Shaking Carl Weathers’s hand is a humbling experience—one that will not only make your sorry mitt seem downright Trumpian by comparison, but also trigger a flashback to cinema’s most badass handshake. You know the one: Ahnuld. Apollo. You son of a bitch. Smack. Biceps.
“Predator, the handshake. That’s iconic,” says Weathers, grinning from ear to ear. “The director shot that scene beautifully. And it’s a great movie. You put that movie in the theater today and it works just as well as it did back in 1987.”
No argument here.
I’m seated at a bar with Weathers inside the Lagunitas Brewery in Chicago, where NBC is hosting a bustling press junket for its slate of Chicago shows created by procedural wizard Dick Wolf, including Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Justice. Weathers stars in Chicago Justice as State’s Attorney Mark Jeffries, head of a team of prosecutors who are forced to navigate miles of red tape in their selfless pursuit of justice. The one-hour legal drama will premiere sometime in 2017 on the Peacock Network.
It’s a plum role for the towering Weathers, who at 68 doesn’t look a day over 40. “It’s very exciting,” he says. “I mean, it’s Dick Wolf! And it’s an interesting character in Mark Jeffries—a state’s attorney, politician, servant, a guy with ambition, and a manager. Managing resources is a really interesting job, from human resources to financial resources to political resources…”
When speaking with Weathers, it’s clear why the comedy geniuses behind Arrested Development caricatured him the way they did: he has a tendency to ramble and talk in circles—not about craft service and stews, of course, but in the case of his upcoming series, everything from the importance of management and law to the downside of ambition. It’s more endearing than frustrating.
Weathers is best known to audiences as Apollo Creed, the incredibly arrogant, incredibly talented heavyweight boxer in the Rocky films; the Muhammad Ali to Rocky’s Chuck Wepner.
“I stole a lot from Muhammad,” Weathers says of Apollo. “We’re all standing on somebody’s shoulders, and Ali’s were the most visible shoulders that I could stand on.”
He pauses. “With any role that’s so iconic, defining, grand—it was so many things, you know? But yeah, 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.”
If you ask Weathers, the original Rocky—where his character emerges victorious—is far and away the franchise’s best entry. He doesn’t understand why some people prefer Rocky II, but does get why people have a soft spot for the “fantastical” Rocky IV, which boasted Weathers entering the ring to fight Russian Ivan Drago to “Living in America,” replete with a sparkling Uncle Sam costume, showgirls, and James Brown himself. “It was wild,” remembers a chuckling Weathers. “One of the greatest—if not the greatest R&B performers ever and an icon around the world in James Brown, someone who I was a big fan of growing up? Come on! Absolutely crazy.”
Prior to his big breakthrough in 1979’s Rocky, Weathers was a bit actor in blaxploitation films and TV series. And before that, the 6-foot-2 bruiser was a football stud, first for San Diego State University and then for NFL’s Oakland Raiders, playing eight games at linebacker between 1970-1971.
“I was on the Raiders with John Madden and a whole group of wonderful athletes. I was a kid, man. It was heady, it was unbelievable, it was exciting—scary sometimes,” he recalls. “It was my first year out of college, and it wasn’t an easy transition. One day you’re an amateur, the next day you’re a professional. So you’re trying to manage a career, manage a personal life, manage the transition from not having money to having it, and from immaturity to adulthood. Every day is like, whoa.”
He then joined the Canadian Football League, playing for two years while finishing up his studies during the offseason at San Francisco State University. He graduated with a B.A. in Drama in 1974, quit football, and tried his hand at acting.
“I always wanted to be an actor,” he says. “I was on a football scholarship at San Diego State, but I majored in theater. I just happened to be a good enough athlete, so my life went that way for a bit. But I think I was born to be an actor, and to be in the entertainment industry. Football is entertainment, too. You’re a gladiator, but you’re there to entertain.”
In addition to the Rocky films, Weathers has had memorable turns as a double-crossing CIA agent in the aforementioned Predator, as well as an eccentric wooden-handed golf pro in the comedy Happy Gilmore, opposite Adam Sandler.
“Happy Gilmore! There’s a huge fan base for Happy Gilmore,” he says, smiling. “That hand? People love that whole thing.”
Some of the actor’s fondest on set memories came during the making of the film. “We could not stop laughing the entire time,” he shares. “There are scenes where you can actually see us laughing we were doing it so much!” “I’ve had a good run, man. I’ve been very fortunate. And look”—he gestures towards the room filled with reporters eager to speak with him—“here we are.”