Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) is based on the life of middleweight champion Rocky Graziano. The film was Paul Newman’s chance at stardom, and he didn’t let the opportunity pass him by. Newman delivers an impressive performance as Graziano, an imperfect man who, despite a difficult path, ultimately decides to rise above his circumstances and mistakes.
Let’s get to the plot.
We’re immediately drawn into the film when we see Rocky as a young boy, getting an intense beating by his dad. It’s hard to watch, but the scene underscores an important point: the deck was stacked against Rocky Graziano from the beginning.
We see Rocky mature into a young man, and this is where Paul Newman enters the film.
The Delinquent Rocky
Growing up in 1920s-1930s New York City, Rocky constantly gets into all sorts of trouble with his gang (which includes a very young Steve McQueen and Sal Mineo).
Eventually, Rocky ends up in a reformatory. Then Rikers. He’s next drafted into WWII military service, but he deserts the army after knocking out a captain. In the 4-month time he’s a deserter, Rocky discovers his natural talent for boxing.
He’s inexperienced, but Rocky still wins his first match.
The Beginning of Rocky's Boxing Career
The army tracks Rocky down, and he’s dishonorably discharged before being sent to Leavenworth for nine months. But it’s at Leavenworth that Rocky gets his formal boxing training. By the time he leaves Leavenworth, Rocky is virtually unbeatable in the boxing ring.
Rocky is a free man set on the straight and narrow by boxing. Boxing gives Rocky a way to earn an honest living, and a way to feel like a person of worth.
Rocky gains many fans and becomes a favorite to win the title of middleweight champion. He falls in love with, and marries, the quietly strong Norma (Pier Angeli).
But Rocky’s newly virtuous path is thrown off course when a former prison buddy blackmails him to throw a fight. Rocky fakes an injury to avoid throwing the fight, or turning his slimy friend in. But he loses his license to box in New York nonetheless.
Luckily, his manager still arranges for Rocky to fight his nemesis in the ring, the reigning middleweight champion, Tony Zale, in a match in Chicago.
With the love and support of Norma, boosting his morale every step of the way, Rocky rises to the challenge.
After five tough rounds in the ring, it looks like Zale will come out the clean victor. But Rocky turns things around. Rocky beats Zale in the 6th round, and becomes the new middleweight champion.
And that’s the end of the film.
Other Contenders for Somebody Up There Likes Me
Paul Newman was not the original choice to play Rocky Graziano. James Dean was the favorite for a long time, but his untimely death led to other actors being considered. Montgomery Clift, even Marlon Brando–who actually used Graziano as his inspiration for the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire–seemed promising choices for the part.
Interesting side note: when Rocky Graziano and his wife went to see Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, Brando’s inspiration for the role didn’t escape Rocky, and he exclaimed, “That kid is playin’ me!”
But in the end, it was Paul Newman who won the coveted role. Newman knew it was his big break, and he took the opportunity and ran with it.
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Somebody Up There Likes Me: Paul Newman’s Big Break
Somebody Up There Likes Me was Paul Newman’s chance to make it in films. He already had one feature film release under his belt, 1954’s The Silver Chalice. But the biblical drama did poorly and was a personal embarrassment for Paul. So much so that in 1963, when The Silver Chalice was scheduled to play on television for the first time, Newman took out a few ads to publicly apologize for what he thought was the absolute worst performance of his career.
Somebody Up There Likes Me was Paul’s chance at redemption after the embarrassment of The Silver Chalice. He knew he had to make the most of this rare opportunity, and was prepared to work hard.
Paul Newman Gets Sexy for Somebody Up There Likes Me
If you remember from my introduction article on Paul Newman, his director in the 1953 Broadway run of Picnic told Paul he wasn’t sexy enough to be a leading man. Newman really took that to heart, and in his own words,
“The way I translated that was six hours in the gym every day.”
Six hours in the gym everyday also helped Paul bulk up for Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman even trained at Stillman’s, the Manhattan boxing gym where Rocky Graziano himself worked out.
Paul put so much tenacious work behind his boxing training that he got pretty proficient at the sport.
Newman Fights the Real Tony Zale
Originally, Warner Brothers wanted Tony Zale to play himself in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Zale and Newman even did a trial match in the ring.
But it didn’t go well.
Since Paul was trying his hardest to win the match, Zale decided to do the same. As Zale said of the match:
“I don’t mind waltzing a little bit, but you gotta show who the boss is.”
Ultimately, Zale threw Paul a punch that was a little too strong for the studio’s liking. The match was quickly ended, as was the offer for Zale to play himself in the film.
Probably for the best, given Zale’s hold-nothing-back attitude.
Rave Reviews for Somebody Up There Likes Me
In addition to his rigorous boxing training, Paul Newman spent countless hours with the real Rocky Graziano to prepare for the film. Paul learned to emulate Graziano’s mannerisms, down to the way Graziano talked and walked. Paul’s goal was not to imitate Graziano, but, as Paul himself put it, to:
“Find universal physical things that he did, or emotional responses that he had to certain things, that would allow me to create not the Rocky Graziano but a Graziano.”
All of the observation and hard work paid off. The reviews for Paul Newman’s performance in Somebody Up There Likes Me were universally positive, even from the all-important Bosley Crowther of the New York Times.
The Brando Comparisons
Following the positive critical reviews for Somebody Up There Likes Me, Paul Newman found himself not just being compared to Marlon Brando, but confused for him.
And it wasn’t just the critics who went so far as to say that Newman looked like Brando: Paul later said that during this early period of his film career, fans often mistook him for Brando. Paul estimated that he signed at least 500 autographs:
“Best wishes, Marlon Brando.”
You have to appreciate Paul’s sense of humor.