Fame can be a fickle thing ― the highs are high and the lows are low. No one knows that more than ‘70s prizefighter Chuck Wepner, whose career is long rumored to be the inspiration behind Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky.”
Wepner’s personal story is now featured in Philippe Falardeau’s new biopic “Chuck,” starring Liev Schreiber as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” who went almost 15 rounds with world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in 1975. The movie follows Wepner through his ups ― his success after the Ali fight ― and downs ― getting thrown in jail for drug possession ― while telling the tale of his doomed marriage to first wife, Phyllis (played by Elisabeth Moss), and eventual romance with his current wife, Linda (Naomi Watts).
The film, which hits theaters Friday, does a fine job entertaining the audience while presenting Wepner’s various tribulations, but it’s Schreiber who stands out amid the madness. The actor is pretty darn convincing as the New Jersey-bred boxer, even impressing the source himself.
“We turned down four scripts and four different actors before [we landed on this version,] and when they told me that Liev Schreiber was going to play the part, I was thrilled,” Wepner told HuffPost in a sit-down interview. “I mean, this guy is a legitimate superstar. I love him in the part for a nomination because he played it great, and Elisabeth [Moss], too. She was drop-dead great as my other wife.”
“That’s a really nice thing to say. There are a lot worse things he could’ve said!” Schreiber joked of Wepner’s comment to HuffPost, adding of award murmurs, “I get excited, but self-consciously excited. But then, I do everything pretty self-consciously.”
For Schreiber, the goal is never really to win awards, although it’s always nice to be considered among his esteemed colleagues. He credits his co-stars with helping him reach a level of success with this project, specifically calling his on-screen partners Moss and Watts “extraordinary.”
“Both of them were so good in this movie. That was huge [working with them],” he said of his female co-stars, one of whom is his real-life ex. “Also, Michael Rapaport does a really gorgeous performance as Chuck’s brother. Jim Gaffigan, as well. All the actors in this. It’s something too about independent films. When you’re pressed for time and money, there’s a certain kind of resourcefulness that tends to pop up, and we had that going on this film.”
With “Chuck,” the 49-year-old actor really wants viewers to walk away feeling more aware about the effects of fame rather than boxing history in general.
“I never really thought of this as a sports movie. The best I could describe it is sort of a cautionary tale about fame and celebrity that is surprisingly enjoyable, which fame and celebrity often is,” Schreiber told us.
The actor himself has dealt with the Hollywood spotlight, being in a high-profile relationship with Watts, with whom he separated in September 2016 after 11 years together. They have two sons, Sasha, 9, and Samuel, 8.
“My kids don’t have any context for being swarmed in the streets and photographed, and people wanting to stop us and take pictures all the time. And it made me a little concerned about their expectations about fame and celebrity,” Schreiber said. “As I hear young people today talking about their aspirations to ‘blow up’ or become famous, it just felt important to me to add a counterpoint to that argument, which is to say, ‘It’s not everything you think it is.’ In fact, it’s a lot more precarious and dangerous existence than I think most people are aware of.”
That’s not to say Schreiber doesn’t enjoy positive reviews or people coming up to tell him they love “X-Men” or “Ray Donovan.”
“That feels terrific,” he admitted. “The problem, and I think ‘Chuck’ does a really good job articulating this, is that that feels so good that you could actually start to live your life for it. I think it’s important to have people close to you who know you and have always known you and will always know you so that you remember who you were before that film happened.”
He continued, “There are very few jobs that are deeply connected to personality and character ― I guess prizefighter is one of them, too. There’s some projection of the audience’s own aspirational stuff that is such a huge responsibility ― for professional athletes, musicians and actors, especially ― that you have to be careful to keep yourself separate from it, to some extent.”
“Fame can corrupt you and knock you down,” Wepner, who was arrested in 1985 on a drug charge, added. “There I was, on the top of the world, everything going good, and I got into [the wrong stuff]. I was a party animal and I was stupid and I got myself involved in something I shouldn’t have been in. But I fought my way out and I got Linda — she didn’t drink or do anything like that ― and I felt she was the right girl for me. She’s so terrific, I’m lucky and I’m here now.”
In order to make the film, producers had to reach out to another man who knows a thing or two about being famous: Sylvester Stallone. In “Chuck,” the filmmaker and actor is portrayed by Morgan Spector, in scenes where Stallone and Wepner meet to discuss the success of “Rocky” and creation of “Rocky II.”
“We did very well by him in the movie,” Wepner told HuffPost. “I thought we were very good to him, and deservedly so. He took us to Bulgaria to his studios and let us use his boxing ring for the filming of the Ali fight, because they wanted a great deal of money to shoot the fight in America — you had to pay the foundation a lot of money. Stallone took us over there — we did it for $350,000 instead of $2 million, five days, in and out ― and we got all the shots done. He was great to us.”
Wepner did sue Stallone in 2003 for frequently referencing him as the living counterpart of the fictional Rocky Balboa, saying Stallone usurped his “right of publicity.” But they settled the suit for undisclosed terms in 2006.
“I’ve been a fan of Sylvester Stallone for years,” Wepner continued. “Even though we went to court and I sued him, that was just business. And big deal — he’s got insurance companies and everything else. I think he’s still got a few bucks!”
“If you’re Chuck, it’s hard to not see ‘Rocky 2’ [and think it’s about you],” Schreiber said. “Rocky’s sparring partner is ‘Ching Weber’ and his name is Chuck Wepner. And then Rocky fights a professional wrestler, Hulk Hogan, and Chuck fought Andre the Giant. If you’re Chuck, it’s hard to not go, ‘Wait a minute?’”
If you’re interested to know more about Wepner’s side of the story, “Chuck” hits theaters in limited release Friday.