In any form of theatre, every hero needs the perfect villain. The hero, in performance theory, can only be heralded if the odds he overcomes are odds that the audience wants to see overcome in the first place. With that, it’s postulated that the antagonist is just as important to the story, if not more so, than the protagonist. Superman has Lex Luthor, The Undertaker has Kane, and Tom Brady has Eli Manning. For a movie that in 1976 became the biggest underdog story in the history of Hollywood and made Sylvester Stallone one of the most instantly recognisable faces in the cinematic landscape, Rocky would not have been a success without Carl Weathers.
A struggling Bay-area linebacker, Weathers left football behind when he auditioned for the first Rocky film. In his audition, he asked director John Avildsen to get him a real actor to read lines with so that he could bounce off of them. This was said with Stallone in the room, doing the reading, prompting the two to workshop the scene and directly leading to one of the most famous acting performances of all time for Stallone. Yet, Stallone noted the temperament of Apollo was exactly what Weathers brought to the table when he said that: a man who can carry himself with poise and dignity while still finding a way to instil fear and anxiety as he casually insults you. Weathers didn’t mean anything harmful, rather spoke his mind, something Apollo’s character is written to be very good at. The decision ended up being pivotal in making Stallone the biggest action star of the next decade and a half as Weather’s performance in the Rocky films was the crucial ingredient to their success.
The first film presented Apollo as everything that Rocky isn’t. Weather’s portrayal of an arrogant yet classy and proficient champion was the perfect combination of likability and contemptuousness, making it so that people wanted to see Apollo Creed despite wanting to see him lose. The charm and charisma of a politician, however, is what made them flock back to the movies three years later despite Apollo squeezing out a decision victory in the first movie.
The first movie wasn’t about Rocky winning, rather Rocky proved that the bell can ring with Rocky still standing, allowing Rocky to know that he wasn’t just another bum from the neighbourhood. Yet, the film didn’t exactly venture into Apollo’s need to win, rather his need to put on a show. In the second movie, the script flips, forcing Apollo to win. As Apollo gave Rocky everything he had, it wasn’t enough. He won, but he didn’t beat him. Apollo was a killer that survived a fight. In the second instalment, Weathers performance rides a delicate line of insecurity and vulnerability, while still finding shrewd ways to maintain the disdain of the audience. Weathers variety in both his physical and emotional performance created an intense environment for the viewer to latch onto. Weathers performance perfectly encapsulated the feeling of losing the aura in the most public of fashion. You could feel the sincerity in the voice of a public figure that was rarely ever sincere, simmering beneath the surface with bitterness and anger while still attempting to maintain a face that’s calm and collected. The performance is nuanced, layered, and Weathers at his finest.
In the third and fourth movies, audiences that were clamouring to like the Creed character got their wish as a retired Creed became Rocky’s confidant in the wake of Mickey’s passing. It was a friendship built on mutual respect, a deeper friendship that only the two characters would be able to fully understand. For Creed, his character’s redemption is within the third instalment of the franchise. As Rocky wrestles with losing his edge against Clubber Lang in the same way that Creed struggled against Rocky, Creed gets Rocky back to the beginning mentality: the eye of the tiger. In IV, it’s his death that supplements the entire plot, giving Rocky a reason to fight Drago.
IV shows whether acting range in a film where otherwise the acting wasn’t particularly sound. As Apollo enters with pageantry and a James Brown serenade, the physical acting provided by Weathers is far different from the more demanding physical acting in the first three Rocky films. To intentionally dance poorly, yet still be convincing and commanding while not looking choreographed is a surprisingly arduous task, and one that Weathers had no issue pulling off exceptionally.
There are four movies with Apollo Creed. There are four distinct character arcs. Unlike the other supporting cast members whose roles are defined throughout, Apollo Creed was integral to all four movies in four specific ways. Weather’s performance hyped Rocky coming out of the initial screenings, drawing people to theatres. Fans were willing to pay money to see Apollo Creed finally collapse in Rocky II and support Rocky in Rocky III. His influence on one of the most successful motion picture trilogies of all time is oft-understated, but Rocky isn’t Best Picture without him.
The legacy of the character has outlived that of the other Rocky characters, so much so that a spinoff based on Creed’s lineage has solidified Michael B. Jordan as a box-office sensation. His charm, stature, his grit, his personality, and his perseverance led to a successful career in Hollywood beyond Rocky. His roles in Happy Gilmore and Predator are perhaps the most memorable, but Weathers had introduced himself to the new generation as Combat Carl in the Toy Story franchise and as Greef Karga in The Mandalorian.
“Ain’t it somethin’, Stallion? It’s crazy how people, they just care about you when you’re in that ring, and they care about you when you’re bleedin’, but once you step out of that ring it’s like you’re ancient history.”-Apollo in Rocky IV.
To Carl Weathers, we always cared about Apollo Creed and it’ll never be ancient history. Rocky is inherently a symbolic representation of American culture, representative of the underdog dream and a time capsule back to the 1970s. For that, Carl Weathers is a piece of American culture. Thank you for the entertainment.
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