Ted Kotcheff Went Against Hollywood Wisdom To Cast Sylvester Stallone As Rambo

Of the five films in the "Rambo" franchise, four of them are exactly what you expect. Sylvester Stallone, muscles glistening, killing bad guy after nameless bad guy in various cool ways. They have a reputation of some of the most definitively '80s action movies, and deservedly so.

The first movie in the franchise, "First Blood," is a very different movie, however. "First Blood” is a much bleaker, less exciting movie. It's the tale of a veteran who returns home from Vietnam to a country that completely rejects him. Rambo's killing is not a cool skill but a wretched curse. It was meant to be a serious movie about how America treats its veterans as disposable tools, and Stallone actually found the reputation the series got pretty embarrassing.

Stallone co-wrote the film with director Ted Kotcheff, who brought Stallone in very intentionally as his lead. According to an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Kotcheff received some resistance from executives when he suggested they cast Stallone.

"There was a moment of hesitation, because the perceived wisdom in Hollywood at that time was that Stallone was only successful in 'Rocky' movies. The other films he had made – 'Paradise Alley,' 'F.I.S.T.,' 'Nighthawks,' I can't remember what else – they had all died. I said, 'I don't give a damn what the perceived wisdom is, he's perfect for the part. He's tough, but he's also empathetic and capable of great sensitivity. I can't see anybody else playing that part.'"

It's hard imagining this for such a bona fide star as Stallone, but studios didn't want him playing "Rocky" either. He had been underestimated before and proved everyone wrong, and his work on "First Blood" was no different.

Good populist sense

Once Kotcheff and Stallone got to work on the movie together, things clicked pretty quickly, according to Kotcheff in an interview. "When I cast Sylvester, we worked on the script together. And thing about Sylvester is — he has a very good populist sense. While we were shooting the film, we had a pretty good idea what it was all about."

According to Kotcheff, Stallone was not only invaluable as an on-screen star, but as a writing partner as well, making some major changes to the script that improved the movie.

"Originally Rambo got a hold of a gun and started knocking off National Guardsmen, these weekend warriors who worked at drug stores. Sylvester correctly pointed out that audiences would hate this guy if he did that – he was a Congressional Medal of Honor Winner, a Green Beret, he shouldn't be killing these guys just putting on uniforms for the weekend. As soon as Sylvester said it I knew he was absolutely right; I felt that this should be a guy who's sick and tired of violence. Of his own people being killed. Of the Vietnamese people being killed. The last thing he wants is to come back to America and start killing people."

Once again, studio executives were dead wrong about Sly Stallone. He was the perfect man to play Rambo, and he seemed to understand what "First Blood" was going for as a movie more than almost anyone. It was a huge commercial and critical success, and spawned a bunch of sequels that eventually sort of lost the plot. But "First Blood" remains unimpeachable, a surprisingly thoughtful movie about how we treat our veterans.