Carl Weathers, Legendary ‘Rocky’ Star with a Wicked Sense of Humor, Dead at 76

Carl Weathers is dead at the age of 76. It’s shocking to consider, even though his best-known character, Apollo Creed, in some ways was ultimately defined by his death in 1985’s “Rocky IV.” The franchise went on without him, and ultimately followed his son played by Michael B. Jordan. But for the next 38 years, there was the fact that Weathers was in reality alive, well, in astonishingly great shape, and underutilized.

Now, Weathers has died himself. And given that he was one of Hollywood’s most prominent musclemen of the late ’70s and ’80s, an era defined by fitness-obsessed actors who either were athletes or aspired to be them, 76 feels startlingly young. Especially given how vital and active he was up until the very end, even directing a couple episodes of “The Mandalorian” so good that one wishes he could have, for the sake of that show’s quality, directed more.

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If that’s a little dig to get in there, it’s fitting given Weathers’ persona. Of all the testosterone-fueled action stars of the Reagan era, he had the sharpest sense of humor, the most wicked self-awareness.

Instead of going the obvious, expected route of, say, appearing in the “Expendables” films — that vanity-project franchise spearheaded by his “Rocky” co-star Sylvester Stallone — to relive his heyday of “Rocky” and “Predator,” he poked fun at his persona in less ego-stroking ways. And he particularly made fun of “Predator,” in which his machine-gun-wielding CIA operative Al Dillon loses his arm from the title alien’s laser beam. It’s a milestone moment of ’80s excess, the ultimate in over-the-top acting. So in “Happy Gilmore,” he paid tribute to the moment by playing a golfer who lost his hand to an alligator. And then again as a toy version of himself, “Combat Carl,” in the delightful Pixar animated short, “Toy Story of Terror.” Combat Carl is indeed missing a hand there — it’s been swallowed by a toy-stealing iguana.

Then there’s his “Arrested Development” appearance, as himself, poking fun at the post-action heyday doldrums of his career to the extent that he shows himself trying to get Burger King to underwrite a new TV pilot he’s hoping to launch, an echo of how “Arrested Development” in real life had depended on Burger King as a sponsor. “Do you know you can get a refill on any drink you want here?” he asks David Cross’s Tobias.

Come on, you’re never gonna get Stallone or Schwarzenegger to do something that glorious.

Weathers was born in New Orleans on January 14, 1948. An all-around athlete, he was a star linebacker for San Diego State in the late ’60s, where he earned a master’s degree in theater. He played for the 1970 Oakland Raiders team that advanced to the AFC Championship Game. Released not long after, he turned his attention full-time to acting.

A few parts on TV (“Kung Fu” among them) and in blaxploitation films led the way to his appearance as world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in a small indie film called “Rocky” that ultimately became a blockbuster. This was a challenging role, in that he ostensibly had to be Rocky Balboa’s nemesis. But he’s full of such charisma, it’s hard to root against him. At one point in the movie when a reporter asks Rocky what he thinks of Creed, Rocky just says, “He’s great.” And of course, famously, Apollo wins! As we know, the point of the movie is that Rocky went the distance and that was as great an achievement as actually winning.

Of course, that was the ethos of when this still was an indie movie. The moment it became a franchise, winning suddenly became the thing. Apollo’s journey in the subsequent films is really complex. In “Rocky II,” he kinda is an outright villain, someone absolutely obsessed and hellbent on defeating Rocky in a rematch because everyone was so damn impressed by how the Italian Stallion had fared in their first go-round. Where he was all swagger in the first movie, he’s steely-eyed focused in the second.

[Spoiler alert, for those who haven’t seen these 40-year-old-plus movies.]

Rocky does defeat Apollo outright in “Rocky II,” and then something incredibly fascinating happens. They face a common enemy in “Rocky III” — the psychotic pugilist Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who in the world of the “Rocky” movies would surely have to be one of the most unpopular athletes of all time — and Apollo trains up Rocky in his own style to defeat Clubber. This leads to the iconic training-sequence montage that results in Weathers and Stallone frolicking in the surf together, celebrating each other’s strength. As Greta Gerwig has shared her love of Stallone profusely, it’s hard not to look at this scene and think it’s anything but a huge influence on the aesthetic of the Kens in “Barbie.”

Then there’s Apollo’s sudden fall in “Rocky IV,” killed in the ring by the monosyllabic Russian, Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Rocky is so close to Apollo by this point, and their relationship is so meaningful that the film becomes a revenge movie for him to defeat Drago in the ring himself. Apollo dying at the beginning of “Rocky IV” feels like the Great American Eagle itself brought low, a person standing in for the honor of a nation, now sullied in death. Achilles dragged Hector around Troy three times. Drago simply says, “If he dies, he dies.”

That specter of Apollo’s end hangs over the franchise from there on out, even despite Rocky’s attempt at ending the Cold War with his biceps. It’s the motivating factor behind the entire run of “Creed” movies that have been spun off in recent years.

The genius of Carl Weathers’ performance as Apollo is that, maudlin turn though his character takes, he’s so powerful that by the end it’s hard not to think of him as anything but the central character of the saga, and Rocky just a fellow traveler on his journey. That’s quite the achievement for an athlete-turned-actor, and speaks to the intelligence he brought to his work because of his formal theater training. Of all the adrenalized musclemen of ’80s cinema, he was the one who most brought brains to his art as well.

It’s no wonder then that in his last years, he found directing to be a natural fit as well. His two episodes of “The Mandalorian” are kinetic, rooted in the beauty and power of bodies in motion. The first, titled “The Siege,” for Season 2, is especially powerful, with a dynamic chase scene involving hovering speeder bikes (the kind that raced through the forest in “Return of the Jedi”) that looked more like what many fans imagine to be “Star Wars” than much of what these Disney+ shows have provided. It was almost like he was saying, enough of the worldbuilding, let’s move.

The thought behind Weathers’ work, the self-awareness of his persona, and his understanding of what audiences want — those things will endure. And it’s a powerful legacy.

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