ARCHIVES: While filming documentary in Scranton, Rocky impersonator is ‘living the dream’
Last Saturday morning, a small film crew drove into Scranton to embark on their second day of shooting an as-yet-untitled documentary inspired by “Cue the Rocky Music,” a memoir written by city native Mike Kunda. The book recounts Kunda’s childhood dream of growing up to be just like Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer played and created by Stallone in a series of films spanning 30 years.
In a way, he would end up fulfilling that dream decades later by becoming a professional Rocky impersonator in Philadelphia, winning a look-alike contest there in 2006. A series of strange but true coincidences led Kunda to meet Stallone himself several times, so as a “thank you” to his hero, he wrote the book about how the movie series, and the man behind it, inspired him to follow his heart.
It soon became clear to Kunda, however, that he wasn’t the only one moved by the heavyweight champion’s tale. After sharing his own “Rocky” story with the world, he realized that many other fans also had stories to tell, so he recruited fellow “Rocky” enthusiast Jim Toscano to direct the unique documentary.
Toscano, fittingly, met Kunda near the set of “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth and final film of the series, in 2006 on location in Philadelphia. Both were waiting out in the cold, hoping to catch a glimpse of Stallone while he worked, and struck up a conversation that led to their current friendship. Working as a video producer for an advertising agency, he felt compelled to make his friend’s story his first feature-length film.
“I felt like if I didn’t do it, somebody else would and it would kill me. And I’m a Rocky fan. I’ve always heard that the only way you can do a good documentary is to do it about something you’re passionate about. I’m passionate about Rocky and I’m passionate about filmmaking, so this is a real dream for me,” Toscano explained.
After working a full week, Toscano and his brother-in-law, Sean Johnston, who is serving as the film’s production assistant, drove nine hours from their homes in Metro Detroit to Camp Hill, where Kunda currently resides, and picked him and his wife up to begin shooting on Friday. Their first stop was Easton, where they met former Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes for an interview in his office.
Holmes, who fought many times in Scranton, was “thrilled,” they said, to discuss “Rocky” with them and recalled a conversation about boxing he had with Kunda when he was a teen, convincing the impressionable youth that he wasn’t cut out for the sport despite his love of all things “Rocky.”
Nevertheless, this chat didn’t discourage Kunda from dreaming, and the next day, when he arrived back in his hometown, he captured many others’ dreams on film while recounting his own. Shooting locations included the boxing ring at the Weston Field House, the Riverfront Sports Complex, the roof of the Electric City Garage, the old concrete steps behind the Novembrino Swim Complex, and his parents’ home in West Side.
“I’m so proud of Scranton. I love this city. If this can help promote the city, Weston Field, the Miners – everyone will know the opportunities that are here,” Kunda said.
Jerry Foley, a groundskeeper at West Scranton Intermediate, told the filmmakers his “Rocky” story at the Weston Field House, where a “Rocky” poster hangs alongside real boxing promotional advertisements. Occasionally coaching amateur boxers, Foley was a local boxer himself in the 1970s. He saw a lot of himself in Balboa, a young man who could have ended up in trouble if not for the sport they both loved.
“[Boxing] is very, very hard. It’s a lot of obligation. It could take a street-wise punk like me, bring him to the gym, and make him a man, and that’s what happened,” Foley told the camera.
“As my manager said, I had a million-dollar body and ten-cent head.”
Foley said he has seen a lot of great things come out of Scranton, and he suspects that Kunda could be one of them.
“He looks like a young Rocky – Pebbles!” he joked. “I think he could sell a couple autographs in Scranton after we leave here!”
The series hasn’t just inspired boxers, but football players as well. After talking with players of the NEPA Miners, a Scranton-based minor league football team, the crew spoke with Dan LaMagna, co-owner, head coach, and “diehard Rocky fan.”
“Rocky was a million-to-one shot. That’s our guys here today. They’re living the dream. This is their million-to-one shot. That was Rocky. If you can’t draw inspiration from that, you can’t draw inspiration from anything,” LaMagna insisted.
Discovering Kunda’s story through an Internet article, he reached out to him and offered to help with the documentary in any way he could. LaMagna said he often plays clips from the films to inspire his players and has overheard them reciting lines for motivation. After a particularly “rough” game, he showed the team a scene from “Rocky Balboa” and they subsequently “bounced back” and won the following game.
“Maybe Rocky had something to do that. I don’t know,” LaMagna said with a smile.
After pausing briefly for dinner, the crew interviewed Kunda’s family in their home until late into the evening. Despite his unusual profession, his gushing parents are nothing but proud of how far he has taken his story.
“I am absolutely thrilled with Michael, even though he didn’t follow mother’s advice all the time. I couldn’t ask for a better son with a bigger heart. He’s absolutely the best. I love him dearly,” said Dee Kunda, his mother.
“We’re two of the proudest parents that you could imagine. We have this wonderful, crazy kid who’s lived this crazy dream that goes beyond anything we ever thought possible,” echoed his father, Michael Kunda.
“He never stopped believing the dream. That’s the thing that thrills me to death to this day. He never stopped dreaming.”
Kunda himself, often cracking jokes, was humbled as the second day of filming came to a close.
“It’s uncomfortable. Oddly uncomfortable. It’s weird having people say nice things about me. Usually they throw tomatoes and soup cans,” Kunda quipped.
“Seriously, it’s humbling. Two guys drove nine hours from Detroit because they believe in this. It’s just a little surreal right now. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ to Sylvester Stallone. That’s all I wanted. If any of this goes further, it’s the cherry on top for me.”
“We’ve got a terrific story. We’ve got very enthusiastic people. We’ve got a passionate director. You can really tell that is coming together very well,” Johnston added.
Toscano, who is producing the documentary under his own company, Toscano Media, hopes to be done shooting by December of this year and release the film by mid-2012.
Like his look-a-like counterpart, no one is more excited for Kunda’s potential success than his wife, Sue Kunda, who acts as the “Adrian” to his “Rocky.”
“It was in my marriage contract – to love, honor, and obey all things Rocky – and I said, ‘I do,’ so I’m in for life,” Sue cracked.
“This is bigger than anyone thought it would ever be. … I have to believe that the outcome of this is going to be his Rocky moment.”
Read the first story on Kunda from 2010 here.
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, photographer, and podcast host. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.