Casting a film is a notoriously tricky business. Hollywood lore is replete with tales of iconic roles that, but for a chance audition or a persistent agent or a director's inspired vision, might have been filled by very different stars. (Shirley Temple as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? Doris Day as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, seducing ... Robert Redford? John Travolta as Forrest Gump?) Well, rest assured, whatever its eventual place in cinematic history, Grudge Match won't carry such what-ifs. Nobody was fitting, say, Kenneth Branagh and Robin Williams with satin trunks and Everlast gloves. This heartfelt comedy about two boxing rivals coaxed out of retirement to fight each other one more time—30 years after their last match—was always, just like any real pugilistic promotion, only going to happen with the right two combatants.
"Billy came to me with the script a couple of years ago," says director Peter Segal, referring to producer Bill Gerber (Gran Torino), "and I loved the whole second-chance theme and the boxing milieu. But then we had a conundrum: Who could play these aging fighters? That conundrum lasted about 10 seconds."
The answer was obvious to both director and producer. "The two most iconic boxers in movie history are Rocky and Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta," says Segal. "It had to be Stallone and De Niro."
Indeed, the fit was so perfect that it boxed the movie makers into a corner (so to speak). "The studio loved the idea of the movie," Segal says, "but only if those two were in it."
Robert De Niro was the first to sign on. "Bob was used to winking at his cinematic heritage," says Segal. "He'd done Analyze This and knew what it had done for him. The trick was convincing Sly."
"I was the last one in," Sylvester Stallone admits. "Robert saw the big picture before I did."
"Sylvester was a little anxious about it," says De Niro. "I said, 'It'll be O.K. Let's go for it.' "
And so, much like the Italian Stallion agreeing to fight Apollo Creed back in 1975, Stallone decided to take his shot (though he would, according to Segal, quit the project five times during preproduction). "I was thinking, Am I just exploiting [the franchise I created]?" Stallone says. "And then I go, 'Well, that's not such a bad thing. You know, to keep it going.' I've done Rocky, and he's done Raging Bull, and that's put to bed. Basically, we're doing a parody"—look for a raw-egg scene and a meat locker moment—"but the story is unique; it's not like we're just making new episodes."
In Grudge Match (which opens nationwide on Dec. 25), Stallone plays Henry (Razor) Sharp, and De Niro is Billy (the Kid) McDonnen. Former light heavyweight champs, the pair traded wins in two epic bouts before Razor (for deep personal reasons—Think: love! hate! betrayal! Think: Kim Basinger!) walked away from the ring and what would have been a multimillion-dollar rubber match. Three decades later a hustling young promoter (played by a scene-stealing Kevin Hart) brings the two together (reluctantly, on Razor's part) to lend their likenesses to a proposed video game. The old foes clash on the set, their brawl goes viral and things escalate until they square off for the long-awaited third time in a pay-per-view extravaganza.
Of course, just like the two fictitious former champions, the movie's stars were, well, a few years removed from their physical primes. And, given that there would be no extensive CGI or stunt doubles employed in the making of the movie, Grudge Match would require a traditional fight film training sequence of sorts even before the cameras started rolling.
We cut a lot of weight," says Stallone with a rueful chuckle. "I had to go down from about 185 to 170, 168. Because we had to look like light heavies."
For De Niro—who was 69, three years older than his costar when the film was shot—that meant cutting more like 30 pounds. "Bob, of course, is famous for making weight," says Segal. "I knew he wasn't going to come in looking like Jake LaMotta, but I asked him if he could get into the same shape he was in for [1991's] Cape Fear. He said, 'I'll try.' "
Working with trainer Dan Harvey, De Niro forged a post-Fockers physique that matches up credibly with the still-impressive Stallone infrastructure. The toughest part, both actors agree, was watching their diets while shooting for several weeks in New Orleans, which stands in for the purported setting of Pittsburgh.
"I tried to get him to eat at my restaurant every night," says Stallone, "but he wouldn't come out."
"I just stuck to protein and fish," De Niro says. "And I knew I shouldn't eat at night, and definitely not at his place."
When it came to his diet, Stallone, like Rocky, just wanted to go the distance. "I knew if I ate before [we filmed] the fight, I'm going to blow up," he says. "But once I got past the fight, I knew I could eat and eat and eat and eat. But I didn't want to tell him that. I told him after the fight."
The climactic fight scene required the most planning and preparation, as all involved were convinced that, even though they were making a comedy, the action had to be exciting—and believable. "Most boxing films don't put in enough sweat," says Stallone. "Enough tears and sweat."
Everyone involved in Grudge Match, it appears, shed plenty of both. Segal says that he wrote out the "story" of the fight—the ebb and flow of the action and the eventual outcome—but then gave it to Stallone to choreograph, punch-by-punch and round-by-round. It was a skill that Stallone first developed when he was making Rocky; the original fight choreographer rejected his meticulous suggestions and quit, leaving the neophyte screenwriter-star in charge. "Now I'm a choreographer—and I'm nobody," recalls Stallone of that moment. "But I went back and I studied great fights and I borrowed great moments; I borrowed this one from a Jake LaMotta fight and this one from a Marciano fight, and from an Ali fight, and I said, This is how you write a fight: You take the highlights and you condense them."
He brought the same technique to bear on Grudge Match: "I took snippets from actual fights and laced them with our personalities and abilities so there was a sense that this is feasible."
Says De Niro, "I was just following his lead."
Because of their schedules on other projects, the stars prepared for their big bout on opposite coasts. "Sly trained in a Jewish community center in Beverly Hills," says Segal. "We projected the fight choreography on the wall and taped Sly working with a trainer. Then we flew the video and the trainer to New York, where Bob was, and he practiced it there."
The fight itself was filmed over four days in front of several thousand cheering, sweating extras in Lakefront Arena at the University of New Orleans. "I yelled, 'Action!' on Monday morning and didn't yell, 'Cut!' until Thursday night," recalls Segal. "The cameras actually overheated in the 90¬∫ temperatures. We planned every makeup break like an Indy pit stop."
As might be expected—and without giving away any plot points—those makeup breaks were largely for the purpose of applying copious amounts of blood and bruises. To hear Stallone and De Niro tell it, however, not all the wear and tear was the result of movie magic.
"I'd feel the leather on the tip of my nose and think, O.K., one inch closer and good night," Stallone says. "There were a few mishaps. But you don't feel them in the moment—and with the crowd. You're embarrassed. No one wants to take a knee, you know? You go on."
"I was just following his lead," says De Niro again, with a laugh.
The saying in the sweet science is that "styles make fights"—some boxers just naturally match up well with each other, producing a compelling give-and-take. Stallone and De Niro had worked together only once before, in the 1997 crime drama Cop Land, but to judge by their turns as Razor and the Kid, these two old pros clearly felt at home in the same ring.
"I'd feel the leather on the tip of my nose and think, O.K., one inch closer and good night," says Stallone.
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Photographs by HOWARD SCHATZ FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Photograph by HOWARD SCHATZ FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FAMOUS FISTS The 70-year-old De Niro (left), who won the Best Actor Oscar in 1981 for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, was the first to sign on; Stallone, 67, worried about exploiting the Rocky franchise he created.
Photographs by HOWARD SCHATZ FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RIGHT ON THE MONEY De Niro and Stallone prepared for the fight scenes (which were choreographed by Sly) on opposite coasts, but when the time came to get into the same ring, they put on a convincing show—at times, a little too convincing for Stallone.