It Was a Pleasure Just to Watch Carl Weathers Move
Carl Weathers’ physicality was so intense that when he ran, jumped, or fought, the borders of the screen seemed to tremble. The pleasure he took in performing was infectious, whether he was throwing body-blows as heavyweight champ Apollo Creed opposite Sylvester Stallone in the first four Rocky movies, clinging to the roof of a careening taxicab in Action Jackson, incinerating acres of Central American jungle in the sci-fi thriller Predator, or playing himself on Arrested Development as a man so miserly that he buys all his cars at police auctions, volunteers to get bumped from flights to collect refund vouchers, and never throws out leftovers. (If you have even a shred of meat, he advises his student Tobias Fünke, “Baby, you got a stew goin’!”)
Weathers’ story, like that of so many Black actors, is unfortunately a familiar one: he did everything that white action stars of the same era did, just as well and arguably better, but never got the same opportunities or reaped comparable rewards. But he survived and persevered, branching out into directing (including episodes of Silk Stalkings and The Mandalorian, on which he played ex-magistrate turned bounty hunter Greef Karga) and purely comedic roles (including the golf pro Chubbs in the Adam Sandler hit Happy Gilmore) that showcased his stopwatch timing.
He was a day laborer’s son who was born and raised in New Orleans. Forged by American college and pro football, he was an athlete turned actor in the mold of many such film performers, including two Burts, Reynolds and Lancaster (the former was also a football player, the latter a trapeze artist and acrobat). (Weathers had a supporting role in the Reynolds football picture Semi-Tough.) Well into his seventies, he was a regular sight at his local gym, working out with his pal Dolph Lundgren or riding a treadmill for hours while reading a newspaper from first page to last. Weathers had a black belt in Shotokan karate and became an avid golfer. He got his first girlfriend through football, he said, and hoped to make it to the pros and stay there. It didn’t happen (he went undrafted in 1970, right after college, and only briefly played with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent). But it was for the best, because he’d always possessed an instinct for creative expression that was not valued by his peers growing up.
“It was not a happy time,” Weathers told The Washington Post in a 1979 profile. “In fact, when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I remember it as a perfectly miserable time. I think I was consciously trying to escape from a very early age. In the streets they’ll kill you, literally. It was my curse to be a sensitive kid. Certain things I was drawn to — like doing a little acting or singing in the choir — had no credibility on the street. And I was too ignorant and intimated to try to explain why they seemed valuable to me.”
It would prove to be a pleasure just to watch Weathers move, whether he was taking a gun away from a minor thug in the intriguingly nasty 1992 exploitation picture Hurricane Smith or making you believe that after his Predator character’s gun-arm was blasted off by an extraterrestrial’s raygun, his trigger finger would remain clenched and the weapon would continue firing (a shot that Arrested Development re-used to great comedic effect, pairing it with Tobias’ dialogue about Weathers’ acting). However genial and upbeat he was on sets (everyone seemed to adore him) the actor’s wattage was so bright it practically burned a hole in the screen. Weathers ultimately became so beloved, via the fan convention circuit as well as his acting and filmmaking, that he arguably finished his career in the 2020s more famous than he’d been in at the previous peak of his fame in the mid-1980s, when the Rocky franchise shifted its Hero’s Journey.
The heart of the original Rocky’s publicity campaign conflated the Cinderella-like story of Philadelphia brawler Rocky Balboa (modeled on Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne bleeder” who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1974) with that of the man who created him. Stallone turned down a million-dollar offer to buy the first Rocky script for an established actor to star in because he’d written the role to show his range and get out of playing hoodlums and doing porn. It was a bet on his own talent that paid off beyond anyone’s expectations. Pushing against the downbeat trends of American cinema in the ‘70s, and channeling white ethnic anxiety after the civil rights movement (Apollo started out as a reactionary caricature of Muhammad Ali, losing the lived experience of racism but keeping the mouthiness), Rocky became a global megahit that let Stallone write, direct, produce and star in many more films and franchises.
No such boost for Weathers. For almost a decade after the original Rocky, Weathers had to be content with playing Apollo Creed again and again, despite being a vastly superior athlete and a more innately charismatic performer than Stallone. Apollo was a villain in the first Rocky film, a more nuanced antagonist in the second, a best friend and guru in the third, and a pretext for revenge and the expiation of guilt in the fourth. But Apollo was always in the margins of the saga, even though Black fighters were at the center of the sport in reality, and had been for decades. One of Roger Ebert’s most insightful bits of feature writing was his Chicago Sun-Times piece about watching Rocky II with Ali. The champ praised Rocky and its sequel’s psychological insights into a boxer’s mind and heart, but ridiculed their depiction of training and fighting, and generally treated the franchise’s popularity with the world-weary resignation of an iconic Black boxer whose own amazing story was not represented on film until Ali played himself in 1977’s The Greatest, released a year after Rocky.
“For the black man to come out superior would be against America’s teachings,” Ali told Ebert. “I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them.”
Stallone’s writing of Apollo became more nuanced as the series stretched on, which Stallone has said was a direct result of getting to know Weathers and appreciating his subtlety. Apollo transformed from heel to ally in Rocky III (to annihilate Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, a Mohawked, up-from-the-streets monstrosity who epitomized Reagan-era fears of a Black underclass), only to get his brains pulped in Rocky IV, in large part because he couldn’t stand being away from the spotlight that fed his ego. By then, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael had singled out Weathers as the secret MVP of the series, writing that he gave “a likable, unaffected performance” in Rocky III and possessed “a physique that makes Rocky look like a lump.”
The character didn’t grow and improve in the way that Rocky did, and he was never “likable” in the same easy-to-digest manner. But the tragedy of the Apollo’s exit — martyred at the hands of glowering Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Lundgren) in a Cold War perversion of Joe Louis’ matchup with German champ Max Schmeling — was thrilling in a more primordial way, like a comic book answer to Shakespeare or the Greeks. Weathers’ most powerful reactive closeup in the series comes near the end of the fight in Rocky IV, when his wife cries out from the stands, realizing that her husband is overmatched, and Apollo stares back at her helplessly, a prisoner of his neediness and machismo. The same impulses that drove him to scale the heights of his profession are what doomed him.
He may not have been the main character of the Rocky films, but he was the star, illuminating the series even after he’d ceased to be a part of it. Thirty years after Apollo’s death came Creed, the first of three sequels starring Michael B. Jordan as Apollo’s son Adonis “Donnie” Creed. Donnie is an extension of Apollo and Rocky but also perhaps an empathetic sketch of Carl Weathers, the bruiser who was educated and ambitious and curious about the world but had to hide it from people he grew up with. Adonis seems as much of a reincarnation and reinvention of Apollo by way of Weathers as a genetic successor — the alternate universe Apollo that we might’ve gotten way back when, in a country that was willing to put a Black fighter at the center of a franchise.
Reviewing the original Creed, Odie Henderson wrote about how director Ryan Coogler got “an achingly beautiful and subtle commentary out of brief shots of young, brown faces looking at and admiring Donnie as he trains. Like Rocky, Donnie may be a hero for all races, but these shots of young Black children add an extra dimension by showing us rare instances of African-American admiration of a hero onscreen.” Donnie’s dad never got those kinds of adoring closeups, except very briefly during the rematch between Rocky and Apollo — and there, the attention was more about the stakes for both characters than a larger sense of empowerment. The Creed movies give Apollo the adoration he craved after that first almost-defeat by Rocky, and that he probably earned outright when he was younger, before the Italian Stallion entered his life and the story of the franchise officially began.
The inspirational peaks of the first Creed are its training montages, as in the other Rocky pictures; but the most haunting moment of characterization is fleeting and eerily quiet: a battered Donnie turns on a wall projector in his apartment, calls up video of one one of his dad’s fights on YouTube, and shadow-boxes with him, briefly bringing Apollo back to life, affirming him as the star of the series, and dramatizing Donnie’s anxiety about living up to the achievements of the dad he never knew. Much of Creed and its first sequel Creed II (which brings back Drago and gives him a boxer son who fights Donny twice) amounts to a reapportionment of pop culture glory for Weathers and a reclamation of Apollo’s importance not just to the series as a whole, but to generations of moviegoers who wanted more representation than Hollywood was willing to provide. (The third Creed omitted Donnie’s coach and “unc” Rocky Balboa entirely, achieving narrative autonomy for the Creed name and annoying Stallone.)
Part of what makes Creed so touching and unexpected is how it certifies Rocky’s matches with Apollo as fabulous flukes. Coogler even gives the Philly palooka stray bits of dialogue confirming that he always knew Apollo was the superior athlete. The final scene of Rocky III shows Rocky and Apollo slipping into a gym late at night to have an off-the-books third fight to determine who the heavyweight champion really is. The outcome isn’t shown, even though the freeze-frame of the boxers was turned into a LeRoy Neiman painting. But 35 years later, when Donnie asks Rocky who won, Rocky replies, simply, “he did.”
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