The year 1955 was make-or-break time for a 29-year-old actor named Paul Newman.
Newman had appeared on Broadway in the 1953 original production of William Inge’s Picnic and had landed several roles on television (in the ‘50s, of course, New York was still the center of TV drama, which was aired live).
But his first movie, 1954’s The Silver Chalice, was an unambiguous stinker, an anemic sword-and-sandal drama about a young Greek silversmith (Newman) commissioned to build a protective chalice for the cup Jesus used in the Last Supper.
Newman had such a low opinion of The Silver Chalice that years later he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to apologize for the movie.
And then Dean was killed in a road accident and MGM, ready to begin production on Somebody Up There Likes Me, desperately needed a buff young actor to play the leading role of middleweight fighter Rocky Graziano. Originally James Dean had been cast, but now his brief career – and life – was over.
Newman got the nod, and a star was born.
Viewed today, Somebody... seems way ahead of its time. In telling Graziano’s story, director Robert Wise was determined to shoot the film not in a studio but on the very streets where young Rocky grew up angry and mean. He opted for deglamorizing black-and-white photography (cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg won the Oscar for his work on the movie).
And he elicited from Newman a performance so raw, brutish and ultimately affecting that it’s hard to imagine the heavily-mannered James Dean pulling it off so effectively.
Graziano’s memoir, on which Ernest Lehman’s screenplay was based, pulled no punches in describing young Rocky’s early life as an abused child, juvenile delinquent, prison inmate, army recruit and AWOL fugitive.
In fact, Graziano was the alias the young brawler assumed when he got into the fight game, realizing that as a wanted man he couldn’t enter the ring with the name he was born with: Rocky Barbella.
Newman did something very gutsy for a young actor. He created a character that many would find unsympathetic and then gradually introduced lighter elements until by movie’s end the entire audience was cheering a reformed Rocky on to victory.
And how’s this for an eerie coincidence? His leading lady was Pier Angeli, a former lover of James Dean.
Somebody Up There... not only made Newman a major star, it also introduced to the screen two other soon-to-be-familiar faces. Robert Loggia made his screen debut here as a neighborhood hoodlum. And in the rooftop gang rumble scene, keep an eye out for a young Steve McQueen. It was his first film appearance as well.
With a bit of hindsight it’s easy to see how this Robert Wise production provided a road map for other fight movies like Rocky (Rocky Barbella...Rocky Balboa...just a coincidence?) and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta was an even more reprehensible individual than the young Graziano.
See Bob's general introduction to the Robert Wise film series.
Other films in the series “Robert Wise: Hollywood Journeyman”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- January 2: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Not rated
- January 9: Two for the Seesaw (1962) Not rated
- January 23: I Want to Live! (1958) Not rated
- January 30: The Andromeda Strain (1971) Rated G
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 7: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) Not rated
- January 14: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) Not rated
- January 21: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Not rated
- January 28: The Sand Pebbles (1966) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.