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Shooting continues for 30 more minutes; the day's work will consume several hours. It will take six such days to complete what will ultimately be about 10 minutes of screen time.
"Bingo!" yells Nickerson when an eight-punch segment works.
"Print it!" shouts Herrington.
Shooting stops while the technical crew sets up a crane for some aerial shots. Marshall, made up with ribs bruised purple, blood running from his nose and a left cheek hastily stitched, munches on a sandwich. Dennehy yells for some Advil. Loggia chats politely with extras. It's a break in the action, Hollywood-style.
Nickerson grew up in Pittsburgh in a house that overlooked the Monongahela River and the steel mills downtown where his father worked. It was a tough neighborhood, not far from where Fritzie Zivic, world welterweight champ in 1940, grew up. In 1956, when Nickerson was seven, his family moved from Pittsburgh to San Fernando, Calif. The new neighborhood had a smorgasbord of rodeo riders, Hollywood stuntmen, a few boxers. Nickerson tagged along after them. At eight he had his own horse and was able to flip off the sorrel's back, just like the stuntmen did. By age 15 Nickerson was swinging a rope on the professional rodeo circuit. At 16 he was hanging out at a gym in Ventura and boxing as an amateur light heavyweight. At age 18, he had a 16-1 record.
In 1968, Nickerson, then 20, got his first stunt work in the television Western Lancer. "I was thrown out the window onto the boardwalk, then vaulted onto a horse and galloped out of town," he recalls. Parts in Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Big Valley followed, and then, in 1970, Nickerson landed the job of stunt coordinator for the TV Western Alias Smith and Jones. He worked as stunt double for one of the show's stars, Ben Murphy, and performed the same service for Caan and Gene Hackman in feature films.
In 1975, Nickerson got a call from producer Robert Chartoff to work on Rocky. Chartoff gave Nickerson a date and time and said he was to meet a guy named Stallone outside a Santa Monica gym. Nickerson pulled up at the appointed hour in his brand-new Porsche and noticed a guy loitering on the sidewalk. Nickerson was worried the lug would steal his car. "Nice wheels," the guy said with a snarl. "That's mine over there." He pointed to a swamp-green Mercury Monarch beater with a front bumper that was wired on. "You Nickerson? I'm Stallone."
Rocky, shot in just 28 days and with a paltry production budget of a million dollars, "was where I learned how to shoot a boxing match," says Nickerson. He stationed eight cameras around the ring and let them roll. Then, by watching the daily rushes, he learned which camera angles were effective and which weren't. "We shot mostly over the shoulder and told actors to aim for the middle of the forehead," says Nickerson. "For profiles, the actors punched in different zones so the camera couldn't see the missed hit."
Nickerson got not only a crash course in fight filming during the making of Rocky, but also lessons in real-world boxing. He sparred between takes with Joe Frazier, who shot a cameo for Rocky before fighting Muhammad Ali in Manila. Frazier showed Nickerson some moves he was practicing for the Thrilla, and Nickerson has incorporated them in his choreography ever since. "For example, Frazier would get Ali in the clinch and then-boom!—take every opportunity to punch Ali on the top of the deltoids, hard," says Nickerson. "By the late rounds Ali couldn't lift his arms to jab." Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976 and remains the only boxing movie so honored.
Nickerson's next project was Rocky II, which was released in 1979. "Much better fights than Rocky," he says. "The actors had really learned how to box. Turn off the volume and watch fights from the two movies. You can see for yourself how Bill Conti's music and the sound-effects people saved the Rocky fight scenes."