SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME was a break for Paul Newman in 1956: the 31-year-old had been acting on stage and TV for seven years, but his 1954 film debut in The Silver Chalice was a flop. Good notices and box office success greeted this autobiography of middleweight boxing champ Rocky Graziano, which also served to introduce several new actors, notch up another win for director Robert Wise and walk off with a pair of Oscars.
The 1940s. Streetwise punk Rocco Barbella (Newman) grew up tough in New York City, his attitudes, associates, environment and hair-trigger getting him into one losing battle after another with the law. Between doing time, circumstance has him meet the right couple of mentor figures. They channel his rage and punch power into the boxing ring instead of larceny. Then he’s lucky enough to meet the right girl, sweet-natured Norma Unger (Pier Angeli, 23) who sees the good beneath the bad. Will this palooka wise up?
Newman replaced the originally slotted James Dean after Dean’s death, and his energy-stoked performance more than redeemed the failure of The Silver Chalice. Angeli (she’d also survived The Silver Chalice) is winning and there are fine moments from Eileen Heckart as Rocky’s mother and Harold J. Stone (maybe his best role) as his drunken, abusive old man.
Wise had earlier handled the excellent Robert Ryan boxing drama, The Set-Up; the work from his crew here nabbed Oscars for Cinematography and Art Direction and a nomination for Film Editing. Ernest Lehman based his screenplay off Graziano’s same-titled autobiography, “Somebody Up There Likes Me: The Story Of My Life So Far”. *
Always mentioned is this was the feature debut for Steve McQueen (25, wielding a switchblade, with just a few lines), but it also served to introduce Robert Loggia, Angela Cartwright (she was 3), Dean Jones, Michael Dante and Frank Campanella.
Filling out the cast: Everett Sloane, Sal Mineo (just 16), Judson Pratt, Joseph Buloff, Arch Johnson, Stanley Adams, Robert Easton, Ray Stricklyn, Russ Conway, Don Haggerty. Perry Como sings the title tune. Producing took $1,920,000. Claim was staked on 51st place for the year, with a gross of $5,700,000. 112 minutes.
* Graziano: “When I was a kid I stole everything that began with the letter A. A car, a jacket, a….” Rocky Graziano was a familiar figure to TV audiences in the 50s and 60s, cracking wise with an undeniably goofy charm on talk shows. Stallone’s ‘Rocky Balboa’ owes a debt to Mr. Graziano (1919-1990).
James Dean could have convinced as anti-social (because he was) but it’s harder to picture him as a fighter. Maybe they figured if Montgomery Clift could be cast as a boxer in From Here To Eternity, that Dean could pull it off. That said, Clift was a better actor than Dean. Newman outlasted and outdid them both. The Graziano saga arrived in a year flush with pugilism pictures—Humphrey Bogart’s last sally a disillusioned sportswriter in The Harder They Fall, Tony Curtis throwing jabs in The Square Jungle, and Audie Murphy doffing spurs and donning gloves for World In My Corner.
Extra bonus trivia because, hey, That’s How We Roll—this was the last editing job for Albert Akst, who was primarily known for cutting musicals. His credits include Meet Me In St.Louis, The Harvey Girls, Good News, Easter Parade, Royal Wedding and Brigadoon. One guy’s crowd-pleasing tap-dance is another’s tooth-rattling uppercut.