erik lundegaard

Saturday February 03, 2024

Carl Weathers (1948-2024)

When I lived in Taiwan in 1988 I was friends with a guy named Karl F., a Black American, and during that summer we had some interesting discussions about race. At one point the movie “Action Jackson,” starring Carl Weathers, came up, and Karl was 100% behind it. He exuded such pride in it, and in Weathers, that it made me a little jealous. Because I didn't have anything like that. Because I had everything else. Most movie leads were white men like me (or not at all like me), so “white” wasn't just a meaningless distinction, it wasn't a distinction at all, and I didn't see myself in any of them. I certainly didn't have pride in any of them. For Karl, there was just Carl Weathers, and so, yes, he was his guy. And sure, Eddie Murphy was one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time, and Denzel was on the rise, but Weathers was the one who'd just joined the Sly/Arnold/Chuck pantheon. As he should have much sooner.

He became a star at the wrong time, didn't he? He played professional football for a few years, first with the Oakland Raiders, and then, after he was cut, with the Canadian Football League, but he had his eye on acting, and began with a bang: In 1975, he appeared in 10 filmed roles, mostly TV. I might've seen him on “Good Times” as the jealous husband of the sexy neighbor that wants J.J. to paint her in the nude. I definitely saw him in that all-football episode of “Six Million Dollar Man,” when Steve's friend Larry Csonka gets kidnapped before the big game. Weathers was busy in '76, too, appearing in episodes of “McCloud,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Barnaby Jones,” and ... what was it again? Oh yeah. A little thing called “Rocky.” It was filmed in the spring, released in late fall, and became a phenomenon. It was also the first time I'd ever heard the word “sleeper” applied to a movie. Initially I thought it was an insult—a movie that made you fall asleep—but my father corrected me.

The Times obit has a good story on how Weathers got the part of Apollo Creed. He was reading with someone introduced as a non-actor, and felt he didn't do well enough. “They were quiet, and there was this moment of awkwardness — I felt, anyway,” he said. “So I just blurted out, 'I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.'” Except the guy he was reading with was Sylvester Stallone. Rather than be insulted, though, Stallone was amused, and liked Weathers' fire, and felt it would be good for Apollo. He wasn't wrong. “Rocky” was not just the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976, it was nominated for 10 Oscars, won best picture, and basically remade what movies would be. Happy endings, Hollywood endings, became de rigueur again. Post-triumph, Weathers graduated from episodes of “Delvecchio” and “Streets of San Francisco” into co-starring roles in films like “Force 10 From Navarone.” Seriously, check out that poster. Is there a more late-1970s movie cast? It's post-“Jaws”/post-“The Deep” Robert Shaw starring with post-“Star Wars” Harrison Ford and supported by post-“Rocky” Carl Weathers and post-“Spy Who Loved Me” Richard Kiel. Toss in some internationals (Edward Fox and Franco Nero), add a pretty face (Barbara Bach), and you've got your WWII movie. And Weathers is there. He's on the poster. He's on his way.

And then not. In the four years from 1975 to '78, he'd done roles in 24 different productions. And in the seven years from 1979 to 1985? Five—and three of those were reprising his role as Apollo Creed in Rockys II, III and IV. So only two other roles in seven years. What happened?

I assume he was hoping to star in movies. I assume he was looking for good roles. “I'm looking for longevity in my career,” he told journalist Vernon Scott, in a July 8, 1979 UPI piece. “I aim high and I'm doing my damndest to get where I want to be.” But then we entered the Reagan years, our one-step-back years, and I guess the roles, certainly the “aim high” roles, dried up for Black actors. In 1981, he was fourth-billed in the Charles Bronson/Lee Marvin movie “Deathhunt”; four years later, he was the titular “Braker”—a TV pilot about a Black cop that never made it to series. That was it.

In 1986, Weathers redid “Defiant Ones” for TV, played “Fortune Dane” for six episodes, then joined the ultra-macho cast of “Predator.” Apparently that led to “Action Jackson,” which didn't do poorly at the box office: $20 mil, 49th best for the year. It was also the biggest movie for its producton company, Lorimar Film Entertainment. So why no sequel? Lorimar went under that summer. Weathers couldn't catch a break.

In the '90s he did a lot of TV: nine episodes of “Tour of Duty,” 44 episodes of “Street Justice,” 28 episodes of “In the Heat of the Night.” Then he was tapped by Adam Sandler, a big “Rocky” fan, to play Chubbs, the one-handed golf mentor in “Happy Gilmore.” Since, he played himself on “Arrested Development,” Combat Carls in “Toy Story 4,” and Greef Karga in the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy. It was his first. An entire film franchise, “Creed,” was also borne out of a supporting character he created. How often does that happen? Never, I'm thinking. 

Posted at 08:55 AM on Saturday February 03, 2024 in category Movies  
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