‘Rocky II’ Wouldn’t Have Been Made if Martin Scorsese Couldn’t Do ‘Raging Bull’

In a career full of masterpieces, the Martin Scorsese film many consider his magnum opus is Raging Bull (1980). On its 10th anniversary, a poll of critics named it the best picture of the ’80s. When the AFI released its list of 100 greatest American movies in 2007, Raging Bull took fourth place.

While so many things stand out in Raging Bull — the music, the cinematography, the supporting work of Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty — the performance of Robert De Niro in the lead role might stand above the rest. It wasn’t an accident: De Niro saw massive potential in the project, and prepared for years.

After De Niro convinced Scorsese to take up the film, producer Irwin Winkler and his partner Bob Chartoff set about getting financing from United Artists. But UA said no (in no uncertain terms). Winkler, who’d produced the smash-hit Rocky (1976) for UA, informed the studio they wouldn’t be making any sequel unless Raging Bull got made.

‘Raging Bull’ producer Irwin Winkler had the rights to ‘Rocky II’

'Rocky II' still
Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky II” | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Film buffs might toss around the word “legendary” too often. However, in the case of Irwin Winkler, the label applies. He started his career with Point Blank (1967) and, after hooking up with Scorsese in the ’70s, went on to produce Goodfellas (1990).

For a certain type of film fan, those two pictures alone cemented Irwin’s legacy as one of the greats. But the man also produced all eight films in the Rocky franchise (up to an including 2018’s Creed II). Over the years, he’s brought the heights of film art and a slew of blockbusters to the screen.

Winkler knew the type of juice he had after Rocky. Working with a budget around $1 million, the film brought in well over 100 times that. In his 2019 book A Life in Movies, Winkler decided he’d use some of that leverage when the time came to secure financing for Raging Bull.

Winkler had become passionate about the film; UA didn’t want any part of it. Unfortunately for the studio, Winkler had the rights to Rocky II. So they’d have to go through him if a sequel was to be made. Winkler’s price was UA taking Scorsese’s film seriously.

Winkler told UA that ‘Rocky II’ was dead unless ‘Raging Bull’ got made

Scorsese and De Niro on Raging Bull set
Robert de Niro talks with director Martin Scorsese on the set of ‘Raging Bull.’ | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In A Life in Movies, Winkler details the unusual technique he used to get financing for Raging Bull. He began by setting up a meeting with Scorsese, De Niro, and two uninterested UA studio executives. Right before the meeting, Winkler heard one UA exec say they had “absolutely no intention” of making the movie.

During the meeting, the studio figures pissed off De Niro by insulting the script and the Jake La Motta character. Cool as a cucumber, Winkler told De Niro and Scorsese they’d be making the film and went back to work — this time, on the boss of the UA studio.

“[Bob Chartoff and I] made it clear that there would be no Rocky II if there was no Raging Bull.” Winkler wrote about the meeting. “We were serious; it was not a bluff.” Soon enough, Winkler got the green light he’d promised Scorsese and De Niro. And they made their masterpiece. UA made out just fine as well. In addition to Rocky II, the studio got all six Rocky sequels.