The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Carl Weathers

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Carl Weathers

By Mother Brain

Very few professional athletes succeed in the movies. Ask O.J. Simpson. Yet, a rare few succeed and reach icon status among moviegoers. Carl Weathers, the costar of the Rocky movies and Predator, fits such a bill. Although his acting ability is not to the level of Sidney Poitier, Weathers had a charm and swagger that matched his athletic physique which made him the perfect fit for male-driven action films of the 70s and 80s.

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1948, Weathers caught the acting bug as a small child when he frequented the movies to see Sidney Poitier on the big screen. Poitier inspired a generation of African-American actors by portraying strong, educated black men and Weathers was one of those young men who dreamed of following in his footsteps. Football helped him get through the door as he began his career in the mid 1960s as a linebacker for Long Beach City College. Weathers soon transferred to San Diego State University where he no only played with future NFL star-turned-TV star of NBC’s Hunter, Fred Dryer but he also graduated with a degree in theater arts. Weathers later entered the NFL as a linebacker for the Oakland Raiders from 1970 to 1971 and joined the BC Lions in Canadian Football League. After spending 3 years with the CFL, Weathers quit football and pursued his aspirations of becoming an actor.

While his first acting role was that of a random demonstrator in the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, Weathers’ first notable role was on the hit TV show Good Times where he guest starred as a jealous spouse suspecting his wife of having an affair with J.J. (Jimmie Walker). He soon landed a number of guest spots on shows such as Kung Fu, S.W.A.T., and the Six Million Dollar Man just to name a few. On the big screen, Weathers was a small part of the blaxploitation movement by playing musclebound tough guys in Fred Williamson’s Bucktown and Pam Grier’s Friday Foster, both of which were directed by Weathers’ filmmaker friend, Arthur Marks.

The role that would bring Weathers national and worldwide attention was in 1976 when producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff were seeking actors to play the role of the flamboyant world champion Apollo Creed in a little romantic boxing flick called Rocky starring a complete unknown named Sylvester Stallone. With all charisma but no boxing skills, Weathers beat out boxing legend Ken Norton to play Creed and immediately trained with Stallone to capture the essence of Muhammed Ali, the inspiration for the character. Weathers’ performance in Rocky made him larger than life compared to the title character who just wanted to go the distance. The cocky Creed would ultimately find himself in the fight of his life against an underestimated opponent from the streets of Philadelphia. Rocky became more than a box office hit. Even more than an Oscar winning film. It was a global phenomenon that touched lives.

The success of Rocky allowed for sequels to be made as Weathers found his role evolve over the course of the series. In Rocky II, Creed demands a rematch with Rocky to prove the last fight was a fluke. His flamboyant attitude gets traded for a vengeful champion determined to win only to lose in an honorable fashion. In Rocky III, the former foe of the Italian Stallion turns into his greatest ally following the death of his trainer, helps him regain his edge, and trains him to win back his title against the menacing Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Finally, it was Rocky IV when an older Apollo met his tragic demise in the ring at the hands of the nearly indestructible Russian fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Despite the bittersweet ending, Creed’s legacy lived on for the rest of the series and still remains one of the most popular characters in the Rocky series next to the Italian Stallion himself.

Outside the Rocky series, Weathers capitalized on his tough guy image in testosterone-driven action films such as Semi-Tough with Burt Reynolds, Force 10 from Navarone with Harrison Ford, and Death Hunt with Charles Bronson. In 1986, Weathers took on the role made famous by his hero Sidney Poitier in a made-for-TV remake of The Defiant Ones. The following year, Weathers enter another popular film franchise as Major Dillion in the first installment of the Predator series. Of all the films, the original still remains one of the best sci-fi action films of all time as Weathers teams opposite star Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as future Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura as part of an elite unit being hunted down by a mythical creature in Central America. Weathers added to the Dirty Dozen-esque men of action by bringing the same level of antagonism towards Schwarzenegger as he had done previously with Stallone in Rocky. Decades later, the film received renewed interest after Schwarzenegger was elected Governor of California and jokes ran rampant about the Predator cast running for state offices. Weathers was willing to laugh at himself by appearing on this infamous Saturday Night Live sketch following Schwarzenegger’s election:

While working on Predator, Weathers became friendly with Hollywood super-producer Joel Silver who was attempting to restart the blaxploitation genre with a cop thriller called Action Jackson. Cast in the title role, Weathers played an ex-football star turned disgraced Detroit cop who gets framed for murder and goes on the run with a heroin-addicted singer (Vanity). Action Jackson featured the best of Weathers’ on-screen presence as an action hero and romantic leading man. Unfortunately, Joel Silver’s hopes of generating a Lethal Weapon-type franchise with Action Jackson were squashed when the film tanked in theaters; however, the combined appeal of Weathers as well as the early appearance of future superstar Sharon Stone helped the film garner cult status in the years since its release.

Weathers still remained popular in the 1990s even though he was regulated to TV star status. After appearing in Michael Jackson’s music video for Liberian Girl, Weathers starred in a number of mildly hit shows including Tour of Duty and Street Justice. In 1993, he replaced Carol O’Connor as the star of the CBS television series adaptation of the Sidney Poitier classic In the Heat of the Night. His newfound popularity would be come about in 1996 as the one handed golf mentor of Adam Sandler in Happy Gilmore. As Chubbs Peterson in the story about a temperamental hockey player turned golf pro, Weathers completely parodies his portrayal of Apollo Creed in Rocky III with the same charm and likability as his famous role. His hilarious death scene alone had people rolling down isles laughing their heads off. Happy Gilmore was very successful in theaters but had bigger success on video and the Chubbs role was so popular with Sandler’s fans, Weathers was called in to reprise the role as a cameo in Sandler’s 2000 comedy, Little Nicky.

Weathers continued to play caricatures of his famous role throughout most of the 90s and 2000s. His most recent stand out performances included the role of Tobias Funke’s acting coach on TV’s Arrested Development followed by his return to drama as Vic Mackey’s ex-training officer on The Shield. He even found a second career as a voice actor in the animated Spawn series and Adam Sandler’s animated feature, Eight Crazy Nights. In 2006, Weathers created some mild controversy when he turned down Sylvester Stallone’s request to use archive footage of Apollo Creed from the previous Rocky films for the latest entry to the series, Rocky Balboa. He wanted to play a physical role despite his death in Rocky IV and was too old to play the character in newly filmed flashbacks. This resulted in Stallone having to not show Weathers’ face during the brief montage of Rocky’s past fights.

While he may forever be remembered for Apollo Creed in Rocky, Carl Weathers still managed to make himself memorable anytime he stepped in front of the cameras regardless of his role. Even in the 80s when Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor were the only few black heroes in cinema, Weathers contrasted the famous comedians by portraying tough but charming black men full of wisdom and defiance. His performances not only in Rocky but also Predator and Action Jackson inspired many black actors along with hip-hop artists for years to come. His appeal can be defined in two ways: Weathers could often be the tough son of a bitch you love to hate or the mentor you want to get you back on your feet when times get tough. Rocky Balboa may be an icon for the world; however, Apollo Creed is an icon for an entire culture.

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