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After 40 years, Philly icon Rocky still battling for respect

In the great, fighting city of Philadelphia, our biggest cultural icon might just be a droopy-eyed knuckle-dragger with a mean uppercut and a heart full of gravy.

Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" was released 40 years ago, on Nov. 21, 1976.
Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" was released 40 years ago, on Nov. 21, 1976.Read moreho

In the great, fighting city of Philadelphia, our biggest cultural icon might just be a droopy-eyed knuckle-dragger with a mean uppercut and a heart full of gravy.

This lug worked as a legbreaker for the mob and smoked cigarettes after bouts - but on any given day, you'll find shot glasses with the champ's likeness superimposed onto the Liberty Bell in Old City gift shops, next to Benjamin Franklin and Pope Francis.

And he's not real. At least literally.

This weekend Philly's cinematic slugger officially enters middle age. Rocky was released 40 years ago, on Nov. 21, 1976, and for better or worse, no film, artist, musician, or author is more woven into this city's fabric.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Wednesday afternoon, the self-proclaimed "cultural heart" of the city, where world masterpieces abound, a man from Spain wearing gray sweats with red, white and blue boxing trunks over them sprinted up the stairs and raised his fists in the air while a woman filmed him.

Asked to comment, the man simply repeated "Rocky" and threw a few jabs.

"This is all day, every day. Rocky Balboa," said Joe Hinton, a lifelong resident who was selling Rocky shirts on the steps for $20. "That movie caught Philadelphia and didn't let go."

In Rocky, Jodi Letizia played Marie, the young girl who says "Screw you, Creepo," after the boxer played by the film's star and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone lectures her about having a garbage mouth and getting a bad reputation.

"Filming that movie felt like a home movie to me, but with nicer cameras," she recalled this week. "It felt like home."

The script called for stronger language, she said, but her dad, Joe Letizia from 22nd and Wolf, wouldn't have it and told director John G. Avildsen it had to be toned down.

"My father was mortified, so when I went to the audition he said 'You're going to say, go fly a kite,' " Letizia recalled.

Rocky was very much the underdog when it won best picture at the 49th Academy Awards against heavyweights such as Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President's Men. Much of Hollywood balked. Still, only Taxi Driver of those movies is ranked higher today on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.

"It's a thing of beauty," said Glen Macnow, a host on 94.1 WIP who crowned Rocky No. 1 in The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies. "I know it's a cliché, the hardworking underdog, but no movie did it better than Rocky."

While Rocky and the subsequent sequels became international sensations, Philly has grappled with what the character said about the city and all its varied neighborhoods and tastes. Often, the debates end in a begrudging draw between the wine-and-cheese crowd and the shot-and-beer folks, an acceptance that Rocky is part of who we are.

"It's not who we all are," Mayor Kenney said Thursday morning on Chestnut Street. "It's the underdog story, though, and that's how we like to dress ourselves. I never not watch when it's on."

Authors have pointed out that Rocky and its bookend in the series, Creed, captured poverty and the scraping-by economy better than most films.

Writer Joe Queenan, a native son, feels the Rocky series had serious issues with race early on, most notably the absence of any black people, except for the antagonists, Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.

"Philly is a black city," he said. "Everyone who's from there knew that."

In a 2007 essay for the Guardian, Queenan lamented that Rocky was the city's chosen son, when a real-life underdog and altogether tough-as-a-truck boxer, former actual heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, didn't yet have a statue in the city. He described Rocky as "cheerfully moronic" with an "infantile racism."

Elected officials, art critics, and editorial writers fought over the permanent home of the Rocky statue made for the third installment of the franchise. Was it art or bronzed junk, a tale of two cities with distinctly different newspapers to cater to the varied strata?

In 1990, former Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez said the statue atop the art museum stairs was a "public embarrassment" and belonged at the Spectrum, where Rocky's fight took place. Six years later, the Daily News said the statue was "too great a treasure" to stand outside a sports complex.

A Kensington cabdriver - seriously - started a petition to bring the statue back to the museum in 1982 and organized a rally that drew 1,000 people. A little girl stood outside a Phillies game at the time and got 2,000 signatures on a petition.

Today the statue sits at the base of the museum, off to the side, a compromise that always draws a crowd.

"I mean, come on, it's the Italian Stallion," tourist Bruno Iaconis of Italy said Wednesday after getting his picture taken next to the statue.

Told the city finally did get its Frazier statue last year, Queenan responded "Whatever it is, it should be bigger." His views have mellowed a bit and he admits the Rocky fantasy resonates deeply in his hometown.

"Philly is a tough, tough city," he said. "I tell people that all the time."

One of Philadelphia's toughest, Bernard Hopkins, was also an underdog, a man who found boxing in prison and never looked back. Hopkins, a former middleweight and light heavyweight champion, was in Camden Thursday afternoon, handing out hundreds of frozen turkeys - curling a few to get in some biceps training.

Hopkins isn't a brawler like Rocky was and that's why he's fighting again Dec. 17 at the age of 51. Still, he loves the movies for the message.

"As a professional boxer, you can't compare Rocky movies to boxing, but what it does is show this blue-collar city, the hardworking people," Hopkins said. "Any blue-collar city, anyone who had to work and not give up and didn't have the most talent can relate to it. It's about someone who became someone in spite of everything. Like, you don't have to have a Harvard degree to be successful. That's a good quote."

Philly appreciates effort, a toothless grin or a gritty little shooting guard who isn't afraid to cry. If our heroes drop an f-bomb, so be it. If they're narcissistic weirdos but play with a broken leg in the Super Bowl, all is forgiven. They have to hustle on every play. They can't short-arm a pass, no matter what's coming across the middle to crush them.

Rocky had a puncher's chance to beat Apollo Creed, but he didn't think he could. He tried and lost with pride and that will never get old, no matter how much the city and societal norms have changed since 1976.

"Four decades later, I believe there's an acceptance. I think most Philadelphians sort of smile when they think of Rocky," said Charles Croce, executive director of the Philadelphia History Museum. "It is part of the culture here in the same way cheesesteaks and pretzels are."

Croce said the museum has a pair of Frazier's gloves on display and rightly so, but visitors still ask about Rocky. A few blocks away, in the Bourse building, the champ is everywhere.

"Rocky is worldwide," said Kadeem Gueye, who was born in Senegal, raised in Italy, and now mans a gift shop in the Bourse food court. "I watched him as a boy in Italy and now I'm here in Philly too. It's unbelievable."