Movies, pro boxer Chuck Wepner, and Philadelphia have a checkered history.
Philadelphia is where Sylvester Stallone made Rocky, the movie inspired by Wepner’s 15-round, go-the-distance fight with Muhammad Ali in 1975, but it’s also the site of a less-heralded episode featuring Wepner and the Rocky franchise.
After the film was released, won the Oscar in 1977, and became a cultural phenomenon, Wepner and Stallone became pals – in fact, Stallone offered him a part in Rocky II as a sparring partner. It could have been a big break for Wepner, but he was in the midst of a drug and booze binge and drove all night from North Jersey for his audition with Stallone at a Center City hotel.
“That’s exactly the way it was,” said Wepner. “I should have taken more time, should have studied the script. Stallone did everything he was supposed do, and if I would have done better, maybe I would have gotten the part.”
He wasn’t ready, and he blew it – a sequence of events depicted with unblinking honesty in the new movie Chuck, based on Wepner’s colorful and ultimately inspiring life story.
Chuck – which opens here Friday – ends on an upbeat note. The tenacity that helped Wepner succeed in the ring allows him to outlast the mistakes of his life. Still, the movie does not skip unflattering details.
“I like the movie a lot. You know, it tells the truth. I was living through a tough stretch at that point. I did a lot of partying. It was a wild time in my life. But I’ve been straight and clean for 30 years now. I can tell you, it’s a better way to live,” said Wepner, 78, who will be in Philadelphia to host a private screening Thursday, along with producer (and Philadelphia native) Mike Tollin.
Chuck touches upon the relationship between Stallone and Wepner, who later sued Stallone over parallels between his life and that of the fictional Rocky Balboa. But that was lawyer stuff – they are still friendly, and Stallone reviewed and approved the script for Chuck.
“He was very cool with it,” Wepner said, “saw the script, and his feeling is that we portrayed him true to life.”
Wepner was even closer with Ali, and was among those who attended the champion’s funeral in June in Kentucky. He got to know Ali well in the days leading up to their Cleveland title bout, during which Wepner earned the champion’s respect.
“Like he said after the fight, ‘I wouldn’t want to fight that Chuck Wepner in an alley.’ I mean, what I tried to do was rough him up. I couldn’t outbox him, he was so great. I remember that as a great time. He was a great man, and I feel very sad about his passing.”
The two made several appearances together over the years, and even cooperated on a four-day tour, staging a comic version of their fight.
Wepner said that Chuck has capture his essence as a fighter and that star Liev Schreiber was perfect in the role.