MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There was a talking robot in “Rocky IV” because Sylvester Stallone had been using the robot to work with his autistic child.
The outside interests of a screenwriter, director or writer can have suprising influences on a film. For instance, George Lucas’ desire to impress his daughters nearly led to the band ‘N Sync appearing as Jedis in “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” and Kirk Cameron’s refusal to kiss anyone but his wife resulted in a bizarre piece of movie magic in “Fireproof.” It was that same kind of situation that led to one of the strangest movie characters of the 1980s, the talking robot in 1985’s “Rocky IV.”
The sequel was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, who reprised his franchise role as Rocky Balboa. The former heavyweight champion comes out of retirement to defeat Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, who killed Rocky’s friend and former trainer Apollo Creed during an exhibition match. “Rocky IV” was a massive success, becoming the highest-grossing sports film of all time, a title it held for more than two decades.
However, mixed into the otherwise-straightforward story is a rather bizarre subplot involving Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (played by Burt Young), one of only a handful of characters to appear in all of the films. Rocky gives Paulie a talking robot for his birthday, and the two appear together in a number of comedic scenes – including one in which the robot is inexplicably female and in love with Paulie.
It was weird at the time, and even weirder in retrospect. As it turns out, though, Stallone had a personal reason for including the robot.
It began with the work of Robert Doornick, founder of International Robotics, who believes that in certain situations, robots can deal with autistic children better than humans can. Soon after appearing on a talk show to discuss his theories, Doornick was contacted by Stallone, whose son Seargeoh was autistic. Autism was even less understood then than it is today, so Stallone kept his son’s autism secret and stopped doing any publicity involving his family; eventually, in 1985, Stallone revealed his son’s autism to “People” magazine.
Stallone and Doornick worked with Seargeoh using one robot in particular named Sico. At the time, Stallone was going through a divorce, and in order to keep his kids close to him, he wrote his older son Sage into “Rocky IV” as Rocky’s son, and included the robot Sico so he could have Seargeoh work with Doornick on set (Stallone also wrote his then-girlfriend Brigitte Nielson into the film for the same basic reason: He felt that his relationship with his wife suffered from being apart, so he wanted to keep Nelson close to him.)
Once the robot was in the movie, though, Stallone began to write more and more scenes for it (Doornick provided Sico’s voice). Eventually, most of these scenes were cut, as I suppose even Stallone had to concede that spending so much time on the robot was distracting from the overall tenor of the film. Doornick talks to Trivia Happy about one scene in particular that was filmed but then cut:
In the scene, Paulie and the robot had developed an odd couple relationship, with the robot complaining that Paulie always slept in the same T-shirt and made too much cigar smoke. The robot “found it offensive to [his] sensors.” So Paulie responded.
“Paulie shuts the robot down,” Doornick remembers, “opens the back panel, and changes the circuits to turn the robot completely female. Which is why in another scene, when the robot brings Paulie a beer, that’s my voice being synthesized into a woman’s voice. Most people in the movie don’t understand why the robot switched from a normal voice to a female voice. That’s why.”
Amusingly enough, Sico’s claim to fame didn’t stop with “Rocky IV.” In the film, legendary soul singer James Brown performs “Living in America,” which became a surprise success. Brown went on tour and brought Sico along with him. Sico would even sing a little bit during performances of “Living in America”! (Doornick recalled that Sico had to get a Screen Actors Guild card!)
Sico still appears at robotics conventions and makes various other public appearances.
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Jim S., who wrote in with the compelling question, “Why the heck was there a talking robot in ‘Rocky IV’?” And thanks to Trivia Happy’s Phil Edwards (as well as Robert Doornick) for the lowdown!
Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of films.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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