through the crowd to reach him, her hat pulled off by a crew member using fishing wire. The image freezes with Rocky embracing her— stopping at what Stallone later called the pinnacle of Rocky’s life. It was the perfect crescendo to an emotional journey—not only for Rocky, but for his alter ego.

The parallels between the actor’s story and Rocky’s were not lost on United Artists’ marketing strategist, Gabe Sumner. A clever publicist, Sumner knew he had quite the task in front of him: selling an old-fashioned boxing movie starring a nobody. Rocky’s competition at the box office didn’t make it any easier. Late 1976 was filled with blockbusters, and Stallone’s hero had to battle with King Kong, a new Dirty Harry sequel, and Carrie for ticket sales.

To compete, Sumner turned up the volume on Stallone’s shaggy-dog story. He sold the narrative about Stallone, a self-made actor-writer who had scraped and clawed his way to the top, as irresistibly American. And he bent the facts a little, too. In Sumner’s version, studio execs offered Stallone hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the script if they could cast a bankable movie star in the role. The impoverished actor, despite having a pregnant wife and just $106 in the bank, stood his ground. He hitchhiked to auditions. He had to sell his dog. But Stallone wasn’t a sellout, and this was his one chance to break through. The truth, Sumner later admitted, was that the studio had never met Stallone. None of it mattered, though—this was Madison Avenue mythmaking at its best.

The marketing strategy struck a chord. The actor’s tale so perfectly mirrored his onscreen role that the film received significant attention from both the media and audiences. And as word of mouth spread, Rocky became the highest-grossing picture of 1976, earning more than $117 million at the box office (the average ticket price at the time was just over $2). Audiences were equally captivated by the soundtrack. “Gonna Fly Now,” Conti’s trumpet-heavy theme, which accompanied Rocky’s training montage, moved more than 500,000 units.

Though some critics, including The New York Times’ reviewer, panned the flick for its sentimentality, most media embraced it. "Rocky KOs Hollywood," crowed a Newsweek cover. The Academy agreed. At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky became the first sports film to win Best Picture, beating out heavy hitters Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin wrote Stallone congratulatory letters. He became a bona fide movie star, anointed by two Hollywood legends who had built their careers making heroes of the common man.

Today, Rocky's boxing trunks hang in the Smithsonian. Wedding ceremonies have been held at his statue near Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Fans still run up the adjacent steps, mimicking his sprint to glory. As for Stallone, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, making him the only actor ever to receive the honor. In his vision of a gentle slugger searching for an opportunity to shine despite the longest odds, Stallone crafted a story that continues to resonate with millions of moviegoers: It’s the American dream played out at 24 frames per second.

When Sumner’s publicity exaggerations were discovered in 2006, few seemed to care. Perhaps that’s because as a character, Rocky did more than go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed. At a time when Taxi Driver’s sociopathic antihero Travis Bickle preyed on audience fears and Network played to the bleak pessimism of a struggling nation, Rocky reminded the country what it means to hope. As Sylvester Stallone once said, “If I say it, you won’t believe it. But when Rocky said it, it was the truth.”

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