' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Carl Weathers

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

In Memoriam: Carl Weathers

Carl Weathers was born in New Orleans in 1948 and grew up in the Crescent City before making his way to California, attending Long Beach Poly High, and then Long Beach City College, and then transferring to San Diego State on a football scholarship. His senior year, the team clinched an undefeated season by beating Boston University in what for most of its existence had been known as the Junior Rose Bowl before being rechristened the Pasadena Bowl. College football bowl games and movies, that’s sort of the unlikely nexus of my oft-incongruous interests, and few people have ever occupied that space more than Carl Weathers. “He was a serious drama student even when he was a football player,” Weathers’s SDSU teammate Donnie Rea told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “All he did in the shower was recite Shakespeare and sing his next part in the play.” Weathers was drafted by the Oakland Raiders but never made it in the NFL, criticized by his coach John Madden for not being tough enough, maybe because Weathers had a thespian’s sensitivity, or maybe because as Weathers himself alluded to, he wasn’t interested in the grind, just didn’t care about football the same way he did about acting. Either way, professional football’s loss was art’s sizable gain. 

After several appearances in Blaxploitation movies and familiar television shows of the mid-1970s, Weathers received his career-making break in John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky” (1976) by playing heavyweight champion Apollo Creed who gives a Philadelphia underdog Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) a title shot. And if Rocky made Stallone’s mealy-mouthed mumbling famous, it made Weathers’s charismatic baritone famous too. “Apollo Creed versus the I-talian Stallion,” he says, chuckling to himself as he does, one of those movie lines I sometimes say to myself apropos of nothing. “Now that sounds like a damn monster movie.”

The character could merely have been a heel, but Weathers often talked of marrying the cerebral with the physical, and as Apollo, he saw where the lines between athlete and businessman collided, foreshadowing the eras of Jordan and LeBron. Weathers became as integral to the “Rocky” franchise as Stallone, so much so that in what one might credibly contend is the best movie of the whole series, Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” (2015), Weathers goes a long way toward making it count by having created such an indelible, authoritative presence that he hovers over the whole movie without appearing once; you hear the name Creed and instinctively, you see Carl Weathers.

After Apollo was sacrificed in “Rocky IV” (1985) so that Rocky could win the Cold War, Weathers appeared in the box office hit “Predator” (1987), an ostensible Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that still came across like a true ensemble because of co-stars like Weathers. Their handshake turned epic arm-wrestling match turned modern social media meme worked so well because Weathers could fill the frame as fully and electrically as Arnold. The latter had to win that moment because his name came first on the poster, but the two men emerged from that movie like Creed and Balboa – as equals. Weathers got his own movie the following year in 1988 with “Action Jackson,” though it failed commercially and creatively, and when it did, Hollywood eschewed giving him another title shot. Box office hits, to quote Alec Baldwin, provide “an all-access pass that lasts for five years. And, if the movies you make don’t make money in that period, your pass expires.” Weathers, though, barely even got a year, just one movie, and it does not feel like a stretch to suggest that Weathers being black meant the terms and conditions of his pass were inhibited. 

Whoever else in Hollywood might have forgotten about him, his “Action Jackson” producer Bernie Brillstein did not, and it was Brillstein who Weathers credited for getting his role in “Happy Gilmore” (1996). Weathers always had comedy chops, as his spot-on Rev Jesse Jackson impression for Saturday Night Live during the 1988 Democratic primaries attested, and in playing the gruff mentor to Adam Sandler’s infantile hockey player turned golfing pro, Weathers bloomed anew in playing funny. He was never funnier, though, than he was spoofing himself in the cult aughts television show “Arrested Development” as a cheapskate, an actor for whom the greatest thrill in life is not nailing a scene but pocketing his daily per diem, firmly in the pantheon of actors playing themselves. Speaking to Vulture in 2013, show creator Mitch Hurwitz said it was Weathers who proposed this idea, cutting off Hurwitz’s predictable pitches for “Rocky” parodies at the pass, a confession that kind of underlines how the industry never saw Weathers with the same clarity as he saw himself.

I always hoped Weathers, who died Thursday February 1, 2024, at the age of 76, would star in one last big project, and even cheekily dreamt one up, though as a few friends reminded me, one-time “Star Wars” fan turned wearied agnostic, he starred in the recent Disney+ TV series “The Mandalorian.” If I grew up knowing Weathers as Apollo Creed, a whole new generation has grown up knowing Weathers as Greef Karga, ultimately making him an actor who left a mark not in one era but two, which I hoped warmed his heart as much as it does mine. 

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