Rocky actor, former linebacker Carl Weathers dead at 76

Carl Weathers, a former linebacker who became a Hollywood action movie and comedy star — playing nemesis-turned-ally Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, facing off against Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator and teaching golf in Happy Gilmore — has died. He was 76.

Weathers died 'peacefully in his sleep' on Thursday, according to manager and family

A man with a grey sweater folded around his neck smiles slightly at the camera.
Actor and former Oakland Raiders player Carl Weathers stands on the Las Vegas Raiders sideline before the team's game against the Houston Texans at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Oct. 23, 2022. Weathers died earlier this week, according to his manager. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Carl Weathers, a former NFL and CFL linebacker who became a Hollywood action movie and comedy star — playing nemesis-turned-ally Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, facing off against Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator and teaching golf in Happy Gilmore — has died. He was 76.

Matt Luber, his manager, said Weathers died Thursday. His family issued a statement saying he died "peacefully in his  sleep."

Comfortable flexing his muscles on the big screen in Action Jackson as he was joking around on the small screen in such shows as Arrested Development, Weathers was perhaps most closely associated with Creed, who made his first appearance as the cocky, undisputed heavyweight world champion in 1976's Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone.

"It puts you on the map and makes your career, so to speak. But that's a one-off, so you've got to follow it up with something. Fortunately, those movies kept coming, and Apollo Creed became more and more in people's consciousness and welcome in their lives, and it was just the right guy at the right time," Weathers told The Daily Beast in 2017.

Creed vs. Rocky

Creed, who appeared in the first four Rocky movies, memorably died in the ring of 1984's Rocky IV, after going toe-to-toe with the hulking, steroid-using Soviet Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren.

Before Creed entered the ring, James Brown sang Living in America with showgirls and Creed popped up on a balcony in Star-Spangled Banner shorts, a waistcoat and an Uncle Sam hat, dancing and taunting Drago.

Two smiling men jokingly hold their fists up as if about to fight.
Weathers, left, and Sylvester Stallone, right, pose at a Hollywood event on Aug. 7, 2003. Weathers is perhaps best known for starring alongside Stallone in the Rocky movies. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

A bloodied Creed collapses in the ring after taking a vicious beating and is cradled by Rocky as he dies, inevitably setting up a fight between Drago and Rocky. (While Creed is gone, the character's son, Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan, would lead his own boxing trilogy starting in 2015.)

Weathers went on to 1987's Predator, where he flexed his pecs alongside Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura and a host of others, and 1988's nouveau-blaxploitation flick Action Jackson, in which he trains his flamethrower on a bad guy and asks, "How do you like your ribs?" before broiling him.

Two decades after he played for the B.C. Lions CFL team, his role as a veteran-turned-detective in the little-known crime drama Street Justice brought Weathers back to Vancouver to film. The series, which aired for two seasons, also starred Eric McCormack, who recalled Weathers' mentorship and gravitas on set.

"That was the first time I was ever on a TV show where I was very aware of what we call No. 1 on the call sheet," McCormack told CBC's On The Coast on Friday. "It was his show, and how he treated people below him mattered to everyone."

Weathers later added a false wooden hand to play a golf pro in the 1996 comedy classic Happy Gilmore opposite Adam Sandler.

That hand was built by film prop shop White Monkey Design in Vancouver, whose owner told CBC News in 2021 it took five or six times to make it comically ugly enough for the production company.

"A true great man. Great dad. Great actor. Great athlete," Sandler wrote in an Instagram post after news of Weathers' death broke.

"Love to his entire family and Carl will always be known as a true legend."

Weathers later starred in Dick Wolf's short-lived series Chicago Justice in 2017, and most recently in all three seasons of the Disney+ hit The Mandalorian, which earned him an Emmy Award nomination in 2021.

Weathers' Mandalorian co-star, Pedro Pascal, similarly shared his condolences, simply writing the caption "words fail." Mandalorian director Robert Rodriguez wrote, "His performances were always electrifying and he was also a terrific director of both stage and screen."

Weathers grew up admiring actors such as Woody Strode, whose combination of physique and acting prowess in Spartacus made an early impression. Others he idolized included actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and athletes Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, stars who broke the mould and the colour barrier.

"There are so many people that came before me who I admired and whose success I wanted to emulate, and just kind of hit the benchmarks they hit in terms of success, who created a pathway that I've been able to walk and find success as a result. And hopefully I can inspire someone else to do good work as well," he told the Detroit News in 2023. "I guess I'm just a lucky guy."

Football career

Growing up in New Orleans, Weathers started performing in plays as early as grade school. In high school, athletics took him down another path, but he would reunite with his first love later in life.

Weathers played college football at San Diego State University — where he majored in theatre — and went on to play for one season in the NFL, with the Oakland Raiders in 1970-71.

"When I found football, it was a completely different outlet," Weathers told the Detroit News. "It was more about the physicality, although one does feed the other. You needed some smarts because there were playbooks to study and film to study, to learn about the opposition on any given week."

A football card of a Black man wearing orange. The name is 'Carl Weathers' and his position is linebacker.
Weathers played for the B.C. Lions for 3 seasons in the 1970s. His football card states that he studied to be an actor during the off-season. (Submitted by Berdavark/Reddit)

Soon after, he went north — to Canada. Weathers signed with the B.C. Lions in 1971, where he would spend two years playing while finishing up his studies during the off-season at San Francisco State University. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in drama in 1974. 

"I travelled all through Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto to Quebec," Weathers told CBC's Radio Active in an interview late last year, to mark his appearance at Edmonton Comics and Entertainment Expo. 

"So many fans in Canada have been so really generous to me and have really appreciated the work I've done as an actor, and now as a director. And so, coming there is like returning to a place that you really enjoy being."

One of Weathers' former teammates on the B.C. Lions, Jim Young, praised his athletic and artistic talents. 

"He did very well with his life, he was a superb actor [and] he played football OK, too," Young said with a laugh.

Young said while he grew to respect Weathers as a teammate, their mutual frustrations on the field had also brought the two to blows during practice in Vancouver on more than one occasion.

"One coach would tell him not to let me get off the line and my coach would say get to where you have to be to catch the ball. So it went on and we both began to scream every day, and after a while it came down to fisticuffs," Young told CBC's On The Coast on Friday.

Still, Young was happy to see his teammate as his acting career took off in the decades since.

"I just watched two of the Creed movies in this last week and he has a commercial on with [former NFL player Rob] Gronkowski that at first you couldn't tell whether it was him on the motorbike or not, but then ... you couldn't miss that it was it was Carl Weathers," he said.

LISTEN | Weathers talks about the CFL and the silver screen:
Actor, director and former professional football player Carl Weathers is in town for the Edmonton Comics and Entertainment Expo and he'll join us to talk about his career.

An inauspicious start

After appearing in several films and TV shows, including Good TimesThe Six Million Dollar ManIn the Heat of the Night and Starsky & Hutch, as well as fighting Nazis alongside Harrison Ford in Force 10 From Navarone, Weathers landed his knockout role — Creed. He told the Hollywood Reporter that his start in the iconic franchise was not auspicious.

He was asked to read with the writer, Stallone, then unknown. Weathers read the scene but felt it didn't land and so he blurted out: "I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with," he recalled. "So I just insulted the star of the movie without really knowing it and not intending to."

He also lied that he had any boxing experience.

Later in life, Weathers developed a passion for directing, helming episodes of Silk Stalkings and the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Renegade. He even directed a season three episode of The Mandalorian.

A long of well-dressed people stand on a red carpet. Behind them is a photowall bearing the words "The Mandalorian."
Weathers, third from right, appears alongside his costars and coworkers at the premiere of The Mandalorian, at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on Nov. 13, 2019. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Weathers introduced himself to another generation when he portrayed himself as an opportunistic and extremely thrifty actor who becomes involved with the dysfunctional clan at the heart of Arrested Development.

The Weathers character likes to save money by making broth from discarded food —  "There's still plenty of meat on that bone" and "Baby, you got a stew going!" — and, for the right price, agrees to become an acting coach for delusional and talent-free thespian Tobias Funke, played by David Cross.

Weathers is survived by two sons.

With files from CBC News