Chuck Wepner is 78, still sharp of mind and (mostly) sound physically, off drugs for nearly 30 years and (mostly) off alcohol for five.
Best of all, unlike many of his contemporaries from the old days, he is alive. So, no complaints here.
“I consider myself very, very fortunate, especially with the punches I took,” Wepner said Tuesday in an interview to promote the new film about him, “Chuck,” which opens on Friday. “If I was to drop dead right now, I still had a great life. I’ve lived it to the fullest.
“I’ve had ups and downs. That might sound a little corny, but I got through it, and you know what? Even the bad times were great times. I was Chuck Wepner. I was ‘Rocky.’”
Sounds like the makings of an interesting movie, and so it is, having been screened at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals — when it went by its original name, “The Bleeder” — and last week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Now anyone can see it, as Liev Schreiber channels the good, the bad and the ugly of a colorful figure most famous for lasting deep into the 15th round against Muhammad Ali in 1975 and allegedly for being an inspiration for the fictional Rocky Balboa.
Along the way there were three marriages, cocaine addiction, too much drinking, prison and fights with both a bear and Andre the Giant.
Wepner is eating up the attention, from observing the filming on set to doing interviews to attending premieres. And, yes, he liked the movie.
“I thought it was great,” he said. “Liev Schreiber, I loved. Naomi Watts [who plays his wife, Linda], I mean, c’mon . . . It showed the problems with being a celebrity and how it is when you’re up and when you get jammed up. But that’s 30 years ago. It’s all in the past and everything is good now.”
Wepner was not a big fan of the original name of the film, much as in real life he was not a big fan of his nickname, “The Bayonne Bleeder.” He also rejected earlier versions of the script and earlier choices for lead actor, in consultation with producer Mike Tollin.
Like anyone who ever has had his or her life portrayed in a scripted film, Wepner had to get used to the idea that reality sometimes is sacrificed in the name of the narrative.
Most of the tweaks to the truth did not concern him, but one did.
“They depicted me as a guy who was in the Bum of the Month Club,” he said. “That bothered me. I mean, when I fought Ali, I was [ranked] eighth in the world and I was [ranked] for 42 straight months when we had arguably the greatest heavyweights of all time: Foreman, Liston, Ali, Frazier, Norton. I mean, c’mon . . . I was a ranked guy.”
So, yes, he came into the Ali fight with more impressive credentials than Rocky did against Apollo Creed. True, Balboa did last until the end of the 15th and Wepner did not, but Wepner was being hit with real punches.
He said the movie’s depiction of the respect that Stallone afforded him was accurate, as was the scene in which Wepner auditions for a role in “Rocky II” but blows it.
“I was on a two-day bender with my friends; I didn’t do well,” he said.
Wepner said Linda loved the film, in part because as Tollin explained all along, “Chuck” is not a pure boxing movie.
“It wasn’t just a raw fight movie,” Wepner said. “It was a love story, too.” It depicts the self-inflicted problems he had in his second marriage, then his courtship of Linda.
The movie already is in the black, thanks to a modest budget of under $5 million. He hopes people will find it inspirational. “I think it tells people, hey, you can be down, but you can come back,” he said.
Wepner still works as a liquor salesman for the same company he has been with for 50 years, and still lives in his native Bayonne, New Jersey. Now this.
“I’m getting more notoriety and more calls; it’s just amazing,” he said. “Everything’s been a plus; there’s no minus.”
He said feels good, considering the beatings he took from Sonny Liston, Ali and others. He has “a little spinal stenosis” and said his “stomach is a little screwed up” after he had a polyp removed about 11 years ago. He goes through a couple of bottles of Pepto Bismo pills a month.
The drugs are long gone from his life, he said, but after the premiere at TriBeCa last Friday, Schreiber convinced him to have a couple of celebratory drinks, a rarity for him these days.
Wepner said he weighs only eight pounds more than the 228 he carried when he fought for the title, and he still goes to the gym regularly.
Last June Wepner traveled to Louisville for the funeral of his old adversary and later friend, Ali.
“I was sad, and yet I was very happy to be there,” he said. “It was a great tribute to a great guy. He was always great to me. ”