Obituaries: Carl Weathers, American football player turned actor who shot to fame starring opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky

​Carl Weathers, actor. Born: 14 January, 1948 in New Orleans. Died: 1 February, 2024 in Los Angeles, aged 76

Carl Weathers was an ex-American football professional with a few minor film and TV roles behind him when he auditioned for the co-starring role of world heavyweight boxing champ Apollo Creed in the original 1976 Rocky movie. And he thought he had blown it big time.

He read Creed’s lines while the film’s writer read Rocky’s dialogue. And Weathers felt he did not do himself justice. “If you can get me a real actor to read with, I can do this a lot better,” he said.

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But, just to make matters worse, the writer had aspirations of being “a real actor” and he was insisting that he get to play Rocky in the actual film.

Sylvester Stallone was a virtual unknown when ​Carl Weathers auditioned for him  (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)Sylvester Stallone was a virtual unknown when ​Carl Weathers auditioned for him  (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Sylvester Stallone was a virtual unknown when ​Carl Weathers auditioned for him (Picture: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Sylvester Stallone was virtually unknown at the time and the world was unfamiliar with his idiosyncratic acting style. He wrote Rocky and the deal was that Rocky the screenplay came with Stallone the actor.

Stallone liked Weathers’ combative spirit, cast him in the role and Rocky went on to become a huge commercial and critical success, winning three Oscars, including best picture. It spawned a franchise that provided Weathers with a regular pay cheque over the years.

The original Rocky movie has many iconic moments, but part of its magic was building up the expectation of a happy Hollywood ending in which no-hoper Rocky Balboa would defeat world champion Apollo Creed, only to resist the temptation and give the win to Creed on a split decision after 15 bruising rounds.

The Hollywood ending came a few years later in Rocky II when Rocky wins a rematch. In Rocky III Creed is now Rocky’s trainer, taking him through his paces before a fight against Mr T. In Rocky IV Creed is pummelled by drug-fuelled Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). And in a wonderfully homoerotic romantic moment Creed passes away in Rocky’s arms. Of course Rocky later whips Drago in a second fight.

More recently there has been a whole spin-off series of Creed films with Michael B Jordan as Apollo Creed’s son Adonis and Stallone reprising the role of Rocky as his trainer.

Ironically the role of Apollo Creed had looked like it would go to Ken Norton, the former world heavyweight champion and one of only five men to ever beat Muhammad Ali. Norton was developing a screen career and appeared in the film Mandingo, in which Stallone had an uncredited walk-on part.

But the deal with Norton never happened, possibly because it was thought he would dwarf Stallone. His departure opened the door for Weathers.

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The son of a labourer, Weathers was born in New Orleans in 1948. He enjoyed acting and singing from an early age, while also showing tremendous promise at American football. He won a football scholarship to San Diego State University and graduated with a degree in theatre arts.

He signed for the Oakland Raiders in 1970 and played seven games in a strong team that won the American Football Conference West Division, but he was released after the coach told him he was “too sensitive” to make it to the top.

Switching to the Canadian Football League he played for the BC Lions between 1971 and 1973. During the off-seasons he began a second degree in drama at San Francisco State University.

After retiring from football Weathers began getting one-off roles in television series, including Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch. He also had supporting roles in the 1975 “blaxploitation” thrillers Bucktown and Friday Foster, with Pam Grier. It helped that he was a personal friend of the director Arthur Marks.

Rocky was no big deal on paper. It cost less than $1 million, but grossed more than $200 million worldwide and set Weathers up for a career in movies.

He co-starred with Robert Shaw and Harrison Ford and got the better of Richard Kiel in a knife fight in Force 10 from Navarone and he went head to head with Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm-wrestling scene in the original Predator movie, all bulging muscles and testosterone.

Weathers and Schwarzenegger were members of a special forces team who discover they are sharing the jungle with an alien who sees them as potential trophies. Weathers also went head to head with the alien. He came off second best on both occasions. The alien severs his arm, though his automatic weapon goes on firing with his finger on the trigger.

Weirdly, Weathers’ character in the 1996 Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore had also lost a hand. A former professional golfer, he had it bitten off by an alligator.

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Weathers had rare top billing in the thriller Action Jackson, but it did not evolve into the franchise for which he hoped.

In more recent times he worked largely in television and played the recurring character of bounty hunter Greef Karga in the Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian. He also directed a couple of episodes.

He was married and divorced three times and is survived by two children from his first marriage.


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