'Rocky' Turns 40: Talia Shire on Her Screen Partnership With Sylvester Stallone and Creating...Adrian!

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in 'Rocky' (Photo: Everett)
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in ‘Rocky’ (Photo: Everett)

“Adriaaannnnn!” It’s hard to think of a more memorable movie scene than the moment when Rocky, bruised and battered after his epic fight with Apollo Creed, cries out for his soul mate Adrian Pennino. The classic boxing drama Rocky first hit theaters 40 years ago today on Nov. 21, 1976. In honor of that auspicious anniversary, we talked to actress Talia Shire, who brought the nerdy pet-store worker to vivid life four decades ago. She recalled working with Sylvester Stallone, finding her character’s voice — and wardrobe — and creating that memorable first date.

Where did Adrian come from? How much of the character was spelled out in the script versus what came out while you were acting with Sylvester Stallone (who also wrote the screenplay) and working with director John G. Avildsen?
I cannot tell you how the gods put together that moment in time. Rocky was brilliant on the page. We had a great director, and we were blessed by not having any money, because it gave us permission to be creative. We relied on each other as acting partners, as a true ensemble, very much inspired by Burgess Meredith [who played trainer Mickey Goldmill]. I was a very shy woman, so I understood that girl. And I understood that the greatest thing in the world for myself, and for a woman like that, was to have some man appreciate her. That, boy, that would be everything. Sylvester wrote Adrian to truly be his partner: a woman he looked to for guidance about right and wrong. And people become very beautiful when they’re loved.

Watch the famous “Adrian!” scene:

Have you seen Stallone recently?
I saw him do that performance [in 2015’s Creed]. I thought as Rocky he was so brilliant, and I felt very connected. Even though I was not in that movie or the one before it [2006’s Rocky Balboa, which catches up with the fighter after Adrian’s death], spiritually I felt very much a part of those two movies, and so proud of Sylvester’s work. I think he’s just a great artist. His power comes from his sensitivity and vulnerability. Adrian is not a woman that Rocky tries to oppress, but a woman he wants to listen to in some equal way. Sylvester wrote that part. He wrote what he esteems and believes is the best part of being partnered with a woman.

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire at the 20th anniversary screening in California (Photo: SGranitz/WireImage)
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire at the 20th anniversary screening in California (Photo: SGranitz/WireImage)

Rocky came out in the 1970s, the so-called women’s decade: So much was happening with feminism. I don’t know if Stallone saw himself a feminist, but the very concept of a man and woman being equal partners onscreen was kind of a liberating, relatively new concept.
Well, remember, it was also a celebration of America: 1776 to 1976. You have to have the balance in the partnership. That’s how democracy works. It’s not about being an arch-feminist. You always want to empower your partner because it means you’re better yourself.

Speaking of being empowered, Adrian goes through quite a transformation in the first film. What do the clothes say about the character? Did you pick her cat’s eye glasses and outfits?
John Avildsen said, ‘I want you to go out, get your clothes,’ and I did. I went to a secondhand shop. I went to my eye doctor, and he said, ‘Here’s some old glasses.’ I put that character together, the whole thing. When you have a transformation, you have to start from one place and go to another. I’ve seen in my lifetime many women who hide out, feeling less than beautiful in a time when beauty gets you the best seat on the bus. That was really a big part of what John Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone wanted: That love story. Unshakable, those two.

Let’s talk about the famous first date, when Rocky and Adrian go ice-skating in an empty rink. It’s such a memorable scene, but was it partly due to the film’s budget restrictions?
We were going to shoot that ice-skating sequence in Philadelphia in a crowded, holiday ice-skating rink, but we didn’t have enough money to do that. So, we had to go back to Los Angeles. Not having money, we had to find a rink, and we had to find a day when there was nobody there. So, it was invented out of necessity. And it worked, right? That was the fun part. We were lucky, because all of those accidents kept adding up to the wonderful texture and eccentricity that serviced the piece. I love to play, and I love to partner. I loved that in Rocky. I really felt I was in the right partnership with Sylvester — and I loved every second of that.

Related: 72 Hard-Hitting Facts About the ‘Rocky’ Movies

Related: See Sylvester Stallone Punch Pose with Other Famous Stars Through the Years

Watch the first-date scene: