More Culture:

June 30, 2017

As 'Rocky' returns to the steps, remembering director John Avildsen

'Rocky' will be shown on the art museum steps this weekend, but this time, it's bittersweet

On Sunday, July 2, the original "Rocky" film will return to the Philadelphia Art Museum steps for a screening, as part of the Philly @ the Movies segment of the Wawa Welcome America Festival. Beyond that, the Rocky statue has completed its refurbishment and is once again open to the public.

However, this year’s "Rocky" showing will be somewhat bittersweet, due to the recent passing of the original film’s director. John G. Avildsen, who directed Philly’s most iconic film back in 1976, died of cancer on June 16, at the age of 81.

Back in March of 2014, Avildsen was on hand as a guest of honor when "Rocky" was screened inside of the art museum for the first time ever, in conjunction with the Blu-ray release of a new six-film "Rocky" set called, "The Rocky Heavyweight Collection." That night, he received a City of Philadelphia special citation from the office of then-Mayor Michael Nutter.

At the 2014 event, Avildsen told stories about his collaboration with writer/star Sylvester Stallone on the original "Rocky," back during a very different, much grittier time in Philadelphia. For one thing, he shared that he had shot the entire film with a nonunion crew and without the benefit of permits, something of a risky move during the height of the Frank Rizzo era.

Throughout the event, which was emceed by then-WIP host Anthony Gargano, Avildsen, wearing a bright yellow sweater, filmed the proceedings with his iPhone – one he went on to brandish during a televised interview the same day with then-NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.

The week of his visit, Avildsen appeared for a dedication ceremony at the top of the steps, along with then-mayoral aide Melanie Johnson, Visit Philly's Cara Schneider and Art Museum head Gail Harrity. 


“I was charmed by his yellow sweater,” Schneider told PhillyVoice this week. 

“I didn't talk to him one-on-one, but I remember being surprised at how gracious he was. We saw him as the star. And yet, he was the one honored and humbled to have the film shown in the museum.

“After hearing John Avildsen, Irwin Winkler (producer), Sylvester Stallone and then [Creed star] Michael B. Jordan – at two different events – talk, on the top of the steps, about what that view means to each one of them, has forever changed how I see the city. I'm grateful for them,” she said.

Harrity could not be reached for comment.

Avildsen won an Academy Award for Best Director for "Rocky," which went on to win Best Picture in one of the most competitive years ever.

Years later, in a video for a Marriott travel site in which 12 filmmakers shared stories about the cities where they shot their most important films, Avildsen talked specifically about Philadelphia and the art museum steps. He described Philadelphia as “the heart and soul of the story.”

He also told the story, often over the years, about the origins of the Rocky Steps sequence: Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam and a Philadelphia native, had tested the original Steadicam system while filming his girlfriend running up the art museum steps, an idea Avildsen later adapted when he shot Rocky.

Avildsen directed more than 20 films between 1969 and 1999. In addition to "Rocky," he’s best known for 1984’s "The Karate Kid," its 1986 and 1989 sequels and 1989’s "Lean on Me." He returned to the "Rocky" series with "Rocky V," in 1990.

"Rocky" will be shown at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 2, on the Philadelphia Museum of Arts steps. The screening is free; it will be preceded by such programs as a Rocky impersonator and Rocky look-alike contest.