A person should not take credit for someone else’s work – though in rare cases, it might be okay to borrow it for a while. This worked to the unwitting advantage of Sylvester Stallone when he was struggling to get his first lead role in a motion picture. It was 1975, and Stallone had received some favorable attention for his role the previous year in The Lords of Flatbush, a movie about a Brooklyn street gang in the 1950s. His performance had brought him to the notice of producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. They met with Stallone, liked him personally, and were intrigued when he told them he had an idea for a boxing movie. After they read the script Stallone wrote for Rocky, they agreed to try to produce the movie with him in the starring role.
However, they still had to get the go-ahead – and the funds – from the head of United Artists, a man named Arthur Krim. Krim was skeptical about placing an unknown in the starring role, but Chartoff and Winkler thought they could convince Krim that Stallone had what it would take, by arranging for Krim to see Stallone’s performance in The Lords of Flatbush. So they sent a copy of that film to New York, where Krim worked, and the CEO and some minions sat in a screening room to watch it.
As the movie got going, Krim – an entertainment lawyer – apparently had trouble distinguishing its four leather-jacketed, well-greased protagonists, and asked aloud, “Which one is Stallone?” A minion from the back of the screening room indicated one of the gang members, and Krim was pleased – the guy looked like a leading man, and Krim and his team were impressed with his performance. Satisfied with what he had seen, Krim gave Chartoff and Winkler the thumbs-up to make Rocky.
When the movie was complete, and almost ready for release, Krim got to see it – and was shocked and angry to discover that the Lord of Flatbush that he had liked was not the star of Rocky. The minion in the back of the screening room had mistakenly pointed out another actor, Perry King, instead of Stallone. It was King, not Stallone, who had impressed Krim so well. Krim hadn’t thought anything of Stallone’s performance – he had put up a million dollars of United Artists’ money on the strength of King’s looks and acting. Now Krim felt they would be lucky to gross seven or eight million in return.
Rocky grossed about $225 million dollars. And that was just the first picture of the series, which altogether has pulled in well over a billion dollars in ticket sales alone.
Stallone benefited from being given credit for King’s performance, but that misattribution was probably about as innocuous as they come. After all, Stallone turned out to be a good investment, worthy of the misplaced faith. More importantly, from an ethical point of view, Stallone did not intentionally co-opt King’s work – it was an error for which he was not responsible – and, in the end, the real truth became known. Finally, the misattribution does not seem to have affected King’s own career, since it was limited to Krim and his minions for only a few months. Perry King did not become an international mega-star like Stallone, true, but he did star in the TV series Riptide for three seasons, and has worked steadily in TV and movies for the past 40 years. I could not find anything reporting King’s view on the incident, but I’d like to imagine that he felt pleased or amused that a colleague benefited from what turned out to be a harmless mistake.
If only every diversion of credit led to such happy endings.
If this story tells us anything – besides the craziness of an industry that would commit a million dollars on the basis of a mistake – it tells us that getting credit for work well done can lead to enormous recognition and opportunity. Conversely, not receiving credit for the good work one does can be a major impediment to career satisfaction. When an employer ignores our contributions – or a superior takes credit for them – this not only blocks our own advancement and material gain; it also communicates and then reinforces the message that quality is meaningless, effort is futile, and progress is unattainable. When you are considering an employer – even your current one – be sure to take into account the culture of reward and recognition. Working for an ungrateful employer, or with an unethical colleague, is a sad way to turn work you love into a chore.