Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): Robert Wise’s Dramatic Biopic, Starring Paul Newman as Middleweight Boxer Rocky Graziano

Robert Wise’s dramatic biopic, Somebody Up There Likes Me, based on the life of middleweight boxing legend Rocky Graziano, is the movie that put Paul Newman on the map as a major actor and star, who can carry a picture.

The film is also notable for being one of the the first to cast Steve McQueen in a significant part, launching him on a path to major stardom.

It also marked the acting debuts of Frank Campanella, Robert Loggia and Dean Jones, all in bit parts and uncredited.

James Dean was first cast for the role of Rocky, before his death in 1955 in an automobile accident. The relatively unknown Newman was then chosen as a replacement.

After the huge flop of his debut, “The Silver Chalice,” Paul Newman, then age 31, scored big, when he was offered on loan-out to MGM, with the role of Rocky Graziano, in the film version of the autobiography, co-written by the fighter and Rowland Barber.With this picture, which was a box-office hit, Newman was immediately recognized the major actor capable of solid, in-depth characterization. Before shooting began, Newman spent some time in New York with Graziano, absorbing the fighter’s approach, mannerism, walk, vocal tones, speech patterns, and boxing stance.

This movie began Newman’s second chapter in Hollywood, one marked by painstaking preparation, working out at the YMCA gym, and brushing up on his boxing with top pros. Earlier, he had returned to Broadway, where he scored resoundingly as the half-demented gangster in “The Desperate Hours,” a movie later made into a big-screen Hollywood entertainment with Humphrey Bogart playing the Newman role.

Newman was anxious to make good this time around and Robert Wise, a good actor’s director, understood how to bring the best in individual performers, according to their special gifts and creative insights, guiding Newman thoroughly with masterful control and understanding. In peak condition, Newman, a grad of the prestigious Actors Studio, lent himself readily to the Graziano part, incorporated techniques

Ernest Lehman’s taut, hard-hitting follows in broad outlines of the nook Graziano co-wrote with Barber: the under-privileged childhood and adolescence, the descent into delinquency and crime, the fixed fights, the beginning of self-respect, the gradual climb to his own brand of human dignity and the channeling of his energies into a constructive career as a boxer.

Newman benefited from the sincere support from Pier Angeli (who was also his co-star in “Silver Chalice”), Everett Sloane, Harold Stone and Eileen Heckhart as his parents, and the young Sal Mineo, who a year earlier impressed as the troubled youth in Nicholas Ray’s cult youth film, “A Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean.

Unfortunately, ever since his first picture, Newman continued to be compared to Marlon Brando, due to (superficial) similarities in appearance, youthful rebellion, Method training, and general aura. In “Silver Chalice,” some critics said Newman looked like Brando in “Julius Caesar,” and in “Somebody Up There Like Me,” they said Newman looked like Brando in Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (1954), Brando’s first Oscar-winning role. The Brando look-alike tag persisted for years, though it gradually became apparent that Newman was a distinctive actor with his unique style and qualities.

For his part, Neeman made no secret of his resentment of this persistent comparison, which he considered a handicap and a disservice to both of them. Once, Newman, irritated, quipped to a journalist, “Maybe they’ll say someday that Brando looks like me!

Robert Wise began his career as editor (Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” among others) before embraking on a directing career that included “I Want to Live!,” “The Sand Pebbles,” also with Steve McQueen, amd two Oscar-winning blocbusters, “West Side Story,” in 1961, with Jerome Robbins, and the musical “The Sound of Music,” in 1965, starring Julie Andrews.

Credits

Produced by Charles Schnee
Directed by Robert Wise
Associate producer: James E. Newcomb
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, based on the memoirs of Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber.
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Song: “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” sung by Perry Como, lyrics by Sammy Cahn.
Camera: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art director: Cedric Gibbons and Malcolm Brown
Editor: Albert Akst

Running time: 112 Minutes

Plot Synopsis

Beaten by his father, Rocky Barbella suffered a difficult childhood. He joins a street gang, and begins to be engaged in small criminal activities. Sent to prison, he’s rebellious to all authority figures. After his release, he is drafted by the U.S. Army, but runs away. Needing money, he becomes a boxer, realizing that he’s blessed with natural gift, winning six fights in a row before the army finds him and dishonorably discharges him.

Graziano serves a year in hard labor camp, after which he resumes his career as a boxer. While working his way up, he is introduced to his sister’s friend Norma, whom he later marries. Starting a new, clean life, he rises to the top, losing only by forfeit and a title fight with Tony Zale. A person he knew in prison finds him and blackmails him into throwing a fight or he will release to the press his criminal history. Not wanting to throw the fight and not wanting to go against the blackmailer, Rocky fakes an injury and avoids the fight altogether. When he is interrogated by the district attorney, he refuses to name the blackmailer, and has his license suspended. His manager gets him a fight in Chicago to fight the middleweight champion, whom he had lost to in a previous fight. Rocky wins the fight.

Cast

Rocky Graziano (Paul Newman)
Norma Graziano (Pier Angeli)
Everett Sloane
Eileen Heckart
Sal Mineo
Ray Stricklyn

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