Culture + Style

‘Rocky’ Director John G. Avildsen on the ‘Heart and Soul’ of Philadelphia

If you’ve seen a “Rocky” movie, you’re pretty familiar with the stairs that lead up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you’ve been there, you most likely have a photo of yourself running up those stairs or at least standing in a victory pose in front of the bronze statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa at the base of those 72 steps.

“People from all around the world come and run up the stairs,” says John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of “Rocky,” in Discover America’s web series “United States of America Through Film,” in which 12 filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Andrew Davis, Nick Stoller, David Frankel and YouTuber Casey Neistat explore how New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami played key backdrops in their films and starring roles in cinema.

In the video, Avildsen recalls how Steadicam inventor and Philly native Garrett Brown helped inspire the use of the stairs after test footage of the groundbreaking camera system showed Brown’s girlfriend running up the steps, in 1975.

Philadelphia was the heart and soul of the story in lots of ways because that's where Rocky came from.

John G Avildsen

“I said, ‘Wow, I know where this is going to go,'” Avildsen says. “It was just as Sylvester wrote it.”

Stallone, who was nominated for an Oscar for writing “Rocky,” has been a fixture of the franchise ever since and returns to play the Balboa character nearly 40 years later in “Creed,” a spinoff that revolves around the grandson of boxer Apollo Creed (from the first film). “Creed,” duking it out in theaters on Nov. 25, is the seventh film in the series, and again takes place in Philadelphia.

It only took two scenes in “Rocky,” — during a training montage — to make Philly’s steps so iconic in 1976. The bronze statue of Balboa was created for “Rocky III” and erected in front of the museum in 1982, shortly before the release of the film. It originally had been placed at the top of the stairs for the movie, and moved to the base after the production. A second statue is in the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum.

“Philadelphia was the heart and soul of the story in lots of ways because that’s where Rocky came from,” says Avildsen, who also directed “The Karate Kid” and “The Power of One.” “It was just the right size, just the right look, just the right everything. I couldn’t have asked for a better location.”