Episode 5: Casting Rocky in Bronze
We journey to the bright lights of Hollywood to meet Rocky’s original sculptor, A. Thomas Schomberg. Also, we glimpse at rare, behind-the-scenes photos of Stallone and the artist during the statue’s creation. Back in Philly, we visit a foundry and a life-size replica of the Statue of David near City Hall to understand how statues are created. Finally, we go behind the scenes on opening night as Rocky the Musical makes its hometown debut.
- Amerika Idol featuring Boris Staparac.
- The works of A. Thomas Schomberg.
- Rocky the Musical at the Walnut Street Theatre.
- Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
- A brief history of sculpture.
PAUL FARBER, HOST: Rocky began as an idea.
Since then, the story has exploded into a full-on phenomenon. There are so many iterations of Rocky: multiple movies and statues. Plus legos, video games — even a musical. From pop culture to geopolitics, Rocky’s impact is global.
AMERIKA IDOL: There is a dusty road that leads into a sleepy and poor farming village. Welcome to Zitiste. A town so small that you can’t find it on any map.
PF: That’s from a documentary called Amerika Idol, which tells the story of a
quiet little enclave in Eastern Europe and the towering statue at its town center.
What are we doing in Serbia? We’re here to understand the reach of the Rocky legend — and the seemingly endless forms it has taken. This remote Serbian village had been through years of conflict, flooding, and landslides.
The town needed a hero. NPR covered this story back in 2007.
DEBBIE ELLIOT, NPR NEWS: It turned to an American icon, Rocky Balboa. This is All Things Considered from NPR News.
PF: Half a world away, Serbians chose a fictional American boxer as their champion. It still stands today.
Boris Staparac is the sculptor who created the Serbian Rocky statue. He spoke to us through a translator.
BORIS STAPARAC (VIA TRANSLATOR): [Speaking in Serbian first] This symbolism is stronger than the piece itself.
PF: We wanted to understand: why didn’t the town want to honor someone local? Someone real? When they needed inspiration, why did they make their own version of the Rocky statue?
BS: [Speaking in Serbian first] The fight, then, is the heart of the matter: all of us common people are connected in our fight for survival.
PF: Boris recognizes that there’s a spirit to the famous fighter that transcends the movies, and even the original statue — and that all of the replicas try to capture. Fifteen years after he molded his own Rocky, Boris said he still feels its meaning.
BS: [Speaking in Serbian first] Rocky never did help me through the harder moments of this life, but the fight did. Believe me, I lived through a broken back and I stood again. I did not remain on my back, nor crawling. I rose again after even the hardest of falls. This is why Rocky is a symbol around which we ordinary people will long gather. Rocky has raised our fists toward victory. Over whom? Over life itself.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber.
Today we’re going to try to understand why Rocky has proliferated like this. We’ll introduce you to some of the more curious forms that the fighter has taken in the last half century. And explore our ancient relationship with sculpture.
But first, there’s someone you have to meet. Besides Stallone, the most important person in bringing the Rocky statue to life.
A. THOMAS SCHOMBERG: Good to see you.
PF: So nice to see you. And do you go by Thomas or Tom?
ATS: Tom. Tom, Tom, Tom. For sure. That’s the good time. But anyway, yeah, this is our little…
PF: Look at this view.
A. Thomas Schomberg. The sculptor who created the original Rocky statue. He and his wife Cynthia invited me to lunch at their Palm Springs home, to hear the story of how a monument to a mythical boxer came to be.
It all started with a pitch.
CYNTHIA SCHOMBERG: So I was able to find out Sylvester Stallone’s contact information. Back in those days, it was much easier, before emails and those things. And I was able to get a direct contact with him. And I’m not sure whether it was Tom or I called him at this point now. This is so many years ago.
PF: Back in the ‘70s, Cynthia and Tom reached out to Stallone personally. He had already bought one of Tom’s sculptures. They wanted to see if he would also support a memorial to a group of boxers killed in a plane crash.
It didn’t go as planned.
CS: And basically he was not interested in participating in this.
ATS: In helping us fund it.
PF: But Stallone had a counter-offer.
CS: But he said, I have another idea. Will you come to Hollywood? So we flew out to Hollywood. I even think he flew us out to Hollywood, to his studio out there. And that was the beginning of Rocky.
PF: Tom set out to make the first-ever bronze likeness of Rocky Balboa. To do it, he’d have to get a cast of Stallone’s actual face. The body would be shaped by hand.
ATS: I did the life mask, and we took scores and scores of photographs. This, this.
PF: You’re putting your arm up in various poses.
ATS: I’m putting my arms up in various gestures. But anyway. And he had a full time trainer. He really was in incredible shape.
ROCKY MOVIE: He’s too tough. He’s too strong.
PF: He pored over the photographs and the Rocky films, and found the perfect moment to model the statue after. Getting the right pose took precision. It had to be both triumphant and vulnerable.
ATS: When it came right down to it, there was one scene that I worked from very carefully.
In Rocky I when he runs up the steps, he gets to the top of the steps and he’s dancing. And then all of a sudden he goes, “Ding!” Like so, with the arms up. And I knew somehow that would be more important than anything else.
PF: The statue took over a year to make. Once it was up, people connected with it right away. In fact, they started to copy it.
CS: The public loved it. And people from all over the world were coming to see it, even at the Spectrum. And they still were going by, taking their photos and taking off. And just hearing the construction people complain about it, you know, we looked at each other and said, “Oh, my gosh.”
When the Internet started, other people from different, around the world, making copies, illegal copies and small replicas of the statue and selling them on eBay. And this was all new to us. We said, “Holy cow.”
PF: From the very beginning, Tom could feel the weight of this project. It wasn’t just a statue of a celebrity meant to market a movie. It was a monument to a character who provides inspiration to countless people. A representation of the underdog spirit. The same spirit that Boris, the Serbian sculptor, and others have tried to capture in the many replicas.
ATS: I think the important thing was, you know, I was trying to create as much as anything Rocky Balboa, not just Sly Stallone. I really wanted this figure who was representing so many people and, you know, it just, it became more of a symbol at that stage.
PF: They must have done something right. Tom and Cynthia still get letters from people around the world about what the statue means to them.
CS: The inspiration is that moment that we can overcome our fear, overcome all obstacles. And somehow Tom was able to capture that with that look and with that pose. And to identify with people around the world that this is what this statue and this whole theme is all about.
PF: Something magical happened once Tom captured the spirit of Rocky. The relationship between the statue and its visitors took on a life of its own.
Now, people pose next to it all the time. And when they reach out to touch it, there’s this strange alchemy going on. We change the monument, and the monument changes us.
Like over time, if I go and you go to the Rocky statue and we take our pose, what happens to the patina that gets rubbed off? Is it, like, absorbed into our skin?
ATS: A little bit.
PF: We take a little bit of the statue with us?
ATS: That’s right. You know, I think right now there’s probably very little, but there’ll be an oxide, you know, especially where it’s pretty bare. There’ll be a little oxide, which is the part of nature and the environment patina-ing the piece.
PF: So if you touch the statue or any statue, you’re taking a little bit of it with you and you’re leaving a little bit of yourself?
ATS: In many cases. And you don’t go to too many museums where they encourage you to touch.
CS: Right, right.
PF: Since he created the Rocky statue, Tom has built an entire career out of making sculptures — from figures of athletes to veterans in war memorials.
ATS: I mean, I’ve just been so fortunate to be able to do visual images that express an emotion, not necessarily me, but the loss. Like a soldier lying on a plinth. I’m trying to get to those poor people who lost somebody, you know? And that statue is doing it, not me. That’s kind of what I hoped Rocky would do as a symbol.
PF: Tom was the first to render the Rocky character in bronze, to find a new way that his energy could be shared.
But he wouldn’t be the last.
ATS: It’s not about art, the art of the statue. It’s not about any of it other than the fact that it is trying to capture that element of perseverance and self-worth and determination as an object, not as necessarily just a piece of sculpture.
PF: Since Tom created the statue, versions of Rocky have popped up everywhere, in places expected and unexpected. When we were in California, we found a wax sculpture at Madame Tussauds…
PF AT WAX MUSEUM: I just have a question. Are you allowed to touch the wax statues?
WAX MUSEUM EMPLOYEE: Not their faces.
PF: Not their faces, but anything else?
WAX MUSEUM EMPLOYEE: Yeah.
PF: Here he is. Ay yo Rock.
Of course, the Rocky video games. In one, you can fight as the Rocky statue…
VIDEO GAME: And in the blue corner, the Rocky statue!
[BELL DINGS, SOUND OF PUNCHING BRONZE]
PF: And then, there are the people who have dedicated their lives to the character.
MIKE KUNDA: I said, “I had five raw eggs. You know, my doctor says the cholesterol is getting me, you know, the older I get. So like this guy over here with the Quaker Oats, that’s like a good, healthy meal.”
PF: But did you know this famous story could be put to music?
MUSICAL DIRECTOR: A five, six, seven, eight.
PF: It’s a crisp fall day and we’re at the oldest active theater in the country. There’s a lot of excitement in the air.
NICHALAS PARKER: There’s something about just bringing a fresh new take to a lot of this. No one, almost no one in the cast, at least the majority of the cast was, I think, alive when the movie came out.
PF: After a run on Broadway and overseas, Rocky, the Musical finally came home to Philly to debut in the boxer’s hometown. We had a chance to speak with some of the leads, who were in the middle of rehearsals.
MATTHEW AMIRA: My name is Matthew Amira. I’m playing Rocky, the Italian Stallion Balboa.
NP: My name’s Nichalas Parker. I’m playing Apollo Creed.
GIANNA YANELLI: So my name is Gianna Yanelli, and I’m playing Adrian in Rocky.
PF: Just as a sculptor breathes form and expression into a statue, these actors are reimagining the Rocky story — with all its triumphs and challenges — in a new medium.
It’s just two weeks before opening night, and the pressure is on. If the actors don’t get it right, this city will notice.
GY: Are they going to like it? I don’t know what to think, because they have such an idea of what this is, and they’re expecting almost like a carbon copy, I think, of the movie. And I think we run into that area of like, well, will they understand that with a musical it’s going to be different, especially adapting it to the stage?
PF: They have to nail it.
MA: I believe someone in the building I’m staying at told me that if I don’t do a good job, he’s going to turn off my water. But that’s also the love language of Philadelphia. They like busting your chops.
PF: It’s a story that refuses to get knocked out, one that just keeps adapting and manifesting in new ways, all because people have formed a genuine connection with it.
MA: It’s kind of changed me at a cellular level of how I look at legends and icons, and like how we draw our strength from them. Talking to anyone from Philly, Rocky’s not a real person. It’s Stallone playing Rocky. He wrote Rocky, Rocky’s fictional, but like he means so much to people and people draw their strength from him.
NP: The immortalization of a fictional character in this city has been one of the most impressive things, because I guess it’s literally what he represents. And I think that it’s amazing to see how, as human beings, we can still connect with a character, even if they’re fictional. We can still kind of see, like, the grit and the heart and the passion that they put into something, and add that into your life.
PF: This comes through whether you find Rocky in a movie, in a musical number, or on a pedestal.
GY: We do this so that we do either change people’s minds, we comfort them, we give them an escape, they have fun. There are all different pieces of art that have different goals, right? Art is art. It can be happy, it can be sad, whatever.
PF: Rocky is like a game of telephone, one that arguably began centuries before the film’s release.
Because the very process of creating a statue is based on reproduction.
It all starts with a mold.
JOHN GRIEG: The most basic thing to think of is your Jell-O mold, right? Thanksgiving, your great aunt makes an orange and Mandarin Jell-O mold…
… And everything is poured into a shaped bowl that then that Jell-O pops right out of.
[DING, OOHS AND AHHS]
And you can make Jell-O mold after Jell-O mold.
PF: That’s my friend John Grieg.
JG: I’m the sculpture shop manager at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and we have just entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Cast Hall.
PF: We’re a block from City Hall, touring one of Philly’s best-kept secrets. John is showing us around an impressive gallery of famous replicas, like a giant statue of David and the Belvedere Torso. The Cast Hall has been here for generations.
JG: It’s been active for 130-some years, people drawing casts.
PF: Back to the Jell-O mold.
[DING, OOHS AND AHHS]
John says that’s pretty much how all bronze statues come to be. The sculptor pours molten liquid into a hand-made mold. That mold could be used over and over again to make countless copies — like the ones at this Cast Hall.
We crave these copies, because our relationship to this art form is about seeing ourselves, preserved in time. It’s actually one of the earliest forms of expression.
JG: And boy, it wouldn’t take us too far past the cave drawings to get to votive statues, things that are representing us to the spirit world, and things that are trying to communicate for us where we can’t communicate. Which, I think, I mean, that’s kind of what statues are doing, or trying to do. Whether that’s a government controlling them, or an individual controlling what we’re seeing.
PF: Even in the universe of statues, the monument to Rocky isn’t totally unique. John sees similarities between our bronze fighter and a famous Greek sculpture from antiquity, called the Boxer at Rest. A framed picture of it hangs in the studio.
JG: It is a similar story, right? That boxer, the ancient boxer, is a beat-up boxer. He’s still fighting. He’s still, like, giving it his all, just like Rocky was, you know? When we watched Rocky, we were inspired by his grit, by his determination, and, like, saddened by his loss. But in his loss was his glory. That boxer from ancient Greece has that same attribute, that he is a fallen warrior, and that he is beaten up by life but keeps on moving forward.
PF: All statues are meant to send a message. Rocky tells the underdog story. His statue, like the Boxer at Rest, strives to create empathy in its audience.
Others are commissioned for political reasons, and meant to convey lasting supremacy. Like Rocky’s neighbor near the Art Museum.
JG: The statue of George Washington is a statue of conquest, of ego. It’s not as human. People can’t, like, relate to this idea of, you know, leading an army and, like, conquering something. It does lead to, like, our national story, but it’s not as human as the boxer is.
PF: We began with the idea that Rocky was just a movie prop. It started that way, but because of how it was made and how it got embraced, it became a monument. Aren’t all statues props in a way, of those who have the time, money, and power to build them?
JG: And that’s where you get the idea of, like, propaganda, because a government, whether it be a city government or a federal government, is, like, making art objects that tell you how to think, or hold up certain ideals that we may or may not agree with.
PF: And after an artist releases their work into the world, what people do with it is up to them.
JG: And it can take you many different places that the artist didn’t intend. But it should have an opening that allows you to start to think about what it’s about, and how that reflects on your own life.
ROBERT SALVIA: Where am I tonight? I am at the Walnut Street Theater, totally stoked up, ready for my man, Rocky. We are ready to go. I’ve watched him since the ‘70s. I actually reran all last week, all five of them. Plus I went to Creed, and of course, the best, Rocky Balboa.
PF: It’s opening night of Rocky, the Musical in Philadelphia. And the anticipation is high.
Especially for Robert Salvia, who lives in the Philly suburbs. He was in his 20s when the first movie came out, and he’s loved it ever since.
RS: How could you not? Number one, he’s Italian descent. So hey, right there, we start off out of South Philly. Number two, he’s a boxer. Hey, how could you not like a boxer? And number three, he’s the man. He’s just the guy. When he walks the streets, “Hey Rock!” Everybody knows the Rock.
PF: Robert took opening night pretty seriously. He showed up dressed in Rocky’s classic leather jacket and fedora.
MICHAELA WINBERG, PRODUCER: How are you feeling about the sort of musical theater version of it? Have you seen it before?
RS: It’s Rocky. So whatever it is, it will be the best, right?
PF: Robert wasn’t the only one who got into character. 16-year-old Lyam David-Kilker woke up that day so excited that he immediately started throwing punches.
LYAM DAVID-KILKER: I was like, “Let’s go!” I was literally in the shower. I was like, “Ah! ah!” Shadowboxing. So yeah, this is crazy. This is crazy.
PF: Lyam is an aspiring actor and boxer from Philadelphia. His mom Michelle says he’s always been obsessed with Rocky — because it was easy for him to see Rocky’s story in his own.
MICHELLE DAVID: Then when he started watching Rocky, and he realized that the actor who played Rocky, he wrote the script. He wrote it for himself. He wasn’t getting casted in leads. So he wrote the script itself, and he made it about Philadelphia. And that’s when I started, when he was little and he started falling in love with it. He is a huge Rocky poster in his bedroom right now.
He does. He has a love for acting and a love for boxing. So it’s just combining the Walnut Street Theater, Rocky, and his love for acting. It’s all in one place. So we had to come for opening night.
PF: The many iterations of Rocky aren’t just found in the sequels, statues, or musicals. They’re also the people who take on the story themselves. This ability we have to absorb the energy of an artwork, to bring the fictional into our own real lives, is part of being human.
Regardless of a statue’s original purpose, the most compelling thing about it is the people around it, then and now. Whether they built it or not, people give a statue life. And that’s worth celebrating.
In the next and final episode of The Statue…
VOICEMAIL MACHINE: 8:57 a.m. Wednesday, March 9th.
PF: … We uncover an artifact from the early 2000s that reveals Sylvester Stallone’s inner thoughts about the Rocky legend.
SYLVESTER STALLONE: But the steps were like a magical area. It almost seemed like another city, like the Acropolis. It was just some incredible monument.
PF: We meet possibly the biggest Rocky fan in the world — a man who has modeled his entire life after the movie character.
MK: You want to tell me the sky is burgundy with green stripes and yellow polka dots, I’ll meet you on that somewhere, OK? But you’re never going to convince me Rocky is anything other than the pure greatness that it is and what it meant to this city. It’s just never gonna happen.
PF: And we use the Rocky statue as a lens to imagine the future of monuments.
SALAMISHAH TILLET: That’s the challenge of monuments. Like, American history or world history is rarely made up of individual players.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber. Our producers are Michael Olcott and Michaela Winberg. Our executive producers are Tom Grahsler and Paul Farber. Our engineers are Al Banks and Charlie Kaier.
Sound design and mixing by Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions. Rowhome’s executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
Marketing support is provided by The Podglomerate.
Our tile art was made by William Hodgson. Our theme song is a remix of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, created by Moqita, that’s Justin Geller and Billy Dufala. Special thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Grant Hill, and the Monument Lab team especially Laurie Allen, Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, and Florie Hutchinson.
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects, with in-kind support from Monument Lab. Find us wherever you get your podcasts.collapse
Executive Producers: Tom Grahsler, Paul Farber
Producers: Michael Olcott, Michaela Winberg
Engineers: Al Banks, Charlie Kaier
Sound Design and Mixing: Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions
Executive Producers, Rowhome Productions: Alex Lewis, John Myers
Tile Art: William Hodgson
Theme Song: Justin Geller and Billy Dufala of Moqita
Special Thanks to Kayla Watkins, Grant Hill, & Gabriel Coffey
Special Thanks to the Monument Lab team including Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, Laurie Allen and Florie Hutchinson.
Gonna’ Fly Now by Bill Conti, courtesy of Sony Music
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects and with in-kind support from Monument Lab.collapse
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