While I would not want to simplify the film career of the mighty Carl Weathers down to one role, let’s face it, as much as any of us might have loved him in Semi-Tough, Death Hunt, Predator, Action Jackson (a personal favorite of mine), Happy Gilmore, or on TV in The Mandalorian, Weathers will always be known as Apollo Creed.
Weathers, a former linebacker for the Oakland Raiders and the British Columbia Lions in the CFL, was so much more than just a foil for Sylvester Stallone’s title character in the Rocky movies. His powerful physical presence and his athletic nature were evident and perfect for the part of Apollo Creed, but it was more than that. It was Weathers’ charisma that truly carried the day. His Creed has often been compared to Muhammad Ali (and Stallone did base the first Rocky film on Ali’s bout with Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder), but Weathers wasn’t mimicking Ali at all.
Sure, he was Black and outspoken, but there was an underlying insecurity that Weathers gave to Creed that stood out for me. His self-doubt, his need to puff himself up, and his shortness with his wife and training camp in the first two Rocky films showed a skilled actor giving a real performance. This was no pantomime or a famous figure, this was acting with a capital A. Something that I never thought Weathers got enough credit for.
Like Richard Roundtree who scorched the silver screen as Shaft, Weathers was born at the wrong time. In a different era, certainly this current one, Weathers could have used Apollo Creed as a springboard for more dramatic roles, and certainly action films as well. But Weathers was Black, and in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there just wasn’t a lot of room for an actor of color as powerful and masculine as Weathers.
I know I was always grateful to see him in anything. I just liked the idea that someone said, “let’s cast Carl Weathers for that.” Even though most of the parts he was offered were too small for his abilities.
As people saw in Happy Gilmore, Weathers could be very funny. He wasn’t just this pair of big broad shoulders above a chest that looked bulletproof—he was a talent. On this day of his passing, I think it’s worth it to give Stallone the credit he deserves for selecting a man to face off against him who was better looking, more imposing, and flush with personality. It speaks to how much Stallone (who wrote the first four Rocky films that Apollo Creed appeared in and directed two-four) believed in his vision that he would choose a man who appeared to be his superior in every way.
Of course, Rocky is an underdog story, and underdogs need the deck stacked against them, but let’s state it plainly, Carl Weathers was one heavily stacked deck. For all the worthwhile notice that Stallone, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, and Talia Shire received in the first Rocky film (all of whome received Oscar nominations, whereas Weathers was overlooked), it was Weathers’ Creed who was the key to the film.
I suppose if one wanted to think of Apollo Creed as a mere villain, they could, but that does a great disservice to all the little in-between moments Weathers gave to his character. The anxious looks behind the bravado, the temperamental outbursts that of someone straining to exude the ultimate level of confidence, and the signs of true fear in the ring when Rocky Balboa proves to be more than the pushover he expected are what makes the character truly work.
Hell, as much as us fight fans and filmgoers loved Stallone’s palooka, many of us loved Weathers’ Apollo Creed just as much. I know, because I’m one of them. But that’s not the only reason I know. The shadow of Apollo Creed loomed large over the series even after the character moved to the position of playing Rocky’s trainer in Rocky III, and the sacrificial lamb for Rocky’s vengeance in IV.
He owned that character, and I think it’s no coincidence that without Apollo Creed in Rocky V, that film died a death more painful than a beating by a Russian giant. While Rocky Balboa was a lovely (supposed) capper to the series, it still missed that something extra, that pizzazz, that charge of electricity that Weathers gave to the first four films.
No wonder then that the Rocky series resurrected itself on the back of the character Carl Weathers brought to life. It could have been a dubious endeavor, going back to the well to extend a six-film series that seemed all but out of breath when Rocky Balboa closed with Stallone giving an out of focus wave to the audience
But it wasn’t. Because the name “Rocky” might have been tired, but the moniker “Creed” was alive and well. So, when Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed slipped on the shorts of his estranged and long dead father Apollo, none of us in the audience questioned the merit of this extension of the series. In the inspired hands of director Ryan Coogler, and with a leading actor well up to the task of playing the lost son of Apollo Creed, the film Creed performed ecstatically beyond expectations both critically and at the box office. Stallone was awarded his second Oscar nomination as an actor (this time in support of a character named Creed), and the film grossed a surprising $110 million, making the gifted Jordan a huge star.
But that only happened because of what the name “Creed” meant. And it meant something because of the man who originally played him. That man was Carl Weathers.
Carl Weathers died on February 1, 2024. He was 76 years old.
Ring the bell ten times.