‘Rocky’ Turns 40: We Talked to the Sculptor Behind the Famous Philly Statue

Washington, D.C., has the Lincoln Memorial. New York City has Lady Liberty. And Philadelphia has Rocky. In 1980, Sylvester Stallone commissioned the nearly 9-foot-tall bronze statue, made in his likeness, from sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg. And in 2006, it finally found a permanent home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a prime spot right near the famous “Rocky steps.” “The thousands and of people that go see that statute, wherever it’s at, go to see it for the story,” says Schomberg, who is based across the country in Evergreen, Colo. “I’d love to say they’re going to see it for the artwork — but they’re going to see it for the story.”

The story of Rocky is well known, of course. But the story behind the statue has its own dramatic twists and turns. It all started when Stallone, an avid art collector, bought two of Schomberg’s pieces— both boxing-related — at a gallery in Las Vegas. They kept in touch, and Stallone later tapped the sculptor to create a piece for Rocky III. Schomberg immortalized the Italian Stallion in bronze, wearing boxing shorts and posing with gloved hands in the air.

“[Stallone] wanted a figure of Rocky as a quintessential hero, which of course he was,” says Schomberg, who decided to create a classic Greek sculpture: Among other traits, the free-standing figure is expressionless (and, some might say, fearless). “He is perfect,” Schomberg says. “He is the victor, and he has overcome all odds.”

Of course, achieving perfection can be tricky, and Schomberg ran into a few challenges along the way. Realizing that he would have limited time with Stallone, the sculptor created a plaster mask of the actor’s face. He also produced a 28-inch wax model of the fighter in his victory pose. But when Stallone showed up at the artist’s studio in Colorado to see his likeness, he was trimmer than he had been in the previous Rocky movies — and he wanted the statue to reflect his new, svelte physique. “What I had created was more of a Rocky Marciano — a very famous heavyweight,” Schomberg says. “I had to take off about 30 pounds in about 30 minutes. It was pretty easy to do, because I had a large knife.”

The hard part came after the statue appeared as a prop in Rocky III. The 1982 film features a scene in which the fictional mayor of Philadelphia unveils it at the top of the museum steps in Rocky’s honor. And although Stallone offered to donate the bronze boxer to the museum after filming wrapped, the Philadelphia Art Commission declined the souvenir.

Eventually, the snubbed statue was placed outside the Spectrum, the famed Philly sports arena. But when Stallone returned to Philadelphia in 2005 to shoot Rocky Balboa, he became involved in an effort to move the statue back to the museum. Those opposed included members of the Philadelphia Art Commission who questioned whether a movie prop should be anywhere near a world-class art museum featuring works by the likes of Monet and Matisse. But in September of 2006, the commission voted to return the statue to the museum, where it still stands (not at the top of the steps, but at the bottom and off to the right).

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Now you can buy a replica of it at www.rockystatue.com — and many people have. A globe-trotting couple brought their Rocky to the Great Wall of China, and Schomberg has heard from military platoons that claim the statue as their mascot. Decades later, the statue inspires fighters of all types.

“This one fellow sent us a letter saying that he had been an ex-Golden Gloves boxer, and he had fallen on hard times. He got into drugs; his life spiraled to zero; and Rocky stimulated him to pick himself up,” Schomberg recalls. “Anybody who will spend the time to write me like that can send me a dollar a month. I don’t care. If that statue gives him that much encouragement, that is so heartwarming.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes clip about shooting in Philadelphia:

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