Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Based on the life of boxer Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me tells the story of a quick-tempered street thug from the Lower East Side with a history of petty crimes, who eventually turns his life around and becomes the World Middleweight Champion. James Dean was the original choice to play the title role, but after he unexpectedly died in a car crash on September 30, 1955, the part was given to a still relatively-unknown Paul Newman who only had one film credit to his name. Somebody Up There was also notable for being the first major film to feature a young Steve McQueen, who plays one of Newman’s hooligan friends, as well as Robert Loggia, Dean Jones and a 3-year-old Angela Cartwright.

Like many films from the 1950’s, even though the story predominately takes place in New York City, a lot of the filming was done in Hollywood, California. However, director Robert Wise insisted on spending a couple weeks on the East Coast filming on location in Manhattan and Brooklyn in order to capture the gritty atmosphere of where Graziano grew up. 

 

Introduction to Rocky

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The film opens with a typical cityscape shot of the Manhattan skyline, taken from DUMBO Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

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We cut to a shot of a desolate tunnel under the Manhattan Bridge on the Lower East Side, looking west from the intersection of Pike Street and Cherry Street.

 

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This opening credits sequence ends with a subway train traveling west on the Manhattan Bridge. 

 

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We then cut to a few years later where an adult Rocky runs from the cops, cutting through an empty lot at 78 Monroe Street.

 

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He stops at a fence post to look around, with the Manhattan Bridge in the background.

 


Even though many film historians consider Somebody Up There Likes Me to be Newman’s breakout performance, it tends to fall through the cracks in a lot in contemporary “best of” movie lists (often being overshadowed by better-known boxing pics such as Raging Bull or Rocky).

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So when it came to its filming locations, there wasn’t a lot of information out there, and a few of the sources I did manage to find contained some misinformation. For example, in the first shot of an adult Rocky running from the police, the movie location website onthesetofnewyork claims this took place by the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side near Adams Street, opposed to the Manhattan side near Monroe Street.

This quickest way I was able to tell it was filmed in Manhattan was the presence of an elevated highway along the river in the background — something that never existed on the Brooklyn side. Plus, I already knew they shot some other scenes in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, so it wouldn’t make much sense for the crew to film this short opening scene all the way in Brooklyn.

So I knew they filmed this scene in Manhattan, but the one thing that confused me was the presence of a tenement building on the left side of the frame, placing it —as far as I could tell— right in the middle of Pike Street. But once I checked a 1955 map of the area, I noticed that there was a greater plot of land between the Manhattan Bridge and Pike Street, which could afford a couple extra building lots. Turns out this movie was made just a couple years before Pike Street got widened to accommodate a planned truck route between the Manhattan Bridge and Bronx’s Willis Avenue Bridge. In 1958, the streetbed was widened to the west by approximately 87 feet, making it the same width as the connecting Allen Street to its north.

From the map, I deduced that Paul Newman ran north from Cherry Street into an empty lot at 78 Monroe Street.

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A map of a section of the Lower East Side from a 1955 land book. (Red arrow shows approximate running path of Newman.)

 

The locations of all of the other shots from this opening sequence were pretty obvious.

As to the establishing shot of the Manhattan skyline, I could immediately tell it was filmed in Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Bridge, since I’ve seen similar shots in other films from that period. It seems as though showing Lower Manhattan with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground was a popular way of showing an establishing shot of NYC in the 40s and 50s, opposed to showing Midtown Manhattan with the iconic Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Years later, the same vantage point was regularly used as an establishing shot in the TV show, Friends.

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A similar establishing shot of NYC from 1957’s Garment Jungle.

 

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Another establishing shot of NYC from the TV Show, Friends (1994–2004).

 

It wasn’t too hard to figure out that the shot of the desolate tunnel took place under the Manhattan Bridge on Cherry Street, especially since I had already confirmed that several other scenes from the film took place on and around the Manhattan Bridge. Interestingly, this location was also used in 2019’s Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, and a news website made the same error the onthesetofnewyork website made — it mistakingly gave the filming location to be on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge instead of the Manhattan side.

 

Walking Through the Neighborhood

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Rocky walks along a crowded street filled with pushcarts and street vendors, passing 233-237 Rivington Street.

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Rocky meets up with one of his cohorts, Romolo, as they continue to walk east on Rivington. 

 


The misinformation continued for this location as well, as onthesetofnewyork listed the scene as taking place on Orchard and Hester Streets, although, I have no idea how the webmaster came to this random conclusion. I can only assume he just picked an intersection in the Lower East Side that used to be well-known for being filled with the same kind of pushcarts and street vendors that appear in the film.

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A 1934 photograph of the Lower East Side, looking east from Orchard Street 

 

Once I realized this scene wasn’t filmed on Orchard, I started to study every frame to see if I could spot a legible street or store sign. I also checked a later scene when Rocky proudly pushes a baby carriage with Norma, as it looked like it took place on the same city block.

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Paul Newman and Pier Angeli pose for a publicity photo, January 1956.

 

The only thing I could find that was clear enough to read was a corner shop called, Sol’s. So, I looked up the name in a 1955 Manhattan phone book at the library and found a listing for a Sol’s Housewares at 233 Rivington Street. Unfortunately, when I looked up the address in Google Maps, I discovered the area had been razed to make way for several public housing developments. The only clearly-identifiable building from the scene that still exists today is 83 Pitt Street — a 1920 tenement building that sits on the northwest corner of Pitt and Rivington.

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With the discovery of an extant building at 83 Pitt, I was fairly certain I got the correct location. I also noticed that during the scene, you can see an awning a couple buildings down from Sol’s which has the number 237 on it, supporting the idea that Sol’s Housewares was at 233 Rivington. But because I had already found a website where the author thought the location was somewhere else, and the fact that director Robert Wise in the DVD commentary claimed the scene was shot in “Little Italy,” I wanted to find as much definitive proof as possible that the scene took place on Rivington on the Lower East Side.

After searching the 1940’s tax photos in the NYC municipal archives, I found an image of the building across the street from Sol’s that clearly matched the film.

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A ca 1940 tax photo of 231 Rivington Street (above), compared to a still from the 1956 film (below) with the same building behind Newman’s right shoulder.

 

Satisfied that I got the correct location, I was curious to see if I could find any references to Sol’s Housewares anywhere on the web. The only thing I ended up finding was a 1948 advertisement in the Daily News which listed local retailers (including Sol’s) that sold an item called Trimz — a specialty wallpaper product.

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As wallpaper grew in popularity in the early twentieth century, manufacturers tried to come up with ways to make their products more accessible. By the 1940s, homeowners started to embrace the idea of do-it-yourself projects, and the wallpaper industry responded by coming up with new products and new processes to fulfill the latest trends, including pre-trimmed and pre-pasted papers.

somebody-walk-Trimz boxThat’s when Trimz, the Chicago-based company, began manufacturing what they called, “ready-pasted wallpaper,” that you just “dip in water and hang!” The advertising campaigns appealed to what Fortune Magazine called “chronic household tinkerers,” reinforcing the prevailing belief that making something with your own hands had both psychological and therapeutic benefits.

The campaigns also used celebrities such as Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Rutherford, to give testimonials, implying that the concept of do-it-yourself home beautification was a popular avocation among Hollywood’s rich and famous.

In addition to the full rolls of wallpaper, Trimz also sold ready-pasted borders that could be used to decorate ordinary painted walls, as well as cabinets, cupboards, lamp shades and furniture. However the most peculiar of their products was a specialized wallpaper that was laced with insecticide to be used in nurseries and children’s rooms. This “Trimz DDT” wall and ceiling paper was being promoted as a safety item that was guaranteed to kill “flies, mosquitos, ants… and other household pests after contact.”

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As far as I can tell, the Trimz line of ready-pasted wallpaper and borders was only on the market for a few years. According to an article in BusinessWeek, the Trimz Company, Inc. first introduced its line of paper products in 1943, but I couldn’t find any reference to Trimz merchandise beyond the late 1950s.

Trimz did have one moment of peculiar notoriety when one of its paper products was actually introduced as a piece of evidence against suspected serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck (nicknamed “The Lonely Hearts Killers”) during their highly-sensationalized trial in 1950. During direct examination, Sergent Pribyl of the Nassau County Police Department went so far as to explain how the Trimz ready-pasted wallpaper worked, stating that “to apply….this type of paper, you moisten the paper with water….and then apply it to the wall.”

I don’t know how instrumental Trimz was to the people’s case, but Fernandez and Beck were convicted and executed in 1951.

 

Stealing Tires

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A man discovers Rocky and his gang stealing tires off his car which is parked in an empty lot at 164-166 Madison Street.

 

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After beating the guy up, Rocky and his gang roll the tires west on Madison towards Pike Street, with the Manhattan Bridge spanning above.

 


The Manhattan Bridge in the background is what helped me zero in on this filming location. In my research, I could only find one side street that had the bridge span above it at the same height and angle as in the film, and that was Madison. However, I originally miscalculated where on Madison the action took place. At first I thought the car was parked closer to Pike Street, but after I looked at an area map from 1955, I realized the empty lot was a bit further east on Madison. It was also helpful to see the address number 168 on the building next to the empty lot, confirming that the car was parked at 164-166 Madison Street.

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A ca. 1940 tax photo of 168-172 Madison Street (above), compared to a still from the film with the car-owner next to no. 168 (below). (Red outline indicates the approximate location of the actor in both pictures.)

 

I actually discovered my mistake several months after I had already taken the “after” pictures for this scene, so I had to return to the location and retake them. Even though all the buildings surrounding the empty lot are now gone, I still had a clear view of one of the towers of the Manhattan Bridge in the far distance, giving me a reference to where to point the camera.

 

Stealing Furs

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A truck travels east in an industrial area, passing a multi-story warehouse at 581 Water Street.

 

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Rocky jumps in front of the truck near the intersection of Water Street and Montgomery Street, causing the driver to slam on the brakes.

 

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As Rocky exchanges words with the driver, members of his gang steal a bunch of furs from the back of the truck.

 


Like the previous “Walking Through the Neighborhood” scene, this was a tricky location to figure out because it ended up being in an area that has dramatically changed since 1956. Before I was able to identify this location, my instincts kept telling me that this scene was shot on Greenwich or Washington Street near Houston, mainly because that section of the city has several warehouses and one-story garages like the ones seen in the film. But I soon figured out my instincts were wrong.

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The clue that helped me figure out this location was a painted sign on one of the buildings that read “596 L&P Waste Paper.” When I looked up the name in a 1955 phonebook, I was excited to find a listing there, with an address of 596 Water Street.

That excitement faded when I realized that, like the earlier “Walking” scene, most of the area had been razed by the 1960s and replaced with large housing complexes, as well as a school. And even though I had an address for the waste paper company, since it was on a corner and all the surrounding buildings were now gone, I had a little trouble getting my bearings, and was confused as to whether the acton was taking place on Water Street or Montgomery Street.

This confusion was happening right before the Municipal Archives released all the 1940s tax photos in late-2018. Once they did, I looked up any addresses that I figured appeared in the scene and found a great shot of the corner building at 599 Water Street.

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The tax photo helped give me definitive proof that I got the correct street intersection, but I was still a little shaky on the orientation of the scene. So I searched the archives for any pics that might match the reverse shot of the truck as it approached Newman. After a little digging around I found a photo of 573-579 Water Street that seemed to match the one-story garage/stable that appeared behind the truck.

 

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A still from the film, looking west on Water Street, with a ca. 1940 tax photo of 73-581 Water Street (inset).

 

Since that garage was not on a corner and had a Water Street address, I was now certain the scene took place on Water, and not on Montgomery Street.

The one nice thing I discovered when I went to the location in person to take the “after” photos was that there’s still one extant building from the scene. One block east of Montgomery Street at 621 Water Street is the old Gouverneur Hospital which dates back to October of 1900.

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A still from the 1956 film (left) compared to a 2019 photo of the former hospital.

 

Built next to the original smaller building, the new four-story hospital had four wards and 104 beds and quickly became the first of many things. The New York Times reported shortly after its opening in 1901 that “the laboratory and operating room are filled with up-to-date apparatus, including an X-ray machine, the only one in (New York City’s) Charities Department.” Gouveneur Hospital was also notable for accepting Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer onto the staff, making her the first female doctor in a public NYC hospital, as well as the first female ambulance driver in the world.

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A 1929 view of Gouverneur Hospital with curved verandas and an ambulance garage centered between the two wings.

 

As exceptional as the staff and facilities were at the new hospital, the surrounding neighborhood was very much like the one depicted in Somebody Up There Likes Me — a place where street crime and gang activity ran rampant. Many of the patents that were admitted into Gouveneur Hospital’s emergency room were either criminals, victims or policemen, sometimes with gruesome knife or gunshot wounds. The other patients were often poor immigrants who had contracted a whole range of infectious diseases — usually the result of living in the neighborhood’s overcrowded and unsanitary tenement buildings.

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A crowded waiting room at Gouverneur Hospital, 1907. (From the collection at the Museum of the City of New York)

 

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Looking at Gouverneur Hospital from South Street, 1939, years before the construction of the elevated FDR Drive. (The Williamsburg Bridge can be seen on the far right.)

 

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The former Gouverneur Hospital, as it looks today.

 

In 1957, Gouverneur Hospital lost its accreditation, and by 1961 the building was abandoned, then sat empty and neglected for many years. In 1980 the City offered the property for sale, but fortunately the building was given landmark status a couple years later, saving it from complete demolition.

After extensive renovations were made in the 1990s to what was essentially a gutted shell, the building has become an assisted-living residence called “Gouverneur Court” that provides housing for low-income New Yorkers and people with special needs.

 

Rooftop Fight

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One of Rocky’s cohorts (played by Steve McQueen) fights a rival gang on top of a roof at 92 Pitt Street, with the steeple of the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows behind him.

 

 


I used the skyline in the background to help me figure out where this extended sequence took place. I could see the Empire State Building in one angle, and the Woolworth Building in another, placing this rooftop somewhere in-between. So, I started looking for any churches in that section of Manhattan, hoping that the tower seen behind Steve McQueen was still standing.

I eventually stumbled upon the Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of Sorrows at 105 Pitt Street, which ended up only being a couple blocks away from where the “Walking Through the Neighborhood” scene was shot.

Taking an “after” picture of the location proved to be a bit tricky since the building they were on top of is long gone and has been replaced with a 20-story housing complex.  I ended up using my recently-acquired 104 inch selfie stick to raise the camera and get it a little closer to same vantage point used in the scene, but it was still off by about 30 or 40 feet.

 

Rikers Island

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After doing a stint on Rikers Island, Rocky approaches the north end ferry slip, when he’s told by a pair of detectives that he’s being drafted into the army. 

 


To my knowledge, aside from a few documentaries, this is the only movie that filmed on the actual Rikers Island. I assume the interiors were done on a set, but the exteriors were clearly shot by the old ferry slip on the north shore (which was the main way onto the island before the Rikers Island Bridge opened in 1966).

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Naturally, since Rikers has strict rules and regulations, taking an “after” photo on the island itself is practically impossible, so I had to rely on some recent editorial photographs that were taken from the East River. I knew the angle and perspective were not going to match any of the shots from the film, but I was at least able to line up the block letters that still sit on the north shore, near the old ferry slip.

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Looking at the north shore power plant on Rikers Island, circa 2008 (from Flickr).

 

Currently under Mayor De Blasio, there is a proposal to have Rikers closed by 2026 and have it replaced with several smaller jails spread out in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. But the city’s multi-billion-dollar plan to shutter Rikers depends on whether they can significantly reduce the daily jail population to at least 5,000.

Of course, if the city manages to close the Rikers facility, the next question will be: what will be the fate of the island? The likelihood it gets converted to a city park or some sort of public space seems rather slim. One of the biggest concerns is the more than 400 acres of the island that is made up of trash landfill, and which regularly emits noxious gases and unbearable smells.

I suppose rotting garbage wouldn’t make for a very pleasant destination.

 

Rocky Goes AWOL

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After being drafted in the army, Rocky punches his superior officer and goes AWOL, escaping to his friend’s home at 14 Pike Street.

 

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Rocky enters the lower-level apartment whose entrance would be where there’s currently a median strip.

 


When I first saw this scene, I thought it was going to be another situation where the entire area had since been demolished.

While it’s true that most of the buildings are now gone, I was pleased to see that the one at 19 Pike Street was still standing. And it wasn’t some distant building in the background like 83 Pitt Street in the previous “Walking” scene, it was fairly prominent in the shot.

And since this movie was made before Pike Street was widened, I estimated that the front of 14 Pike was probably situated where a park-designed median strip is today.

 

Stillman’s Gym

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Rocky begins his boxing career inside Stillman’s Gym at 919 Eighth Avenue.

 


This location, more than any other one for this film, had the largest number of references online to its whereabouts. According to several different sources, this scene took place at the legendary Stillman’s Gym which was located on Eighth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets. This was just one block away from the Tripple Inn Bar which was featured in a later scene in this film.

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Co-stars Paul Newman and Pier Angeli pose with the real Rocky Graziano in front of Stillman’s Gym at 919 8th Avenue.

 

During a time when gymnasiums dotted the streets of most blue-collar neighborhoods, Stillman’s Gym was the city’s foremost go-to boxing institution, where hundreds of fighters trained regularly. It was home to champions like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and the main character of this film, Rocky Graziano, but it was also a haven for an assortment of nighttime scrappers who made their living in the day working as truckers, bricklayers and longshoremen.

The bare beams that held up the ceiling of the second-floor athletic center were emblematic of the climate there — rough and dirty. The cavernous space was enclosed with dark, pealing walls and a double row of ancient windows which hadn’t been opened in ages, making the room unbearable during the muggy, summer months. According to amateur boxer and journalist Joe Rein, “there were two raised rings, side by side, and behind the rings… trainers taped-up, gloved and put head gears and cups on their fighters while they sat on a wooden bench waiting to spar.” By all accounts, this pugilist workshop was New York’s epicenter of sweaty, unbridled testosterone.

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The inside of Stillman’s Gym, 1952. (Photo by John Vachon for Look Magazine.)

 

The overbearing, tyrannical ringleader of this sweatshop was Lou Stillman, a middle-aged former beat cop who was known for his quick-temper and for always having a loaded snub-nosed .38 holstered under his jacket. Not unlike his depiction in the film, a sour Stillman would constantly bark insults over his loud speaker to the surrounding fighters, but he also wasn’t adverse to spewing out every racist epithet in the book, which the filmmakers wisely left out. 

Stillman regarded almost everyone as scum and wasn’t timid about getting in the face of anyone who pissed him off, whether it was a bulky boxer, a pertinacious sportswriter or an unscrupulous gangster on the prowl for a fixed fight. He was known to personally eject fighters or spectators from his gym on a regular basis, regardless of whether they were a faceless nobody or a famous celebrity.

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A ca 1940 tax photo of 919 Eighth Avenue, featuring the entrance to Stillman’s Gym.

 

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Eighth Avenue between W 54th and W 55th Streets, 2019, where Stillman’s Gym used to be.

 

Only three years after this film was made, Lou Stillman decided it was time to retire and sold his gym after nearly 40 years of business. By 1964, the entire block had been razed and replaced with a new apartment complex, without any plaques or signs to commemorate the legendary boxing gym where countless bruisers learned their manly trade.

 


As to the use of Stillman’s Gym in Somebody Up There Likes Me, according to several books and articles, the film crew supposedly shot inside the actual New York City gym on Eighth Avenue. On the DVD audio commentary, both director Robert Wise and actor Robert Loggia claim they filmed inside the second-floor gym, although the director’s account was a little more ambivalent, recalling as he watched the first scene, “I don’t think this was a set.”

Upon watching these gym scenes, I was ambivalent myself as to whether or not it was a set. To be honest, I always thought it looked a bit fake. The light coming from the windows looked soft, indicating that it was being lit with studio lights, opposed to the harsh sun. Also, the walls looked somewhat fabricated and lacked the subtle imperfections you’d expect from a real New York location, especially an unkept gymnasium. But so many people seemed to believe it was the real location —including Loggia who added the detail that “the atmosphere was wonderful”— that I seriously questioned whether my doubts were legitimate.

In my attempt to solve this quandary, I decided to study several frames from the film which featured different angles of the space, then compared them to editorial photographs taken inside the gym between 1952-1955. After much scrutiny (and waffling back and forth), it’s become my opinion that these scenes were filmed on a fake set and not the actual location.

It’s clear that they did shoot exteriors at the actual New York location, and it’s possible they began filming or prepared to film inside as well, but for one reason or another, I believe they ended up shooting back in Hollywood.

Assuming that this was the case, the art department must’ve taken numerous detailed photographs of the real gym in order to be able to build a believable recreation at the studio. When you look at the basic layout, the gym from the film and the gym in the photographic records are almost identical — the doors, windows, stairs, concession stand and boxing rings all seem to be in the same place. But it’s with some of the smaller details that the two gyms diverge.

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A still from the 1956 film (left) compared to a 1952 photograph of Lou Stillman (right) with a completely different set of clocks and bells on the wall. 

 

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Looking at the back wall from the 1956 film (left) compared to a 1952 photograph (right). The concession stand is slightly different, and the portion of the balcony that juts out near the corner is missing from the film.

 

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The gym entrance where admission is collected from the 1956 film (left) compared to a 1955 photograph (right) where the door and back wall do not match.

 

Out of all the differences, the most noticeable one was with the windows. Even though the placement of them seemed fairly accurate, the sizes didn’t match (the windows were more squat in the film) and the number of panes didn’t match either (eight in the film versus twelve in a 1952 photo for Look Magazine).

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A still from the 1956 film (top) compared to a 1952 photo for Look Magazine (bottom). You can see the shape of the windows and the number of panes differ. Also, the angle of the stairs in the top still is not as steep as the ones in the bottom photo.

 

Several of the other differences could possibly be explained as updates made to the gym over the years, but such a drastic change in the windows is highly unlikely (especially if you consider that these referential photographs were taken only a year to four years prior to the film’s shooting dates). It’s even more unlikely when you acknowledge the fact that Lou Stillman was notorious for refusing to renovate his gym. People who regularly visited the gym described the windows as looking as if they hadn’t been washed in years, or hadn’t been opened “since the gym was converted from a union hall in the 30’s.”

It’s disappointing to concede that these scenes were shot on a set opposed to the real NYC location, but it’s impressive that the film team was able to build a reproduction so well that it has fooled many viewers. According sports author, Jeffrey Sussman, “one old boxer told me (when he watches Somebody Up There Likes Me) it brings tears to his scarred eyes and a smile to his weathered lips.”

 

Taking Norma Home

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Rocky walks Norma to the uptown subway entrance at Astor Place.

 

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He walks her down to the platform at the Chambers Street BMT subway station.

 

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After several awkward false good-byes, Rocky decides the ride the train out to Brooklyn to make sure she gets home alright.

 


Even though this scene was supposed to be taking place at the 14th Street subway station at Union Square, the exterior was shot at the nearby Astor Place station, and the interior was shot at the Chambers Street station down by City Hall. I figured out the exterior location by the presence of the Empire State Building in the background. For a while, I thought they shot it at the actual 14th Street entrance at Union Square which offers similar views of the iconic skyscraper, but I eventually figured out that the smaller buildings in the foreground were down in the Astor Place area.

Months later, I discovered a behind-the-scenes photo of Paul Newman by the Astor Place subway station kiosk (which got removed shortly thereafter), further confirming that they shot the scene one station south of Union Square.

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As to the interior, even though the station signs say “14th Street,” I could tell they shot it at the BMT platform at Chambers Street. The dead giveaways were those distinctive white-tiled columns and the unusually high ceilings. Plus, I knew that like the Hoyt–Schermerhorn Street station in Brooklyn, Chambers was a popular place to film because of its multiple unused tracks and platforms which could be taken over by the production.

However, finding the exact spot they filmed was somewhat problematic because the station has changed quite a bit. The outer two platforms got sealed off years ago and there’s been recent construction done to the station where columns have been altered and stairways and other facets have been removed. Plus, the public has no access the discontinued center platform (which probably was used in at least one the two scenes shot at the station) so it’d be hard to find details to match up to the film.

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The unused center platform from 2007 before the stairwells were removed. (From www.nycsubways.org)

 

I think where I shot the “after” pictures were pretty close to where they shot this scene (you can see in the third GIF above that the platform which was open in 1956 has since been walled-in), but I’ll just have to accept that, like the Rikers Island scene, I’ll never get a photo that perfectly lines up with the film.

 

Getting Married

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The scene opens at the New York County Supreme Courthouse at 60 Centre Street.

 

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A reluctant Rocky tries to stall going into the courthouse to get married.

 

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Norma tells Rocky that if he dosen’t want to get married, all he has to do is say that he doesn’t love her.

 

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Knowing he can’t say that, Rocky takes Norma’s arm and leads her up the steps of the courthouse.

 


This was one of the few locations for this film that was already identified on a couple movie websites. But to be fair, it wouldn’t had been a very difficult location to figure out since the courthouse is an obvious landmark.

 

Tripple Inn Bar

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After being blackmailed by Frankie Peppo, Rocky exits the Tripple Inn Bar at 907 8th Avenue.

 

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He then gets in the car with his wife and they drive off towards the Columbus Circle Monument a few blocks north on 8th Avenue. 


Like with the courthouse scene, this location was already identified on a couple websites, including IMDB. One puzzling thing, for some reason IMDB incorrectly lists the Tripple Inn Bar at 909 8th Avenue, opposed to 907. After consulting a 1955 map, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a even a lot 909 — the numbers went from 907 on the south corner to 911 on the north corner. A few weeks later while at the 42nd Street library, I looked up Tripple Inn Bar in a 1956 phone directory and confirmed that the address was, in fact, 907 Eighth Ave.

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A ca 1940 tax photo of 907 8th Ave (left) and a still from the film (right), with arrows indicating matching building elements.

 

Sadly, like several other locations in this film, most of the buildings that appear in the scene are now gone. Obviously, the monument at Columbus Circle is still around, along with the buildings on the west side of 8th Avenue between W 55th and W 57th Street — some of which can be seen in the film (albeit very obliquely).

 

Getting Pulled Over

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Rocky and Norma drive past the Brooklyn Public Library at 10 Grand Army Plaza.

 

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A government car forces Rocky to pull over on the north-bound side of Grand Army Plaza.

 

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Two detectives ask Rocky to come down to the D.A.’s office to answer some questions, with the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in the background.

 


I was surprised this location wasn’t already listed on any movie websites, since the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was an obvious clue. There are only a few of these European-inspired arches in NYC, so it shouldn’t be a huge challenge for any well-versed New Yorker to figure out that this scene took place in Grand Army Plaza.

Originally designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s, Grand Army Plaza was meant to provide an open and picturesque gateway to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. In the subsequent years, the Plaza saw several enhancements, such as gas-fueled lamps, trolley tracks, an electric fountain, and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, which was dedicated in 1892 as a monument to the northern victory in the Civil War.

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A circa 1905 postcard of Grand Army Plaza’s arch, looking south towards Prospect Park.

 

By the 1950s, with the huge influx of automobile traffic, Grand Army Plaza’s Belgian-block roadways were completely repaved and over 40 traffic signals were added to help reduce the number of fatal car crashes. Back in 1927, a local advocacy group had another idea on how to reduce that number — by installing a 20-foot-high “Death-O-Meter” at the plaza, which tallied the number of traffic fatalities by year and by the week, and instructed the hundreds of thousands of drivers passing through to “Slow up.”

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In 1973, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, whose design by John H. Duncan was an homage to the Arc de Triomphe in France, was designated an official City landmark. Two years later the entire Grand Army Plaza was designated a landmark as well. Granted, the oval-shaped plaza may not be as idllic and picturesque today as Vaux and Olmsted envisioned it back in the 19th century, but when you approach the Beaux-Arts style arch at its southern end, you can’t help feeling that you’ve been transported to someplace in Paris, if only temporarily.

 

Rocky’s Home

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A throng of reporters gathers outside of Rocky’s Brooklyn house at 1407 Ocean Pkwy.

 

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They follow Rocky’s manager, Irving Cohen, up the front steps.

 

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They question him about Rocky’s upcoming bout in Illinois.

 


This was one of the last locations I found for this film, and even though there were no street or store signs, and no major landmarks, it did have a couple clues — the number 1407 on the front door, and an extra-wide street out front that appeared to be divided into separate thoroughfares for local- and thru-traffic. There are only so many streets in NYC that are divided that way, most of which are parkways in Queens and Brooklyn. Since I knew they shot a previous scene in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, I guessed that this scene was in Brooklyn, too, thus reducing the number of parkways I had to choose from.

The next step was to look up any building with a 1407 address on any street that was divided into separate lanes like the one in the movie. I first looked at Eastern Parkway, which wasn’t too far from Grand Army Plaza, but the building at 1407 didn’t quite match up. After that, I went to Ocean Parkway, and hit the jackpot.

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A 1940s tax photo of 1407-1409 Ocean Parkway (left) and a photo of the same house in 2019.

 

The houses have changed a little bit since 1956, most noticeably from single-family to two-family homes which often required adding a second front door. The one detail that has surprisingly survived on many of the houses on Ocean Parkway are the white ceramic planter pots that sit on the walls of the front steps and porches. There weren’t any at 1407, but several of the neighboring homes still had them.

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A ca. 1980 tax photo of 1407 Ocean Pkwy, featuring a white door frame that matches the one seen in the 1956 film, as well as matching ceramic planter pots.

 

Another thing that helped convince me that I got the right location was the positioning of Ryder Ave that intersects Ocean Parkway opposite the house at 1407. When I went to the location in person, I could see Ryder comes in at a slightly acute angle — the same angle that appears in the film when the camera looks out Rocky’s window.

It might be noted that after rewatching the film months later, I discovered that Rocky exclaims to his father in a later scene that he has “a house on Ocean Parkway!” — a small piece of dialogue that helped give credence to my conclusions.

 

Neighborhood Parade

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After Rocky wins the Middleweight Championship, a parade is given to him. His car travels east on Henry Street between Clinton and Jefferson. 

 


The opening shot from this final scene appears to be a composite. It looks like the street in the foreground is real, with the extant building at 177 Henry Street matching the corner building behind Rocky’s car. The rest of the background image looks like a combination of a matte painting and action shot on a studio backlot. I have absolutely no sources to prove any of this, but the shot just looks a little off to me.

The rest of this sequence was definitely filmed on a Hollywood backlot, and even though director Robert Wise has said the best way to avoid making backlots look too fake was to use them only in night scenes, I thought this daylight scene looked pretty realistic.

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A zoomed-in still from the film featuring 177 Henry Street on the corner (left) and the same building in 2019 (right).

 

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A still from the end of the film, which was shot on a Hollywood backlot.

 

Although not a perfect film, Somebody Up There Likes Me is successful in telling a captivating story of redemption and the ability to overcome the odds. Robert Wise created what many consider a fast-paced and throroughly engaging biopic that showcased the acting potential of a young Paul Newman. His portrayal of a man filled with brutal hostility towards the world who transforms into a gracious champion and a loving father should be commended. And even though Newman’s performance can be a bit over-the-top at times, it’s unmistakably mesmerizing, and in a sense, more purposeful than his more-famous portrayal of conflicted pool hustler, “Fast” Eddie.

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Paul Newman and Pier Angeli pose for a publicity still. (Photo by Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock)

 

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Paul Newman and Robert Loggia being escorted onto Rikers Island.

 

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A fresh-faced Newman enjoys popcorn in downtown Los Angeles at the beginning of the shooting schedule. January, 1956.

In addition to a good story and strong performances from Newman and the rest of the cast, Somebody also offers some great footage of NYC from the 1950s, presenting the urban landscape in all its gritty realism — a feat acknowledged by the Academy with Oscars for best cinematography and art direction.

But surprisingly, along with the raw on-location photography, Wise also chose to film several scenes on studio backlots and sets, occasionally implementing somewhat unrealistic cutout skylines that looked like they belonged in a broadway musical, rather than a black and white drama. (Perhaps this was foreshadowing Wise’s future work on The Sound of Music and West Side Story.)

It’s a shame the production wasn’t able to shoot more stuff on-location, but I assume budgetary restraints is what forced Wise to shoot several bits back in Hollywood, including a couple scenes in Rocky’s Neighborhood, along with Norma’s neighborhood in Brooklyn. But all in all, there are many spectacular images in this film that give us glimpses into parts of New York that are now long-gone.

 

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