On The Set Of Rocky Balboa
by Felice Cantatore
As published by the Long Island Press, Dec 14, 2006
For three days last December, my world and the Rocky Balboa world collided in Las Vegas, when I was hired as an extra for the latest sequel to my all-time favorite movie franchise, Rocky. I was cast as a high roller, sitting in the front row of the big fight scene—this was an amazing experience. Of course, being an extra, there is no guarantee that I will be in the final version, but I did enough cheering and jumping around to earn my one-sixteenth of a second of fame.
Let me explain why I wanted to be there. First, I admit that I am an over-the-top Rocky Balboa fan. My love for Hollywood’s greatest underdog story of all time has been a part of my life since I was 11 years old. Who can forget cheering in the theater for unknown Rocky Balboa to beat Apollo Creed? In those days, you would pay to see a great movie multiple times. I remember waiting forever for Rocky to hit commercial TV. I even tried to watch it through squiggly lines on some scrambled pay channel called WHT Channel 68. Back then there were no VCRs or DVD players. In 1978, with rumors of the release of Rocky II, another rumor hit my neighborhood in Flushing. Burt Young (Paulie) and Talia Shire (Adrian) were to film a made-for-television movie for CBS titled Daddy, I Don’t Like It Like This, at the Lighthouse Diner.
One day, when I saw a crowd at the diner, it was confirmed that two elements of Rocky would be live, before my very eyes. There I met Burt Young. You see, Burt and my godfather grew up together in Corona, Queens. Young once helped him install a carpet in my house years earlier. As Young was confirming that to my friends, Talia Shire came out and Young shared the story with her. I couldn’t believe it. I approached her nervously for an autograph; she obliged and kissed me on the cheek! That was a defining moment, reel life meeting real life—kissed on the cheek by Adrian! And so it went…Rocky II came out in ’79, Rocky wins the title; Rocky III in ’82 featured Hulk Hogan; Rocky IV in ’85 had the best soundtrack of the franchise and in 1990 I even enjoyed Rocky V. I grew up on Rocky—the movies are a part of my life. The motivation to go the distance and work hard to achieve success is a part of me because of these films.
In 2001, the Rocky franchise celebrated its 25th anniversary. I was disappointed that I didn’t find a way to go to the party at Planet Hollywood in Manhattan. After that event rumors started flying about Rocky VI. I said to my wife Chrissy that if there’s going to be a Rocky VI, I’d find a way to be a part of it. In 2005, it was confirmed that Rocky VI (Rocky Balboa) would be a reality. True to my promise, it was game on! I surfed the Web and told anyone who would listen that I would find a way to be a part of this movie. Last October, a co-worker sent me an e-mail link for an open casting call for the fight scene of Rocky Balboa in Las Vegas! I immediately went to the website and signed up myself and Chrissy. The website said I would receive confirmation within a few days if selected. One day later, the confirmation came: I would be spending one day on the set as an unpaid extra. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be a part of Rocky Balboa!
Without hesitation, I called my sister, who lives in Las Vegas, and told her that the whole family was coming in December and she would have to watch the kids. I solidified my flight plans and set up two nights at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the movie was to be filmed. Although I was excited to be an unpaid extra, deep down I wanted to be closer. Though I was confirmed, I kept on searching. One day it hit me—my colleague at the Press has a sister who works in California as a casting director. I begged him to call her to see if she knew anyone to move me closer to the action. Like a fighter, I was looking for the edge. Finally, weeks before I was to be in Las Vegas, we called. She probably didn’t know she was on speaker when she said, “This guy sounds cuckoo.” I desperately grabbed the phone and reminded her that she had met me before and knew me. She agreed that she would try to help.
I felt my plan starting to roll. I waited for the call back. A day before my scheduled leave date, I received the call. When it started with an apology, I knew that I was doomed. She said she tried but came up empty. I thanked her and she said, “The only thing that I have for you is a telephone number to the casting agency that is handling the paid extras. Call a girl named Frankie on Saturday morning, tell her that you’re in Vegas and ask if there is anything available to you.”So, on Friday I flew in and stayed at my sister’s house. On Saturday morning at 9 a.m., I called and received a busy tone. A minute later I got the same busy tone. About 9:10, I tried again and the phone started to ring. Frankie picked up and placed me on hold.
Seconds later, sounding busy, she picked up. I explained my situation and asked for additional days. Expecting to hear a “No, thank you,” Frankie said, “Perfect timing - I just got a call from the production company and they need 50 more people.”
I could not believe what I had just heard. “What do you look like?” she said.
I replied, “Stereotypical Italian, a big Italian guy.”
She asked, “What kind of wardrobe do you have?” I said that I always wear suits.
She said, “Perfect, I need you for three days - Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I’m going to cast you as a high roller at ringside. I will e-mail you the details.”
Before I could say thank you, she hung up. I screamed. I was going to be ringside at the filming of Rocky Balboa! The e-mail came an hour later. It had the details, what to wear, where to go and what time. We were to meet at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, not at the Mandalay but at a gentleman’s club parking lot. I thought, only in Vegas.The e-mail detailed the wardrobe: no white shirts, no red ties, and one change of clothing. So what was in my suitcase? A white shirt and bright red tie! I shopped all day Saturday until I found a beautiful gold shirt in my size and a tie to match my black suit.
The next morning, my sister dropped me off at the pick-up location. I walked over to the bus and stood in line behind others holding carry-on suitcases. It was like heading to boot camp. We boarded the bus to the Mandalay Bay Arena.When we arrived, we checked in, submitted payroll information and were told to sit in the upper level of the arena for instructions. I walked in and was initially taken back, as it was packed with spectators. I was disappointed, but then I noticed no one moving; this was Hollywood - half the arena was filled with inflatable upper torsos dressed in shirts, wigs and hats. When I looked closer they were, indeed dummies, but in the movie you’ll never notice them, you’ll just see a packed house.
I sat and waited through some anxious moments. Others were called to wardrobe to be cast as ushers, security guards, boxing judges and photographers. No one spoke much until a nice lady came up to me to find out who the new guy was. The woman, Margo Wade, said I stood out. She had been an extra in Rocky IV and told me what to expect. Another extra, Terri Amundson, also started quizzing me; she would later sit next to me for three days. Finally the high rollers were called to take our seats. I walked slowly as others rushed to get the best seats. I eventually landed a third row seat in the middle. You usually see people in those seats on TV. Next I heard the production assistant say, “Fill in the corners.” She looked at me and said, “You fill in over here.” I had just gotten moved from third-row middle to front-row corner when I noticed Mike Tyson’s entourage coming down the aisle to sit in the front row. If I didn’t move, I would have been two rows behind Tyson. I was bummed, but I noticed barrier gates next to me and thought, Am I sitting next to the fighters’ entrance ? Later, I found out I was. Suddenly, familiar faces started popping up—Frank Stallone, Tony Burton (Rocky’s manager), Michael Buffer (the “Let’s get ready to rumble” guy), HBO commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Max Kellerman, and Antonio Tarver (current Rocky opponent Mason “The Line” Dixon).
Then, in black and yellow boxing shorts and a sleeveless jacket—Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone! My first thoughts were: He’s not that short, and he’s older, but in great shape for a 59-year-old. The one person I always wanted to meet was standing right there.I sat patiently until I saw Burt Young. I waved him over and told him that I was from the neighborhood; he smiled and was turning away when I mentioned my godfather and a legit old story. This caught his attention and he gave me a hug and yelled to his nephew sitting nearby that I was from the neighborhood and he knew my godfather. For the next three days Burt treated me like a friend. He always stopped by my seat to pat me on the back; others later told me that they wondered who I was.
It was this interaction with Burt that allowed me to feel comfortable. Things happened quickly. Most fight scenes were shot out of sequence. I give Stallone credit; he worked hard, both acting and directing. He even exchanged some real punches with Tarver during the filming. We spent hours swinging our fists in unison and chanting, “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky,” some screaming and others just mouthing the words. My voice was shot by the end of the day but it didn’t matter. I noticed Rocky putting on his robe and thought, Are they going to shoot the entrance to the ring scene? Yes, they were, and Rocky was going to walk right past my seat. I’m not sure what I did; I think I patted him on the back on his way in. The entrance scene is one that has to be in the movie. Could this get any better? It could, and it did. Later, they needed people to sit behind the HBO announcers when they filmed their commentary scene. They picked our section to fill in. I positioned myself directly behind the HBO announcers, my head right between Lampley and Merchant. (A month ago, rocky.com ran a picture of them with Stallone—and me—on the website. The photo has an official MGM trademark!)After that scene we broke for lunch. The members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ate first and were served hot food. The nonunion people like myself got a bagged lunch consisting of a turkey sandwich, a snack, a mint and a bottle of water. I grabbed my lunch and sat next to famous ring announcer Michael Buffer.
That day I spent 14 hours on the set. I was tired but my adrenaline was high. I stayed at the Mandalay with my wife, Chrissy, that evening. She was scheduled to join me on day two. The casting director gave me permission to bring her along as a paid extra also. That evening we ate a nice dinner and played the Rocky slot machines. The next morning we walked down to the arena, signed in, did our paperwork and headed to our seats. When we got there, the extras were shouting “continuity, same seats,” so the scenes would look as if they were shot together. We were told to wear the exact same clothing. Chrissy found a seat two rows behind me.
Day Two was tremendous; they shot scenes right in the corner of the ring where we were sitting. I tried, during some big action shots, to get my head in. During one scene, Stallone, the director, kneeled directly in front of me to angle a shot. Holy s**t! There was Rocky Balboa kneeling directly in front of me—I’ve been watching him for 30 years and he’s right in front of me. When the scene broke, I must have made 10 excited cell phone calls.On the third day, they were shooting the end of the movie. It was a big day. They needed an extra 3,000 people and grabbed them out of the casino to be part of the audience. They shot the scene where everyone jumps into the ring typically at the end of any big fight. I was able to run up to the ring and pound on the ring floor. For a big Hollywood production, I was surprised that I had this access. If I really wanted to go for it, I could have gotten away with jumping into the ring or at least standing on the apron, but I wasn’t going to take any chances of annoying anyone. Every second of a production costs a lot of money.
After that scene was shot, I got the most unbelievable opportunity. When Rocky Balboa was exiting the ring in a scene, I was standing next to him as he walked down the ringside steps. On one take, Sly grabbed the microphone and told all of us to give it everything we had; he said, “Go crazy.” I went nuts. Here was the one real time my two worlds collided….Was it real? This, I thought, should be my best opportunity to be seen in the movie. After that experience, this was my encore: During a break in the action, Frank Stallone was taking home videos. I stopped to speak to him when I suggested that he give me the video camera so I could film him talking to people in the crowd. I took the camera and started filming. When I was done, I turned the camera on myself and introduced myself to the Stallone family thanking them for including me in this grand event.The whole adventure was one of the most exciting of my life.
When I went home I smiled for weeks. I received three checks from Puncher Productions in the mail. Two of them were for a little more than $100 each, and one still remains sealed, as a really cool souvenir. This experience turned out to be a real-life Rocky story. I motivated myself to be right next to the action. Now, the only way I could go the distance is if I make the final cut.
If I see myself in Rocky Balboa, I will definitely stand and yell, “Yo, Adrian…I did it!